If you’re old enough to remember the Phoenix Suns and Los Angeles Lakers battling throughout the 1980s into the early ’90s, then you remember the peak of one of the NBA’s greatest rivalries. With LeBron James now a Los Angeles Laker and the Phoenix Suns on the rise, the rivalry is back, baby!
Those are some of the most popular and memorable names of the Suns and Lakers’ teams that battled throughout the 1980’s and early ’90s, a hugely important and popular rivalry, resulted early on by mostly Lakers success, although finally overcome with Phoenix Suns ownership of their greatest rival of all-time.
Back then, because of Magic, Kareem, and Worthy, the Los Angeles Lakers were one of the two superpower teams in the league, coupled with the Boston Celtics. Every Finals of the 1980s included at least one of those two clubs, the two facing each other three times in 1984, ’85, and ’87.
The Suns were a franchise of ups and downs, beginning the decade with teams that many felt were championship worthy, although fading by the middle of the decade only to revive in 1988 near the tail end of the Lakers’ dominance over the Western Conference.
By the end of the ’80s the Suns had yet to topple the Lakers in the playoffs, eliminated by them four times in that decade alone, a 3-19 record in 22 games.
But then came the turn of the decade and the 1990s. The Lakers were getting older; the Phoenix Suns, more mature and battle-hardened; and the scrappy, purple-gang from Phoenix, finally realized their ability and that they were capable of defeating one of the few blue chip franchise’s in the league, pulling off what to even the players themselves was the upset of the decade.
The teams that comprised that rivalry were fire. As mentioned in the intro, they were fully stocked with star talent and memorable names. Each fighting heated individual battles, all part of the greater team game.
Like heavy-weight boxers, neither dipped or dodged, both pounded each other time and again, no one willing to give in until the horn made them separate themselves back into their corners exasperated and exhausted, only one team a winner, but each walking away feeling the effect of a bout gone a full 15 rounds.
This was the Western Conference rivalry that NBA fans looked forward to, the one that for a time Suns fans dreaded, but then finally saw the tide turn in their favor.
Now, with LeBron James and soon more, this rivalry is building itself back to where it once was, and in a way it hasn’t felt since the 1980’s and early 90’s.
Granted, the Phoenix Suns of today are young and inexperienced and by all accounts LeBron is going to pair himself up with at least one if not two veteran stars, each accustomed to winning, and each ready for playoff battle, tasting playoff glory.
As such, the Suns will be ill-fit, under-prepared, and at times, entirely overwhelmed.
But then again, so were the Suns teams of the late 1980’s who couldn’t overcome the Lakers’ mystique, hora, and cunning playoff sagaciousness.
In 1985, Los Angeles swept Phoenix in three games by an average of 136-116. In the 1989 Western Conference Finals, the Lakers pushed over the Suns again in four, albeit, in a much closer series overall.
The modern young Suns, led at the moment by Devin Booker, Josh Jackson, and Deandre Ayton, will need time to learn. They’ll need to experience stinging losses to the Lakers in arenas full of rabid fans, each with a both verbal and visual disdain for the fans of the other, to fully appreciate the rivalry. They’ll need to look up to the Lakers in the standings (and don’t forget the Warriors, of course) as a target for whom they will, strive, work, and build to reach.
And eventually, just like the Lakers of the early 1990s, just as the Phoenix Suns begin to hit their prime, LeBron James will age quickly as Magic and Kareem did before him, and whoever is brought in to pair up with “The King,” will be unable to hold off what the then mature and veteran savvy Suns will throw at them.
Yes, seeing LeBron James become a Los Angeles Laker is difficult to accept, especially knowing that one of the primary reasons he decided to sign with Phoenix’s greatest rival is because he expects other stars to follow.
But if nothing else, this revives a rivalry that for nearly a decade has been more talk of memories than action on the court, and as the young Suns grow and learn how to stand against their soon-to-be bulked up rival, the action will return, and then, Phoenix will once again rise from the ashes of Lakers defeat once again overcoming the nemesis they have long fought, bringing rivalry glory back to the state with which it belongs.