PHOENIX — Wednesday night should have been all about basketball.
It should have been about your Phoenix Suns vanquishing their old foe the San Antonio Spurs the way the Spurs always used to beat them.
But it wasn’t.
Not in this politically-charged time in our state’s history, when the nation’s eyes are upon us not just because our great state happens to be hosting a hell of a basketball series but also because of the widespread support and opposition to Arizona’s new law aimed at cracking down on illegal immigration.
The Suns made their statement on Tuesday when owner Robert Sarver criticized the immigration law and then Suns players piled on by explicating their opposition to the bill.
It was a curious time to be making a political statement. The Suns at the time were on the precipice of the 2-0 home sweep that they ended up getting, preparing for a game that could make the difference between finally reversing their history against the Spurs and another summer of heartbreak.
This is not some game in mid-December against the Charlotte Bobcats, it was the biggest game for this franchise since Robert Horry splattered Steve Nash across the scorer’s table.
If the Suns would have lost, the criticism from a basketball perspective would have been undying, and when the Suns came out with an uninspired first-quarter effort and trailed by nine, I worried for Sarver.
Before the game, head coach Alvin Gentry promised that all this political talk would be no distraction to his team whatsoever, going into Rasheed Wallace mode when reporters continued to pepper him with questions about it.
“We are wearing the jerseys because it’s a national holiday …..” blah blah blah, Gentry repeated over and over, but thanks to Sarver’s Tuesday statement we know this was about so much more.
In the aftermath of the victory, the Suns ended up getting the best of both worlds. They got to make their statement yet they also got the victory this fan base so deeply craved.
“We talked about it yesterday as a team the whole situation and we just agreed we’d say what we had to say and once today came we were just focused on the game,” Grant Hill said. “I was totally unaware of what was going on. Certainly I knew there were some activities downtown, but I’ve got to guard Ginobili, I’ve got to have my mind right, so it is what it is and we did a good job of not letting all that become a distraction by focusing in on the mighty San Antonio Spurs.”
In my Tuesday article on this topic, I applauded the Suns for getting out in front of this issue and preventing the nation from turning against Phoenix after the D-backs saw visiting fans host anti-Arizona rallies when they visited last week.
However, I forgot that the polls show that more people support this measure than oppose it, something I certainly learned from my robust comments section of that story.
It must be heart-wrenching for staunch supporters of this bill to watch a team they love so dearly defeat a team they hate so much while wearing jerseys that symbolize opposition to a bill they so strongly support. This Game 2 win was honestly one of the greatest nights of the Nash Era, but some of these fans might not be able to enjoy it for political reasons. Not only do the Suns risk alienating these fans, but you’ve got to feel bad for fans wanting to boycott a team they care about so much.
As for actual boycotting, it was a late-arriving crowd, but after tip off it really filled up and was as loud if not louder than Game 1.
Before the game I ran into Jason Dittburner, a season-ticket holder since 2004-05, who was peeved about Sarver’s statement and general manager Steve Kerr’s comments in which he said the bill “rings up images of Nazi Germany.” I’m not sure if my grandparents who grew up in Nazi Germany would agree with that, and those are pretty unorthodox political comments for a GM to be making in the heat of a playoff run.
Dittburner, who had only heard of the Suns’ stance secondhand, said he was going to have a big problem if what he heard was true.
“I had people calling me saying, ‘Hey, go down there, throw your season tickets on the counter and say refund my money,’” he said. “This is ridiculous.”
Although I didn’t get quite as many as Alvin Gentry, my inbox was filled with opposition to the Suns’ stance as well.
Dale Goodno wrote, “The Suns are making a big mistake by supporting illegals in our country. They may lose a lot of fans since most Americans support Arizona’s law.”
David Maier wrote, “Play ball, stay out of politics. If your players want to voice their opinions on their own time that is great. Don’t do it as an organization.”
Ben Fillmore wrote, “If the Suns wish to get involved in Arizona’s politics then they need to be in the next election and let the folks of AZ vote and see if they want the Suns to get the hell out or stay and play for AZ.”
And finally, Don Newburn wrote, “I have been a loyal Suns fan for some time now. But your stand against the governor’s new law makes me sick.”
On the other side of things, Al Sharpton was presented with a “Los Suns” jersey while voicing his support of a boycott of Arizona (which I couldn’t disagree with more; the whole state should not be punished for this bill, and that is not the best way to try to get what you want), and President Obama even mentioned “Los Suns” while speaking earlier in the day.
As I scanned US Airways Center for signs of protest, I found Tony Mendez wearing a “Los Suns” jersey he just bought. Mendez said he understands that this bill is pissing off a lot of people but that the Latin community is so large that the Suns are smart to support it.
“I thought that was cool that they did that,” Mendez said. “That’s showing that they’re trying to support their Latin community.”
As much as we all joke about Sarver’s penchant for being cheap, I really doubt that there was any economic motive for making the statement he did. He’s risking pissing off too many customers to be doing something like this if it wasn’t for a cause he truly believed in.
“I’m proud of our owner for taking a stand,” Steve Nash said.
It is interesting that seemingly the entire Suns organization opposes the bill when the rest of the state is so split. You’ve got to think it’s possible somebody in the locker room and certainly a lower-ranking official in the organization supports it, and they might not be any happier than the average Joe Suns fan who feels betrayed by their favorite team.
I generally don’t like politics with my sports, especially on one of the biggest nights of the year for the team that I’ve been covering since the preseason opener against Partizan.
But speaking up for what you believe in — especially when you know you will be alienating half your fan base by doing so — is never easy, so the Suns should be commended for voicing their opinions while staying focused enough to pull out their biggest win in three years.