One Man’s Opinion: All-Time NBA Starting 5s and Sixth Men

Last weekend, I listed to a satellite radio station devoted to pro basketball, and the three hosts were debating an interesting topic with callers: Who were the most important players at each of the five positions in the history of each NBA franchise, and then who would be first off the bench for those franchises’ “ultimate starting five?” Such discussions are right in my wheelhouse, as I often pass long car trips, elliptical exercise sessions, and endless script notes meetings, by pondering such questions. So I thought I’d come up with my own answers, and present them here for anyone who’s interested (and I don’t imagine there are many of you). Any player who played for a franchise was eligible to be selected, no matter if they played in the franchise’s current city or some city it once resided in. Thus, players for the St. Louis Hawks were eligible for the Atlanta Hawks’ all-time five. Buffalo Braves alums might find a place on the Los Angeles Clippers’ all-time team. Players from the ABA era of the Pacers, Nets, Spurs and Nuggets are also eligible. Some choices were no-brainers, while others required real intellectual wrestling matches.

The hosts of the radio program did an admirable job, considering how little time they had to come up with six names for each club – I have the luxury of sleeping on the topic. Some of the obvious names they missed were, no doubt, a result of the “top of the head” nature of the discussion. But the hosts also succumbed to a pretty common syndrome in making their choices. All of the hosts, clearly under the age of 40, seemed biased toward the players they grew up watching, giving them greater weight than players before their day or the ones who have come since. It’s understandable. There aren’t YouTube clips for a lot of the greats of yesteryear, and we take current players largely for granted. Memory is more persuasive than highlight reels, so the heroes of our childhood always seem more titanic and unstoppable than perhaps they really were.

In any case, I’ve tried to be as impartial as I can, but no doubt I’ll name some late-1970s 2nd Team All-NBA player over a superstar from the modern day, or forget the name of some 1950s pioneer. Still, one man’s opinion.

ATLANTA HAWKS

PG LENNY WILKENS. Wilkens, the third great guard to come out of the 1960 NBA draft (after Jerry West and Oscar Robertson), starred for the club when they were in St. Louis. He wasn’t a scoring ace, but he was a consummate playmaker who improved in quality of play and statistics as transitioned into the later stages of his career.

SG LOU HUDSON. Sweet Lou was a prototypical big guard who could score from anywhere and would probably have excelled in any NBA era. Pete Maravich merited consideration here, but Hudson was with the team longer, with comparable stats.

SF DOMINIQUE WILKINS. Sorry, Josh Smith and John Drew. Not even close.

PF BOB PETTIT. The Hawks have had some great power forwards over their history, including Bill Bridges, Dan Roundfield and Kevin Willis. But Pettit was an out-and-out superstar, the anchor of one of the few teams to interrupt the Celtics dynasty of the 50s and 60s, an MVP as well as a rebounding and scoring menace.

C DIKEMBE MUTOMBO. The choices for the Hawks at center are pretty thin. Moses Malone and Walt Bellamy spent time with Atlanta, but both were at their best with other teams. Mutombo was arguably at his prime with the Hawks, among the league leaders in rebounding and blocked shots.

6th PETE MARAVICH. Narrowly edges Roundfield for me, because I’d want a scoring jolt off the bench just a little more than Roundfield’s rebounding and defense.

BOSTON CELTICS

PG BOB COUSY. Dennis Johnson, Tiny Archibald and JoJo White have all run the point for the Celtics, but how can you deny the man who set the mold for the position?

SG JOHN HAVLICEK. Hondo played small forward for much of his career, but moved to shooting guard later on and remained as essential to his team, if not becoming moreso, than ever before. He could do anything that was required – score, defend, rebound, pass – and was phenomenally durable. I think he’s actually underrated at this point.

SF LARRY BIRD. I love Paul Pierce, but when you consider Bird’s brilliance as a player as well as how he helped transform the sport, it’s not really a contest.

PF KEVIN MCHALE. I guess this could be a case of bias on my part, since McHale was so much a part of my basketball-watching youth, but McHale’s footwork and post moves are fairly indisputable as among the best of all-time.

C BILL RUSSELL. God love Robert Parish for his longevity, but Bill Russell was… you know, Bill Russell.

6th SAM JONES. With as many legendary players as the Celtics have had, it’s almost impossible to select the “best of the rest.” So I’m basing my choice on what I feel the above five would most need to complement them, and my feeling is backcourt scoring. Therefore, I’m taking Sam Jones.

BROOKLYN NETS

PG JASON KIDD. He’s one of the best in the history of the league at the position. It’d be a shocker if he wasn’t the best in the history of just about any team he played on.

SG JOHN WILLIAMSON. “Super John” is the best of a narrow crop at the position for the Nets. He was a streaky shooter with a knack for getting hot in the clutch who was key for the Nets in winning ABA titles.

SF JULIUS ERVING. They say if you didn’t see Doc in the ABA, you didn’t see him at his best. But newspaper and magazine accounts attest to his overall brilliance, especially in big games. He wasn’t just the Nets when he was with them in the ABA, he was the league, the key factor in the merger with the NBA.

PF BUCK WILLIAMS. When the Nets were in New Jersey, and when they were truly awful for most of the 1980s, Buck Williams was their brightest star. He was consistently one of the hardest workers and best rebounders in the league, and he competed no matter how poor the talent around him.

C DERRICK COLEMAN. It’s saying something about the dearth of talent the Nets have had over the years that the best center in their history is widely regarded as one of the NBA’s great underachievers.

6TH RICK BARRY. He’d be on the starting five if it wasn’t for Dr. J. He only played two years for the team, but he did lead them to a league title, commanding every aspect of the game almost as much as the Doc.

CHARLOTTE HORNETS

PG MUGGSY BOGUES. Baron Davis was better in almost every sense, except he didn’t mean as much to the franchise as Muggsy, who was the face of the club for many years.

SG DELL CURRY. One of the first real three-point specialists, Curry was instant offense and a threat to score from any range for the Hornets in their early years.

SF GLEN RICE. As pure a shooter as has ever played. He didn’t do a whole lot else, but the Hornets don’t have much at the position to choose from.

PF LARRY JOHNSON. Johnson was at the heart of the first really good Hornets teams, unstoppable in the post.

C ALONZO MOURNING. ‘Zo was the heart and soul of every team he played for, and he helped establish the Hornets as a real NBA team.

6th ANTHONY MASON. I can’t name him for the Knicks, but he deserves to be acknowledged because he was such a special and versatile talent.

CHICAGO BULLS

PG DERRICK ROSE. Much as I want to give this to Norm Van Lier, that’d be my 1970s bias speaking, and I can’t pass over a league MVP, even if he is injury-prone, in favor of Stormin’ Norman.

SG MICHAEL JORDAN. I’m taking this space off, if you don’t mind.

SF SCOTTIE PIPPEN. This one, too, except to say he might be as underrated as Havlicek.

PF DENNIS RODMAN. Of course this list is heavy on the Bulls’ championship teams. They won championships!

C ARTIS GILMORE. Artis gets a bad rap, often cited as “soft.” But I don’t know how soft you are when you average 22 points and 11 rebounds over the course of four seasons. Critics say Artis should have averaged more, given his height and strength, but maybe it wasn’t so much him being soft as it was the complete lack of talent around him on the Bulls squads? Did anyone think that going one-on-five every night might make an exhausted center appear less than constantly aggressive?

6th BOB LOVE. Jerry Sloan, Reggie Theus, Horace Grant and Joakim Noah are all worthy of being considered here. But “Butterbean” had a long career with the Bulls and carried them offensively.

CLEVELAND CAVALIERS

PG MARK PRICE. The Cavaliers had a pretty amazing run of point guards in the 80s and 90s, when you consider Price, then Terrell Brandon, then Andre Miller. Price, however, was the most complete. Kyrie Irving may have this spot one day, but not yet.

SG AUSTIN CARR. The top pick in the 1970 draft was the Cavs first star player, and their offensive go-to-guy for nearly a decade. He’s known as “Mister Cavalier,” for heaven’s sake.

SF LEBRON JAMES. As if there was any other choice.

PF LARRY NANCE. I’m buying heavy on the 1980s/90s Cavs because it was their longest run of sustained success, and Nance was such a big part of it, his number was retired by the franchise. He could run like a deer, block shots with the best, defend all over the frontcourt and had a nice mid-range game, to boot.

C BRAD DAUGHERTY. Another core member of the 80s/90s Cavaliers, who knows how good Daugherty might have been if he hadn’t been injured so often? He was a premier center in his day, and one of the best passing big men ever. Zydrunas Ilgauskas played a lot longer, but he wasn’t the type to take over a game the way Daugherty could any given night (when he wasn’t in a hospital somewhere).

6TH CAMPY RUSSELL. Unbelievably, on Ranker.com’s list of the top 35 Cavaliers of all-time, Campy Russell – the other cannon alongside Carr in the Cavs’ double-barrelled offense of the 1970s – isn’t even listed. That’s an injustice.

DALLAS MAVERICKS

PG JASON KIDD. The first player to be named to two All-Time Teams, Kidd led the resurgence of the Mavs, alongside Jimmy Jackson and Jamal Mashburn, in the mid-1990s. He wasn’t there long, but he already had the skills of a perennial great.

SG ROLANDO BLACKMAN. Blackman was quietly the offensive mainstay of the great Mavericks teams of the 1980s. Teamed with Derek Harper in the backcourt and Mark Aguirre up front, Blackman made the Mavs incredibly potent and hard to guard.

SF MICHAEL FINLEY. No knock on Aguirre, who had his best years with the Mavericks, but Finley was the face of the franchise as Dirk Nowitzki developed, and was a rock solid part of the team’s core when Nowitzki and Steve Nash matured in the early 2000s.

PF DIRK NOWITZKI. Break time!

C TYSON CHANDLER. This comes down to the center who anchored the team defensively for their sole championship, but didn’t play for the team for very long, and James Donaldson, who performed admirably in the middle for the club’s best teams of the 1980s. Championship wins.

6th DEREK HARPER. I’m so tempted to go with Sam Perkins here, or even the late Roy Tarpley (whose impact on the franchise, good and bad, was significant), but Harper fronted the team for a very long time, playing at a high level, and was a killer on defense.

DENVER NUGGETS

PG FAT LEVER. Denver hasn’t had a ton of great point guards. Chauncey Billups and Allen Iverson both played there late in their primes, and didn’t have their best seasons for the club. Mack Calvin had one amazing season with the team in the ABA, but only one. Michael Adams had some good years in Denver, and one absolutely spectacular one in which he averaged more than 26 points and 10 assists. But Lever spent his prime in the Rockies, and was a threat to run up a triple-double every night.

SG DAVID THOMPSON. The Skywalker was the second highest flyer in the ABA after Doctor J, and also the second largest gate attraction. What was amazing about him was how high above the rim he played as a guard. When Denver moved to the NBA, it was largely Thompson’s skills that made them a force from the very start.

SF ALEX ENGLISH. So glad English played for the Nuggets, because if he hadn’t, I’d be forced to put Carmelo Anthony here, and I’ve never been a fan of ‘Melo’s game. English was maybe the quietest superstar scorer in the history of the game. Nobody put up more “I have no idea how he scored 36 points” nights. And he did it for years.

PF DAN ISSEL. Issel was the prototype “stretch four,” the big man who could move out to the corner and destroy you with long bombs. He was also a tremendous rebounder and phenomenally durable.

C DIKEMBE MUTOMBO. Our second “twice-appear-er.” Mutombo averaged a double-double in each of his five seasons with the Nuggets, helping transform them from an also-ran into a dangerous playoff team.

6TH CARMELO ANTHONY. Gahh.

DETROIT PISTONS

PG ISIAH THOMAS. The engine of the Piston championship teams.

SG JOE DUMARS. The quiet assassin, on defense as well as offense.

SF GRANT HILL. Bailey Howell and Dennis Rodman merited consideration here, but both doubled as power forwards. Hill’s natural position was the 3, and he indisputably had Hall of Fame years in Detroit as a triple-double threat nightly.

PF DENNIS RODMAN. I very badly wanted to put Dave DeBusschere here, but you can’t argue with Rodman’s phenomenal numbers and his on-court impact, not to mention his two rings with the franchise – DeBusschere got his later with the Knicks.

C BOB LANIER. Yeah, I know everyone else would say Laimbeer, but fans forget how dominant Lanier was as just about the only bright spot for the Pistons in the 1970s. I say “just about” because…

6TH DAVE BING. No one would blame you if you wanted to put Ben Wallace here, but Bing was Rookie of the Year and twice named All-NBA first team. At his peak, he averaged around 26 points and 7 assists a night.

GOLDEN STATE WARRIORS

PG STEPHEN CURRY. In my first draft, I had Tim Hardaway here, largely based on stats and a mistaken belief Curry hadn’t played long enough. But he’s now been a Warrior longer than Hardaway, and for the sheer amount of fear Curry inspires in other teams, he gets the nod.

SG CHRIS MULLIN. I guess I think of Mullin more as a small forward, but most sites list him first as a shooting guard. Holy crap, Curry and Mullin in the same backcourt. The mind reels.

SF RICK BARRY. Paul Arizin from the franchise’s Philadelphia days could have this spot, but Barry was one of the most complete players in league history and, along with Larry Bird, one of the two best passing forwards that ever played. He led a team of pretty unheralded players to one of the biggest upsets in NBA title history in 1975.

PF LARRY SMITH. Ugh. The Warriors do not have a great history of power forwards. Of the pure PFs to play for them, I have to take Smith, a dominant rebounder (and not much else) in his day.

C WILT CHAMBERLAIN. Wilt spent the first half of his career with the Warriors in Philadelphia and San Francisco, ringing up some of his gaudiest numbers there.

6th NATE THURMOND. Maybe the most underrated center to ever play. Nightly, he went against Russell, Chamberlain, Abdul Jabbar, Unseld, Reed, and then later in his career with the Warriors, Lanier, Walton and Cowens. And he held his own with every single one of them.

HOUSTON ROCKETS

PG CALVIN MURPHY. There has never been a better, tougher, 5’ 9” baton-twirling scoring machine to ever play in the NBA.

SG TRACY MCGRADY. I’m not ready to give this to James Harden yet.

SF CLYDE DREXLER. The list of candidates here isn’t very long, so I have to go with the player that helped the team win a championship, even if he was at the end of his career.

PF ELVIN HAYES. The radio program I mentioned earlier didn’t even mention Hayes, choosing instead to cheat and put Moses Malone or even Ralph Sampson here. Hayes was an unstoppable scorer and rebounder early in his career, which he spent with the Rockets.

C HAKEEM OLAJUWON. It’s a tough call, between the Dream and Malone, who won MVP and rebounding titles with the Rockets, but Olajuwon won actual titles, spent his entire career with the Rockets and redefined the position.

6TH MOSES MALONE. Consolation prize.

INDIANA PACERS

PG FREDDIE LEWIS. No, not Mark Jackson. The Pacers existed before the Reggie Miller era, you know. Lewis was a scoring threat and on-court leader as a mainstay of the team that writer Terry Pluto called, “The Boston Celtics of the ABA.”

SG REGGIE MILLER. I tend to think Miller was a little overrated. He was a streaky shooter who happened to hit some of his biggest shots when the lights were brightest. Still, that’s a skill in and of itself, and that plus his durability and long tenure with the team earns him a spot.

SF ROGER BROWN. Another of the great Pacers players from the ABA years. Brown was an unstoppable scorer.

PF GEORGE MCGINNIS. McGinnis, also an ABA superstar, was the forerunner of Karl Malone. Chiseled and graceful, he was unstoppable in the post and on the boards. For a time, the big debate was over who was the better player, McGinnis or Julius Erving.

C MEL DANIELS. Daniels was the man in the middle on those amazing ABA clubs, and everything revolved around his rebounding and defense.

6th JERMAINE O’NEAL. The Pacers’ marquee star of the 2000s, O’Neal came into his own in Indiana, averaging a double-double and serving as the defensive presence in the middle.

LOS ANGELES CLIPPERS

PG CHRIS PAUL. After almost forty years, it wasn’t until Paul arrived that the Clippers started to be taken seriously as a franchise. That should tell you something.

SG RANDY SMITH. Smith goes back to the club’s days as the Buffalo Braves. One of the best athletes to every play the game, Smith was also drafted in professional soccer. He cold defend both guard spots, score on anyone, and jump over the moon.

SF DANNY MANNING. Okay, I’m fudging a bit, but Manning was legitimately versatile across the front line and skilled in every aspect of the game but staying healthy. Besides, I refuse to give this spot to Corey Maggette.

PF BLAKE GRIFFIN. Along with Paul, Griffin catalyzed the small fan base that was there for the Clippers, and created new fans by the thousands. Though his game is still developing (a frightening prospect), he seems to be the evolutionary successor to Karl Malone, except a better passer.

C BOB MCADOO. McAdoo won scoring titles and an MVP as a Brave. He helped cement an interesting NBA era of small, mobile centers, and was perhaps the most mobile and unstoppable of all of them.

6TH LLOYD FREE. Free wasn’t with the Clippers for very long, but he broke out in San Diego after languishing on the bench in Philadelphia. A lights-out scorer, he lent the franchise credibility after it moved from Buffalo and McAdoo was gone.

LOS ANGELES LAKERS

PG MAGIC JOHNSON. When coming up with a roster like this for the Lakers, the big conundrum isn’t Mikan vs. Wilt vs. Kareem vs. Shaq, but rather what to do with combo guard extraordinaire Jerry West, one of the most dominant players of the 1960s and early 1970s, and only the model of the league logo. But the fact is, the Lakers have had a better pure point guard, and a better pure shooting guard, though West may have been better overall than either of them. Magic was a point guard still unlike any the NBA has ever seen, not to mention a premier leader.

SG KOBE BRYANT. Bryant is one of those rare, ferocious, will-to-win guys capable to putting an entire team on his shoulders not just for a game or a run of games, but for an entire season. As much as I can never bring myself to root for him, there aren’t many players I’d want to take the last shot as much as I would Bryant.

SF JAMES WORTHY. Worthy put the franchise over the top with his arrival in the early 1980s, upgrading the position from the very capable hands of Jamaal Wilkes. As an explosive wing player, he was the perfect complement to Johnson.

PF ELGIN BAYLOR. As much as Johnson had no precedent, Baylor was the precedent for seemingly everybody. The first true high-flyer, Baylor used body control, speed and underrated strength to become a new breed of NBA scorer and rebounder. He was before Hawkins, Erving, Jordan, Bryant and James. He set the mold they equaled or exceeded. He was there first.

C KAREEM ABDUL-JABBAR. Kareem simply dominated the 1970s from a statistical standpoint. His prime is almost criminally under-discussed because the decade largely gets dismissed in NBA historical discussions (usually treated as equal parts comedy for the ABA and tragedy for the rampant drug use), because Kareem’s detached demeanor was interpreted as disinterest, and because he made the game look so effortless. The simple truth is, he was that much better than anyone else. And he stayed great well into his 80s.

6th JERRY WEST. Thanks for being a team player, Mr. West. Apologies to Laker greats of previous generation, such as Slater Martin, Vern Mikkelsen, Jim Pollard and even George Mikan, who suffer by comparison only in terms of athleticism, not in terms of their value to the franchise in its early, dominant years.

MEMPHIS GRIZZLIES

PG MIKE CONLEY. The Grizzlies haven’t been around long enough to have much of a selection at any position, but Conley has been good enough, long enough, to be considered the best the team has had at this spot. He’s matured into a fine point guard, if not a statistically dominant one.

SG MIKE MILLER. Miller never really improved on his Rookie of the Year season, partially owing to injuries. But he was a bright spot for the Grizzlies in some bad times.

SF SHAREEF ABDUR-RAHIM. The classic “good stats guy on a bad team” played the same role for several clubs, averaging nearly 20/10 everywhere he went.

PF ZACH RANDOLPH. Randolph’s throwback low-post game helped propel the Grizzlies to perpetual contention in the early 2010s.

C MARC GASOL. It took him a while, but Gasol the Younger developed into a Sabonis-like center with great passing skills, a soft shooting touch, and even stronger defensive instincts. He gets the nod over his brother because his teams were better.

6TH PAU GASOL. Gasol played brilliantly for the Grizzlies; He just didn’t have much talent around him until he made the move to the Lakers.

MINNESOTA TIMBERWOLVES

PG POOH RICHARDSON. You know, enough of this “the team hasn’t been around long enough” argument. The T-Wolves have been in the NBA since the late 1980s – They should have had a better point guard than Pooh Richardson by now. Not that he wasn’t a good player, scoring in the teens and averaging around 8 assists, but he’s an all-timer only in the frozen north.

SG WALLY SZCZERBIAK. Wally was about as much of a supporting cast as Kevin Garnett ever got in most years. He was a shooter and not much else, but he could ring it up from three, averaging better than 40% several times.

SF ISAIAH RIDER. I guess?

PF KEVIN GARNETT. Power forward is where the Wolves have seen their best players, between KG, Kevin Love, Tom Gugliotta, and Christian Laettner. But KG stands above all.

C AL JEFFERSON. The best true center the T-Wolves have ever had, Jefferson put up 20/10 regularly.

6TH KEVIN LOVE. Not the complete player Garnett was, but Love was a better pure scorer and a great instinctual rebounder.

NEW ORLEANS HORNETS

PG CHRIS PAUL. The best player in the short history of the franchise. He gave them a face, an identity, and one hell of a quarterback.

SG TYREKE EVANS. Slim pickings here. The best of the bunch is Evans, a multi-talented former Rookie of the Year who scores in the teens, and assists and rebounds in the six per game region.

SF PEJA STOJAKOVIC. Slimmer pickings. Peja had his best years in Sacramento before coming to the Bayou, but he still could knock down the three pointer.

PF ANTHONY DAVIS. Based on a small sample size, I know, but Davis is already so dominant on both ends of the court that, barring catastrophic injury, it’s almost impossible to imagine him not maturing into one of the better players in league history.

C TYSON CHANDLER. Chandler was an imposing defensive force, a solid team player, and an underrated performer in the pick and roll.

6th DAVID WEST. If Paul was the heart and soul of the Hornets, West was the guts, a lunch-bucket player who was strong in the post, usually against bigger players.

NEW YORK KNICKS

PG WALT FRAZIER. At this point, Clyde is probably better known for his sense of style than his play, but there were a few years when he was the best guard in the league. He was a brilliant defender, and could take over a game offensively at will – but that simply wasn’t the style of his Knick teams.

SG RICHIE GUERIN. A tough call over Earl Monroe, but Monroe played his real prime in Baltimore, while Guerin has his best high-scoring years in New York.

SF BERNARD KING. Purists will tell you Bill Bradley gets this spot for being part of the great early 1970s teams, but Bernard King was the Knicks in his years there, at his most unstoppable offensively and an underrated rebounder, to boot.

PF DAVE DEBUSSCHERE. I love Charles Oakley, okay? DeBusschere was actually a pretty similar player in style, bringing it every night, guarding bigger players, maybe a better scorer. But DeBusschere won titles.

C MARVIN WEBSTER. No, I’m kidding. It’s really PATRICK EWING. A tougher call than you might think. Willis Reed has the titles, and was a capable scorer and rebounder who battled much bigger centers. But Ewing had a longer career, was probably a better defender, was very consistent, and put up with a lot of crap.

6th WILLIS REED. Reed was also a superb leader, vocally and in his maximum effort on the court. Apologies to Harry Gallatin, Dick McGuire, Dick Barnett and Walt Bellamy… There were just better choices at each position.

OKLAHOMA CITY THUNDER

PG GARY PAYTON. This franchise’s history includes a lot of years in Seattle, and Gary Payton was the undisputed leader of the club in his years there. A defensive hellion, Payton made himself into an offensive superstar and steered some of the best teams in the organization’s history.

SG FRED BROWN. Seattle’s scoring ace of the 1970s didn’t care if he started or came off the bench, who guarded him, or how many minutes he played. He was getting points regardless, many of them from “Downtown.”

SF KEVIN DURANT. The ultimate matchup nightmare, the 7-footer who can score, handle and rebound. He’s also an underrated defender.

PF SHAWN KEMP. A surprisingly hard call. The Sonics/Thunder had some really good power forwards, from Bob Rule, Tom Meschery and Spencer Haywood to Tom Chambers, Xavier McDaniel and Serge Ibaka. Heck, even Jack Sikma played some power forward when he first got to Seattle. But Kemp put the flash in the best Seattle teams of the 1990s. He could outrun, out-jump and out-muscle just about anyone he played against, and was terrifying in the open court.

C SPENCER HAYWOOD. Sikma played longer and is more identified with the franchise, but have you looked at Haywood’s numbers? They were obscene.

6TH JACK SIKMA. With apologies to Walt Hazzard, Dale Ellis, Ray Allen and Russell Westbrook.

ORLANDO MAGIC

PG PENNY HARDAWAY. Maybe the closest thing to Magic that we’ve seen, but a better scorer. If his health had held out (and if he’d had a franchise center to play with his entire career), who knows how good he could have been?

SG TRACY MCGRADY. Nick Anderson played longer, but McGrady had some of his best years in Orlando, ringing up impressive scoring numbers, and pretty good assist and rebounding totals, too.

SF RASHARD LEWIS. Orlando’s late 2000s run to the Finals was due in no small part to Lewis’ marksmanship.

PF HORACE GRANT. Grant was the right veteran leader for a team on the verge, helping take them to the Finals in the 90s. He could guard the opposition’s best post player, leaving Shaq free to freelance.

C DWIGHT HOWARD. He gets the nod over Shaq because he stayed longer. Howard isn’t the scorer O’Neal was, but he’s a better rebounder, and probably a better shot-blocker.

6TH SHAQUILLE O’NEAL. How could you not put him somewhere on the list?

PHILADELPHIA 76ERS

PG ALLEN IVERSON. This might be the toughest team in the league to come up with sa Top 5 for. They’ve had brilliant players at every position. Iverson beats out rock-steady Mo Cheeks and early star Larry Costello here for his statistical contributions, his maximum effort every night, and for having to suffer through some horrendous seasons of little or no support.

SG HAL GREER. Greer was what you call a perennial, someone who could be relied on for 22 points every night for a decade.

SF JULIUS ERVING. Talk about your embarrassment of riches! Neither Billy Cunningham, Chet Walker, nor George Yardley make this list? That’s how much Doc meant, not just to the franchise, but to the city and the league. His best years may have been behind him when he got to the NBA, but he was still good enough to win a league MVP, and once Moses Malone showed up to flank him, Doc put up scoring numbers nearly the equal of his ABA tenure.

PF CHARLES BARKLEY. Dolph Schayes, I’m sorry. Barkley was a once-in-a-lifetime player. When’s the next time we’re going to see a 6’ 4” player put up those kind of rebounding numbers? Right. Never.

C WILT CHAMBERLAIN. The rings may not be there, but the numbers are, and we’ll never see their like again.

6TH MOSES MALONE. He joined a loaded Sixers team and put them over the top – way over the top. And he continued producing at the same level for the rest of his stay.

PHOENIX SUNS

PG STEVE NASH. The Suns have had a pretty astonishing run of point guards in their 40+ year history: Hall of Famer Gail Goodrich, Paul Westphal, Dennis Johnson, Kevin Johnson, Jason Kidd, even Stephon Marbury. But Westy wasn’t a true point guard, and while KJ turned the franchise around, he did it with a lot of veteran talent around him. Nash, however, paired with a bright coach, took charge of a young team, and helped change the way the NBA looked at offensive basketball. The two MVPs don’t hurt, either.

SG PAUL WESTPHAL. This was Westphal’s natural spot, and in the five years of his prime that he played for the Suns, he was perhaps the best all-around guard in the league, selected to the All-NBA First Team three times.

SF SHAWN MARION. The Matrix could guard five positions. Five! And his jumper was ugly but effective and he was a great rebounder and a feared dunker in the open court. If he handled the ball a little better, he might have been Scottie Pippen.

PF CHARLES BARKLEY. Everything Barkley did in Philadelphia, he did in Phoenix. But he led the Suns to the Finals, something he never did for the Sixers.

C AMAR’E STOUDEMIRE. Apologies to Alvan Adams, who manned this position so ably for so many years. Amar’e wasn’t really a center and never liked playing the position, but his athleticism was so key to the Suns’ high-powered offense that no one of comparable size could guard him. Sure, he didn’t rebound particularly well, or defend, but those Suns weren’t built to do either one, really.

6th KEVIN JOHNSON. So hard not to put Walter Davis here (or Dick Van Arsdale, or Tom Chambers, or Connie Hawkins, or..). But KJ was one of the scariest point guards in the association in his day, and perhaps the fastest player in the league. He could get to the rim on anyone, and his outside shot had to be respected.

PORTLAND TRAILBLAZERS

PG TERRY PORTER. Porter wasn’t the flashiest point guard ever to play, but he may have been one of the most consistent. He directed a team of talented, largely unheralded Blazers to two NBA Finals appearances, and was strong enough to overpower almost anyone who played against him.

SG CLYDE DREXLER. I tend to think the Glide is a little overrated, but there’s no overstating what he meant to this franchise in the 1980s, and he was a spectacular open court player with a surprising knack for steals.

SF JEROME KERSEY. It’s tempting to put the entire 1992 Blazers team on this list, actually. Kersey was a poor-man’s Pippen for this team, but slightly larger and not as good a shooter. Super athletic and versatile, Kersey made up for what Center Kevin Duckworth lacked in mobility.

PF MAURICE LUCAS. LaMarcus Aldridge played for Portland longer and had better cumulative numbers, but he didn’t have the emotional impact Luke had on the Portland franchise and community, both on the court (where his own team revered him and every other team feared him) and off (where fans loved him). Without him, the Blazers don’t sniff the title in 1977.

C BILL WALTON. And without Walton, healthy at last, the Blazers don’t sniff the playoffs. Everything revolved around him, offense and defense. Unmatched in fundamental soundness, when he was at his best, there may have been no one better, ever. Unfortunately, he was so rarely at his best.

6th LAMARCUS ALDRIDGE. Gets the nod over Sidney Wicks, Geoff Petrie, Mychal Thompson and Jim Paxson for longevity, and over Cliff Robinson for having slightly better stats.

SACRAMENTO KINGS

PG OSCAR ROBERTSON. I’ll take another break here except to say, “Averaged a triple double for a season.” A season!

SG MITCH RICHMOND. Talk about toiling in obscurity. Name another meaningful player for the Kings during Richmond’s time there. Whatever limited success they had was totally due to Richmond’s scoring efforts.

SF JACK TWYMAN. A largely forgotten star of the 50s and 60s, Twyman was a superb scorer and solid rebounder in his prime.

PF CHRIS WEBBER. Webber had his best years with the Kings, and his multiple talents finally came to the fore. His all-around brilliance helped make the Kings contenders in the early 2000s, and he was as much a matchup nightmare as Shawn Kemp – only Webber had a better handle. Side note: If Maurice Stokes’ career hadn’t been tragically cut short, who knows how good he might have been. In his three seasons, he averaged 16 points and 17 rebounds.

C JERRY LUCAS. Sam Lacey and Vlade Divac are rightly revered by Kings fans for their contributions to the franchise, but Lucas gave them his best seasons, and they were amazing. As a Cincinnati Royal, Lucas averaged nearly 20 points and 20 rebounds per game. Why the Kings haven’t retired his number is a mystery.

6th TINY ARCHIBALD. I’m partial to any player who leads the league in points and assists in a season. Anyone who does that should get the starting nod, but… Oscar Robertson. Tiny won the MVP while on a club with a losing record in 1973.

SAN ANTONIO SPURS

PG TONY PARKER. James Silas had some great moments for the Spurs in the ABA, and Johnny Moore led the NBA in assists one year, but you can’t argue with the Spurs’ success in Parker’s years, and his role in helping them achieve it.

SG GEORGE GERVIN. One of the coolest super-scorers and coolest personalities in NBA history, the Iceman was more than just the finger roll. He had almost unlimited range on his jumpshot and a knack for drawing fouls. If you played the Spurs during Gervin’s tenure, he was always Problem One.

SF SEAN ELLIOTT. The Spurs have had players who had shorter runs of better statistical results (Larry Kenon, Mike Mitchell), but Elliott was a key part of the foundation of the current success of the organization. Kawhi Leonard may have this spot one day, but not quite yet.

PF TIM DUNCAN. Waiter, another iced tea, please.

C DAVID ROBINSON. The guy who really put the team on the path is continues along today. A killer on offense and defense, Robinson had all the fundamental skills, plus he could run the open court like a deer. His name needs to come up more in the discussions about the elite centers in history.

6TH MANU GINOBILI. San Antonio’s Swiss army knife, with a baffling array of drives to the basket and a maddening tendency to be in the right place at the right time all the time. Would make this list on his flopping skills alone.

TORONTO RAPTORS

PG DAMON STOUDAMIRE. Mighty Mouse only played two seasons for the Raps, but they were pretty awesome. He averaged 20 points and around 9 assists, for a team that was terrible – which is putting it kindly.

SG DEMAR DEROZAN. DeRozan’s still proving himself, but he’s the go-to guy on a team that seems to be slowly improving. Besides, there isn’t much to pick from in franchise history at this position.

SF VINCE CARTER. Toronto’s first megastar, Carter was a scoring supernova for most of his time there, and one of the league’s top dunking attractions. His commitment was a little suspect, and he never rebounded well for a guy who could jump as high as he did, butwho else can you choose from the Raptors?

PF ANTONIO DAVIS. Davis gave some muscle up front to a few of Toronto’s better teams, but he probably had his best years in Indiana.

C CHRIS BOSH. The best, most reliable player in Raptor history, he wasn’t a true center, but that’s where he played for the Raps. Supremely mobile and effective at both ends of the court, with a nice outside jumper.

6th JOSE CALDERON. I kind of picked his name out of a hat, but ten points and seven assists a game are decent, if not mind-blowing.

UTAH JAZZ

PG JOHN STOCKTON. I like teams that make it easy for me.

SG PETE MARAVICH. Poor guy. As an expansion franchise, the Jazz traded their entire future for the Pistol and crippled themselves – and Pete – in the process. He still had breathtaking skills and numbers, and he was the face of the organization, but he never had anyone to play with that even approached his level.

SF ADRIAN DANTLEY. A scoring powerhouse, he was a Barkley-esque undersized forward without the rebounding skills, but with clever post moves and a deft touch. He and Darrell Griffith teamed to give the Jazz some of their first really good post-Maravich years.

PF KARL MALONE. Hey, I like Thurl Bailey, but…

C MARK EATON. Eaton couldn’t score, and for a guy who was 7’ 4”, he didn’t really rebound, either, but racking up four blocks per game made him a factor on the court.

6TH JEFF HORNACEK. I’m taking Hornacek over Andrei Kirilenko because without his shooting touch and ballhandling skills to take pressure off of Stockton, the Jazz never made the Finals. With Hornacek, they got there twice.

WASHINGTON WIZARDS

PG EARL MONROE. More consistent than John Wall, Monroe was a star attraction in the 1960s and helped make the Baltimore Bullets a consistent threat to the dominance of New York, Philadelphia and Boston. Monroe had an astonishing array of spin moves and it seemed like he could hit jumpers while facing any direction.

SG GILBERT ARENAS. Head-case issues aside, Arenas was a cold-blooded shooter unafraid of any circumstance. Kind of a slightly poorer-man’s Allen Iverson statistically. Okay, kind of a ball hog. But effective.

SF GUS JOHNSON. The frontcourt positions are where the Wizards have always had their best players, and Johnson was a mold-breaking small forward, super-strong, fearless on the boards, and a devastating dunker.

PF ELVIN HAYES. Hayes moved to Baltimore in his prime, and was a strong a player, if not stronger, than he’d been in Houston, only he had the added advantage of playing alongside a bona fide center in Westley Unseld. Hayes perfected his automatic turnaround jumper with the Bullets, and used it to help them win a title late in his career.

C WES UNSELD. Unseld never had great scoring numbers, but his rebounding ability was off-the-charts, especially considering he was only 6’ 7”. He was also one of the best at the position in history at starting the fast break. He won MVP and Rookie of the Year in the same season. He was a rock. And I don’t just mean how he looked.

6TH WALT BELLAMY. This is tough. The candidates for this spot that played a long time for the franchise don’t quite have the numbers. The candidates with the numbers didn’t stay very long. So I’m going with Bellamy, another largely forgotten Hall of Famer, who averaged around 26 points and 16 rebounds per game for the Bullets, impressive numbers when you consider he was getting them against Russell, Chamberlain, Thurmond, Lucas, etc.

There you have it. If you ask me tomorrow, I might change my mind about three or four of these selections, but it’s all debatable. Now the question becomes… Which franchise’s Top 5 and Sixth Man would win if all of these played in a tournament? It’s pretty hard to argue with the Lakers over the Sixers.

But that’s just one man’s opinion.

The Phoenix Suns Went To Italy And All I Got Was The Time Of My Life

Originally published on Suns.com

November 2, 2006

AB-Nash

I’m a long-time Suns fan.

I mean, I go back.

I’m a guy who’s read his copy of Joe Gilmartin’s legendary tome, The Little Team That Could (And Darn Near Did), about the equally legendary Suns team of 1975-76, so many times, I actually bought another copy on eBay in case my first copy (which I got as a camper at John MacLeod’s summer basketball camp) falls apart. I used to rebound for Paul Westphal and Walt Davis when they would shoot around before practice at the old Phoenix Jewish Community Center. I was in the room full of people that booed the drafting of Dan Majerle (I swear I did not boo).

I’m not some bandwagon boy. I grew up purple and orange. I’m the read deal.

So when the Suns announced they would hold their training camp this year in Treviso, Italy, I called Suns Vice-President of Interactive Services Jeramie McPeek from my home here in Los Angeles (I would absolutely boo the Lakers, but never Dan Majerle). It wasn’t a cold call – I’d met Jeramie several years before through my friend, Suns super-staffer Steve Koek, and Jeramie had even hired me to write an article for the Suns team yearbook a few seasons back. For that article, I’d interviewed Connie Hawkins, Alvan Adams, Dick Van Arsdale, Jerry Colangelo, and a host of other names from Suns history. I thought that was probably the closest I could ever feel to the team. Here, though, was another opportunity.

“Jeramie,” I said, “It just so happens I’m going to be in Italy at the same time the Suns will be there!”

Now, that wasn’t exactly true. Sure, I’d wanted to go to Italy for a long time – a buddy of mine from high school is stationed over there in the Air Force – but I didn’t exactly have a trip planned. But if there was a possibility I could see the Suns and combine it with a trip to see my pal, then I’d be happy to plan such a trip.

“Anything I can do to help out when the team is there?” I asked.

“Sure,” Jeramie said without a moment’s hesitation. “We’ll be sending a skeleton crew to cover camp for the website – It might just be me – and I could use the extra assistance.”

And so, it was on. I bought myself a plane ticket. Made hotel reservations for Treviso. Another pal from high school, Robert Webber, decided to come along, and Jeramie told us he’d get us both press passes, and that, while I was helping Jeramie get quotes from the Suns players and coaches after practices, Robert could snap photos for use on the website. We’d be doing this all at our own expense, but who cared, we’re Suns fans, and this was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

September 29

Rocky start. We catch a plane from Los Angeles to London, connecting to Venice. We’re two hours late getting out of LA, miss our connection in London, arrive in Venice in the dead of night, and of course, our luggage isn’t there.

Like any good Suns fan, I blame the Lakers.

But we don’t believe in bad omens. Everything will be fine. We’ll decompress in Venice for two days, get used to the time change, acclimate to the pasta diet, let our luggage catch up to us, and strike out for Treviso on October 2. And may I say, if you’re looking for a place to decompress, Venice is a great place to do it. The beautiful Grand Canal, the gorgeous Piazza San Marco, the exquisite food, the legendary gondolas…all of it is almost enough to make you okay with the fact that it’s apparently impossible to get NBA TV anywhere over here so we can find out the injury reports from other camps.

Like I said, we’re fans.

October 2

Having tearfully reunited with our luggage, and in clean clothes for the first time in more than 48 hours (to the relief of all Europe), we board a train for Treviso, half an hour north. We arrive, and it’s a lovely, small-to-mid-size Italian town, not very touristy at all. Robert and I get lost again, trying to find our hotel (this will become a tradition as we continue our trip), dump our bags, and head for the bus station. We know the Suns are practicing today, and the remaining two days of their stay in Treviso, at Palaverde (their first days were spent at La Ghirada, a vast training complex that serves, among others, the Italian League’s Benetton basketball team, and the Sisley rugby squad), but we don’t know where the Palaverde is. For that matter, we don’t know what the Palaverde is. We assume it’s a stadium of some sort, and that once whatever bus we need drops us off at whatever stop we need, the Palaverde will be obvious to us.

So, after some broken Italian (I’d taken 12 Italian lessons via podcast and learned exactly nothing), some broken English, and some exceedingly embarrassing pantomime, we find the right bus. The bus driver takes us to the end of the line. “Palaverde?” we ask. “Si,” he says. We’re pretty sure that means yes, so we hop off.

Not a stadium in sight.

More pantomime. More broken Italian as we accost pedestrians. Finally, a lady driving by in one of those are-you-kidding-me “Smart Cars” is sufficiently amused by our helplessness that she pantomimes that we can walk to the Palaverde, it’s over that way, it’s not that far.

Two miles later…

Oh, there it is, that great big, green and white building in the middle of absolutely nowhere. Robert and I laugh. Surely, we must be the most crazed, devoted Suns fans that ever walked through an Italian field.

Little do we know. But I’ll get to that in a minute.

Only when we get to get to the stadium does it occur to us that we don’t know where to go, if anyone is expecting us, or how to communicate with anyone who might be there. Luckily, the first open door we find is a press relations room, and there’s a lovely young woman there named Elisa who’s spent some time in the States, so her English is excellent. We worry that we’re going to have a hard time explaining who we are and what we’re doing there, but we try, “We’re with the Suns,” and she obligingly hands us press passes and points us to the court.

And just like that, we’re with the Phoenix Suns at training camp in Treviso, Italy.

We take our seats (the arena seats maybe 5000 and is entirely green and white, and there’s a long banner at one end reading “Benetton Basket Welcomes the Phoenix Suns”), and it isn’t long before Jeramie arrives. Much “can you believe we’re here” conversation ensues, then he hands me a digital audio recorder and a list of questions fans have sent to Suns.com and tells me to dive onto the court as soon as practice is over so I can query the players. The team takes the court, and all the surreality of the situation washes over me at once: A) I’m this close to Steve Nash, Amare Stoudemire, Shawn Marion, et al, B) I’m this close to Steve Nash, Amare Stoudemire, Shawn Marion, et al, in Italy, and C) I’m going to have to talk to these guys and not sound silly.

I’m impressed by the focus of the team as they work through defensive sets and a few simple cut-and-pass drills. This isn’t just a pleasure cruise for them, nor a goodwill tour on the NBA’s behalf. These guys are here to work. Robert runs around with his camera, snapping action shots, occasionally stopping by my seat to say, “This is amazing.”

Speaking of…I’m sitting next to a guy in his mid-twenties who looks as stunned to be here as I am. I assume he’s a reporter for some European paper – this practice isn’t open to the public, but there’s a good amount of press present. I introduce myself, and he introduces himself as Pablo. I ask what paper he’s with, and he tells me, oh no, he’s not press, he’s a fan. He spent a semester in high school at Peoria High as an exchange student from Spain and fell in love with the team. Now he works for a hotel in Birmingham, England, but when he heard the Suns were going to be in Treviso for training camp, he took a day off work, flew to Italy, and wandered around Treviso simply hoping to find someone who could help him see the team practice. The man traveled across a continent with no set plan for how to see his favorite NBA squad play. Maybe it’ll work out, was the best he could hope for.

And I thought I was a devoted Suns fan.

Even more amazing, Pablo’s plan worked. He got himself to La Ghirada, but the Suns weren’t there. Some La Ghirada official noticed him looking bummed, asked him what was up, Pablo explained, and the official magnanimously made a few phone calls, got Pablo his own press pass, and here he was. Dream come true. “I can’t believe that’s Amare Stoudemire down there,” he keeps saying.

Practice ends. I make my way down to the court, armed with my tiny recorder. Press encircles Marion, Nash, Stoudemire, and Coach Mike D’Antoni, so I decide to head for the players the press hasn’t reached yet. Get my feet wet, as it were. I approach Pat Burke and Kurt Thomas, icing their knees and ankles on the bench. I tell them I’m with Suns.com and ask them a few questions about the practice, their experience in Italy. They respond to me as they would to any member of the press – in an exceedingly friendly manner, intelligent and funny. This isn’t so bad. I move on to Leandro Barbosa, Boris Diaw and Sean Marks. Same thing. What I always suspected is proving true: These are genuinely nice guys.

I tromp over to Shawn Marion, stretching on the floor next to James Jones. James gets up and moves toward the locker room. I need to get down low to talk to Shawn, so I sit down where James was, and only then do I realize…that when NBA players work as hard as they do when they practice, they get very, very sweaty. But I’m a pro (or at least I’m pretending to be), so I stay down there and finish the interview. But I’m sure glad my luggage is waiting for me back at the hotel, and no longer circling over Germany somewhere.

After chatting with Coach D’Antoni, Assistant GM Mark West (who wonders, as I do, why the arena’s baskets have tassels at the bottom of their nets) and Steve Nash, we’re done for the day. I say goodbye to Pablo, who’s staggering around looking dazed because he’s just had his picture taken with Amare, and Robert and I make the long walk back to the bus stop, high on adrenaline and the sheer craziness of where we are and what we’re doing. Things can’t get any better.

Little do I know.

Back in the piazza near our hotel, Robert and I settle down for a big dinner. It’s an open square, and people are everywhere, chatting, smoking, walking their dogs, enjoying the beautiful night. Before long, we spot several of the Suns coaches, including Dan D’Antoni, walking toward the restaurant. Robert waves and says, “So they let you all out of practice, huh?” Assuming we must be with the team somehow, Dan (who we quickly learn is probably one of the three or four nicest people on the planet – Mark West must also be considered in that discussion) comes over to our table, asks us how the restaurant is, wonders what we’re having, asks if we’re having a good time in Italy, etc. We feel part of the club. They take a seat behind me at their own table. Robert and I are just finishing grinning over this encounter when we see a very tall, very distinguished older man in a baseball cap walking over to the table where Dan D’Antoni and his party are sitting. I look at Robert. He looks at me, his eyes as wide as saucers. “Are you kidding me?” The man takes a seat with the Suns coaches.

It is Bill Russell.

For the next two hours, Robert and I eat in silence, straining to overhear every word of their conversation. We hear stories from the locker room of the Celtics dynasty. We learn the mechanics of the famous Celtics fast break. We hear tales of Cousy and Auerbach. Bill Russell’s legendary laugh echoes throughout the piazza.

Overwhelmed and exhausted, we pay our bill, stagger back to our hotel, and collapse. After all, tomorrow we have to do all this again.

October 3

Old pros at this now, we hop the bus to Palaverde and make the long walk to the stadium. Inside, the Suns are hosting a Special Olympics clinic, and Boris Diaw, Mike D’Antoni, Assistant Coach Phil Weber and Director of Player Personnel Vinny del Negro, among others, are working with the kids. There’s much laughter, many smiles, and lots of applause everywhere on the floor.

The arena starts to fill up. On one side, there are the children of the servicemen stationed at the same Air Force base as my friend. From the jerseys they wear, the Suns are apparently the official team of the American armed forces.

Take that, Lakers.

On the other side are local fans, there to get a glimpse of an actual NBA powerhouse holding an actual scrimmage. A local announcer introduces the players, and it’s surreal time again, as “Pat-a Bork” and “Shawn Maddy-own” and all the rest take the court for the “Phoenix Sons-a.” Steve Nash gets a tremendous ovation, but the biggest cheers come for Vinny del Negro and Mike D’Antoni, legends for their time spent here as players and coach. Coach D’Antoni welcomes the crowd in fluent Italian, and the fans respond with an even bigger ovation.

The scrimmage begins, and the Suns look good (“Mark West already has two fouls,” Robert jokes as soon as the ball goes up). Amare Stoudemire, though clearly not in mid-season form, shows flashes of explosiveness that have us salivating. Steve Nash directs traffic like the consummate pro he is. Pat Burke plays like a man possessed, and Marcus Banks impresses everyone with his strength and poise. Most impressive is the amount of chatter we hear from the court, particularly on defense. The Suns appear more committed than ever to making it hard for other teams to score. Best of all, after every play, there’s copious high-fiving and back-pats. There may be a lot of new faces on the roster, but these guys like each other. They’re going past “team” toward “family.”

After the scrimmage, the Suns sign for the kids and chat with the press. I manage to corral Davin White and Eric Piatkowski for some good quotes. Robert and I catch Dan D’Antoni’s eye and ask him about dinner the previous night. His eyes go as wide as Robert’s did when we saw Bill Russell walking toward us. “Wasn’t that something?” he asks. “Just to listen to him talk…” He shakes his head in wonder. I ask him if, when he tried to pass the Celtic great the dinner rolls, they weren’t swatted back in his face out of instinct, just as Russell rejected so many shots by Oscar Robertson or Wilt Chamberlain. The coach laughs and shoves me good-naturedly. Part of the team.

I sit next to Jumaine Jones on the bench. I’ve been a little nervous to talk to him because…well…he’s intimidating. On the court, he looks positively fierce. But it turns out, he’s just quiet, feeling his way, getting to know a new team and a new system. Several times, though, he smiles hugely, and lights up the arena even brighter, particularly when I ask him if he’s happy to be with the Suns. “Who wouldn’t be?” he asks back.

Then I approach Amare. He’s lying on the ground, doing one of the many exercises that have become part of his routine for strengthening his knee. I ask him what it was like to hear his name announced to a crowd in Italian. He launches into a perfect imitation of the public address announcer: “Numero uno, Amare Stoudemire!” he booms. Then he smiles. “Sounded good, man.”

At the end of the session, Jeramie introduces us to Suns General Manager David Griffin. He’s a year younger than we are, and went to high school across Phoenix from us, but we have acquaintances in common, so we talk teenage years in the Valley, the Suns through the years, and the prospects for this year’s team. He’s friendly and affable. Like absolutely everyone else we have met associated with the team.

Back in the city that evening, we see David with other Suns personnel on their way to dinner, as well as Vinny del Negro, who says a cheery hello. It’s as though Treviso were some big college campus, almost, and we’re just running into neighbors from the next dorm over. It’s as though we’re not really in a foreign country. It’s as though we’re not saying hi to the freakin’ Phoenix Suns.

October 4

Our last day with the team. Hard not to feel a little sad, even though we’ve just been on the periphery – it’s not like we’ve been hanging out with the players. But everyone, no matter how little we’ve interacted with them, has made us feel like part of the family, from Public Relations Director Julie Fie to Raja Bell, who gives me some great quotes after the day’s long practice.

This session’s highlight, however, is the chance to chat with Al McCoy. He approaches Robert and I, sticking out his hand and saying, “I hear you gentlemen came all the way from Phoenix,” and I get chills just hearing his voice (“I want to tell you,” I hear him say in my head, replaying his call of Garfield Heard’s famous shot that sent Game 5 of the 1976 NBA Finals against Boston into its third overtime, “Someone up there is on our side!”). We talk about everything from his good friend, the late, legendary Lakers announcer Chick Hearn (the only person who’s ever been associated with the Lakers whose name I can say without following it by spitting and crossing myself), to Iowa (both my parents grew up there, while Al announced sports for Drake University before coming to Phoenix), to what he sees as the biggest changes in the NBA in the years he’s been covering it (“The speed,” he says, then adds, “and the money.”). I want to ask him to say, “Heartbreak Hotel!” just once, but think better of it. After all, I’m still pretending to be a pro.

Later that afternoon, back in Treviso, Robert and I meet up with Jeramie, dropped off by a shuttle van to do a little sightseeing. Mark West and his lovely wife are with him, and Mark gives me a big (BIG) handshake, remembering me from our conversation two days earlier. Turns out he used to be a big comic book fan, and since that’s one of the things I write for a living (when I’m not, you know, covering the NBA for Suns.com), we chat about Batman for a few minutes. Then we depart with Jeramie so we can all be tourists in Treviso. Jeramie loves his job (who wouldn’t?) and loves every minute he spends with the Suns (duh), but he is in Italy and he’s happy to actually get out and see some of it. He, Robert and I snap pictures of everything in sight, wander back to La Ghirada and raid the Benetton team store for souvenirs, then return to the piazza for dinner. Boris Diaw, having a snack with Mike and Laurel D’Antoni, Assistant Coach Marc Iavaroni and Julie Fie, sees us coming. “Uh oh,” he calls out in warning, “Here comes the paparazzi.”

Robert and I share a quiet meal with Jeramie, then we put him in a cab back to his hotel. He hasn’t taken a cab here in Italy, and so isn’t sure how to direct his driver back to the hotel, so hopefully he’ll make it back there all right. If not, I’m applying for his job.

We’re sorry to see him go, sorry to end our adventure with the Suns. Without Jeramie’s incredible generosity, none of this would have been possible for Robert and me. We won’t be following them to Rome and then Cologne. Robert and I have many more adventures to come on our trip – tomorrow we head to the Air Force base to see our friend, followed by visits to Florence and Rome – but it’ll be hard to top these three days when we did what all fans dream of: For a brief time, we went beyond being fans to being part of the Suns inner circle. And the way were treated made us more certain than ever that we root for the greatest NBA franchise there is – on levels that go far beyond the magic the players work on the court. It was more than we could have asked for.

Someone up there was on our side.

Postscript

Jeramie made it back to his hotel, darn the luck. For the moment, his job is safe from my clutches.

Like any good Suns fan, I blame the Lakers.