President McCain? Blame "Hot Rod" Williams, Part 1

Bloggified by Jake on Friday, May 2, 2008

Would you sell your soul to win a championship?

If you didn't live in Arizona during the 1992-93 NBA season, it's hard to conceive the cult-like fervor that overcame Phoenix with the arrival of Charles Barkley. Everything was about the Suns. Roughly one out of every two people you saw anywhere you went was wearing purple. Every news story somehow seemed to relate to the Suns. When Suns games were on, crime rates dropped like a rock (though they'd get an upward bump during halftime). I'd estimate 87% of all conversations taking place at any given time were about some aspect of the Suns' season.

Sports talk radio hosts didn't know how to handle it. Thriving on disdain and living on a diet of disgust, guys like Arnie Spanner and Bruce Jacobs had nothing of substance to say other than screaming, "Hey, Suns fans!" repeatedly in annoying New York accents. While the Phoenix might win 62 games in the regular season, their style of play would never work in the playoffs, they insisted. Instead, the New York Knicks would be hoisting the title because they played "playoff basketball," which is to say they were classless, graceless thugs who would let a little thing like "not inflicting career ending injuries on opponents" get in the way of victory.

Unfortunately, the fairy tale season didn't have the fairy tale ending. After winning 62 games, including several that made a convincing argument that if there was a god in heaven, he was rooting for the Suns--like Oliver Miller's inbound pass off the backboard with half a second on the clock in Portland that was missed for a dunk by Cedric Ceballos but instead fell into Barkley's paw and was underhand tossed into the hoop for a one point win--the year ended with a loss in the NBA Finals to Michael Jordan's Bulls.

In the years to come, owner Jerry Colangelo was constantly looking for the one thing that could put Phoenix over the top. Suns legend Tom Chambers was replaced by A.C. Green. Cedric Ceballos was let go in favor of injury-waiting-to-happen Danny Manning. Joe Kleine, Wayman Tisdale, and Danny Schayes were sold to fans as the defensive stoppers the team needed in the paint. Add to that the aging of Barkley, KJ, and Danny Ainge, the expanding girth of Miller, and the crack addiction of forward Richard Dumas and it was clear the 92-93 Suns had captured lightning in a bottle and no trades or signings would ever recapture it.

Meanwhile, the Houston Rockets had won back-to-back championships by building around shot blocking center Hakeem Olajuwon and a renewed commitment to offense. Those titles came against Patrick Ewing's Knicks and Shaquielle O'Neal's Magic. The message to NBA front offices everywhere was clear: championships weren't won by scoring more points than your opponent; they were won by keeping your opponent from scoring more points than you by putting a lumbering center in the paint to block shots and surrounding him with sociopaths (John Starks, Anthony Mason, Vernon Maxwell) who were more likely to crush a man's skull and drink the sweet nectar inside than they were to execute a bounce pass.

No one better epitomized this shift in thinking than Mike Fratello when he took over the coaching duties of the woeful Cleveland Cavaliers. Knowing his team couldn't score very many points, he put forth a game plan in which players would milk the shot clock for the full 24 seconds before ever taking a shot, crash the boards for rebounds (ideally grabbing the missed shot so they could milk another 24 seconds from the game), and prevent opponents from ever gaining any offensive flow through thuggery and intentional fouls. It was ugly, terrible basketball, but the Suns decided it was exactly what they wanted to be.

So the decision was made to trade away Dan Majerle for John "Hot Rod" Williams. Majerle was a golden god in Phoenix, but the media decided to place every playoff loss at his feet. When the trade was announced, talk radio hosts cheered, assured that his 1.2 blocks per game were going to be the difference that brought a championship banner to America West Arena.

But for fans, it was like coming home from school expecting to throw the frisbee to your dog in the backyard, but having your mom explain that she'd been watching the dog for the past year or two and noticed he'd been missing the frisbee more and more frequently--not to mention that he never vacuumed the carpet--so she traded him to the neighbors down the street for a Hoover upright.

It was the beginning of the end of any interest I had in the NBA and marked the start of a precipitous decline for the Suns. It also raised the question I posed at the beginning of this column, whether a title was worth more than your soul.

Four days before the Suns season opening win against the Clippers, the United States elected Bill Clinton to be the 42nd President of the United States. It wasn't long before the economy, mired in recession, was booming like never before and the United States settled into its role as the world's only superpower. Much like the sports talk hosts above, the media couldn't handle so much positivity. Sure, there were more people becoming millionaires under the Clinton Administration than ever before, but they were having to pay more taxes than and weren't praising Jesus as much as they would if a Republican was in the White House.

Similar to the NBA general managers of the late 90's, the Republican Party became fixated not on winning elections by putting forth better candidates, but by convincing the public that their opponents were the worse candidates. Like the Knicks, the Republican congress became classless, graceless thugs who wouldn't let something like ruining a person's career or public reputation stand in the way of a meaningless piece of legislation or a House seat.

It came to a head in the 1998 impeachment of President Clinton. Like the 1993-94 Houston/New York NBA Finals, there was nothing good to be said of the debacle. It was ugliness for the sake of ugliness and anyone with a sense of fairness on either side of the political spectrum was embarrassed to watch it, just as anyone with a love for basketball found it hard to stomach watching Olajuwon and Ewing posting each other up 900 times a game.

Two years later, Karl Rove used the same attitudes and strategies to get George W. Bush the Republican nomination and, eventually, the White House. The eight years of abject failure and destruction of America led many to reminisce fondly of the Clinton Days... when a President lied about his sex life but was honest about the wars he waged on the other side of the world... when 18 soldiers being killed in Somalia was reason for uproar instead of barely being worth a mention on page 17 of the newspaper... when reports titled "Bin Laden Determined to Attack on American Soil" got some attention...

In 2004, the United Nations suggested it would consider Bill Clinton as Secretary General (the next Secretary General was supposed to come from Asia, but the Asian representation agreed to defer it's turn if Clinton was put forth as a nominee), but Bush wasn't going to nominate his predecessor to a title that some could see as higher than his own. Shortly thereafter, Clinton suggested the 22nd Amendment should be rewritten to allow a former two-term president to run for a third term as long as another president was elected between the two terms. Unfortunately, romanticized as it might be another Clinton presidency was an impossibility.

Or was it?

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