Sunday, November 9, 2014

How to Be a New York Basketball Fan In Phoenix -- 2014-15 Edition

Once again, with real life intruding, I didn't get to this post as soon as I should have -- especially if you want to go there, but don't want to fly. I apologize, but it couldn't be avoided.

Arizona is currently known for political figures so crazy, they make former favorite son Barry Goldwater look like a bleeding-heart liberal: Governor Jan Brewer and Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio. Hopefully, if you go there to see the Nets play the Phoenix Suns on Wednesday night, or the Knicks play the Suns later in the season, you won't run into them. And, at least, you'll be visiting what might be America's hottest State during a relatively cool month.

DISCLAIMER: I have been to Arizona only once, and that was back in 1991. So all of this information is secondhand at best, but much of it does come from the team's website.

Before You Go. AZcentral.com, the website for Phoenix's largest newspaper, the Arizona Republic, is predicting the low 80s for Wednesday afternoon, and the high 50s for Wednesday night. So pack a short-sleeve shirt: The warmth will be refreshing, but not excessive.


Arizona is in the Mountain Time Zone at this time of year, meaning they're 2 hours behind us. Adjust your timepieces accordingly.

Phoenix is 180 miles from the Mexican border. That's at least a 3-hour drive. So it's not really worth it to make that sidetrip. But if you do want to, bring your passport. Also, I've been told that, in order to legally drive in Mexico, you need Mexican driver's insurance. I don't know if this is true, but it should be looked up if you're even considering it.

Tickets. The Suns averaged 15,871 fans per home game last season, about 86 percent of capacity. Getting tickets should not be a problem. And, compared to most teams, the Suns sell them at a bargain.

In the lower level, seats are $64 to $259 between the baskets and $38 to $204 behind them. In the upper level, they're $24 to $56 between the baskets and a mere $11 to $41 behind them.


Getting There. It’s 2,458 miles from Times Square to downtown Phoenix. In other words, if you’re going, you’re flying. (NOTE: Yeah, sorry about that. I should have gotten this done in time for you to get there other than by flying. I'll try to do better the next time.)

You think I’m kidding? Even if you get someone to go with you, and you take turns, one drives while the other one sleeps, and you pack 2 days’ worth of food, and you use the side of the Interstate as a toilet, and you don’t get pulled over for speeding, you’ll still need nearly 2 full days to get there. One way.

But, if you really, really want to... You’ll need to get on the New Jersey Turnpike. Take it to Exit 14, to Interstate 78. Follow I-78 west all the way through New Jersey, to Phillipsburg, and across the Delaware River into Easton, Pennsylvania. Continue west on I-78 until reaching Harrisburg. There, you will merge onto I-81. Take Exit 52 to U.S. Route 11, which will soon take you onto I-76. This is the Pennsylvania Turnpike, the nation’s first superhighway, opening in 1940.

The Turnpike will eventually be a joint run between I-76 and Interstate 70. Once that happens, you’ll stay on I-70, all the way past Pittsburgh, across the little northern panhandle of West Virginia, and then across Ohio, Indiana and Illinois, into Missouri.

At St. Louis, take Exit 40C onto Interstate 44 West, which will take you southwest across Missouri into Oklahoma.  Upon reaching Oklahoma City, take Interstate 40 West, through the rest of the State, across the Texas Panhandle and New Mexico, into Arizona.  At Flagstaff, take Interstate 17 South, which will take you into Phoenix.  Take Interstate 10 East to Exit 145, which will lead you to North 2nd Street. The U.S. Airways Center is at 2nd and East Jefferson St.

If you do it right, you should spend about an hour and 15 minutes in New Jersey, 5 hours and 30 minutes in Pennsylvania, 15 minutes in West Virginia, 3 hours and 45 minutes in Ohio, 2 hours and 45 minutes in Indiana, another 2 hours and 45 minutes in Illinois, 5 hours in Missouri, 6 hours in Oklahoma, 3 hours in Texas, 6 hours and 15 minutes in New Mexico, and 5 hours and 15 minutes in Arizona. That’s about 41 hours and 45 minutes. Counting rest stops, you're probably talking about 55 hours.

That’s still faster than Greyhound, averaging around 68 hours, including a 1:45 bus-change in Richmond, a 1:15 stopover in Charlotte, an hour's bus-change in Atlanta, an hour's stopover in Birmingham, a 45-minute stopover in Jackson, Mississippi, an hour's stopover in Shreveport, a 1:30 bus-change in Dallas (that's right, changing buses 3 times each way), and a 1:15 stopover in El Paso.

It's $454 round-trip, and to get to Phoenix by gametime Wednesday night, you'll have to leave before midnight tonight. The station is at 2115 East Buckeye Road, adjacent to Sky Harbor International Airport. Number 13 bus to downtown. The way Amtrak has it set up now, it's so convoluted that I can't even recommend looking it up.

Flights, usually changing in Chicago or Dallas, are actually among the cheapest to any big-league city, and, if ordered ahead of time, can be had for about $920.

Once In the City. Jack Swilling, a Confederate veteran who founded the city in 1867, accepted the suggestion of a fellow settler, an Englishman named Lord Duppa: Since it was on the site of a previous Indian civilization, it should be named Phoenix, for the mythical bird that rose from its own ashes.

Home to just 100,000 people in 1950, Phoenix saw huge growth in the 2nd half of the 20th Century: 440,000 by 1960, 580,000 by 1970, 800,000 by 1980, and it surpassed the 1 million mark in the early 1990s. All this made it an expansion target: The NBA's expansion Suns arrived in 1968, the NFL's St. Louis Cardinals in 1988 (after the Philadelphia Eagles had to quash a moving-there rumor earlier in the decade), and the NHL's first Winnipeg Jets in 1997 (after the WHA had the Phoenix Roadrunners in the 1970s). Today, Phoenix is home to 1.5 million people, with 4.4 million in its metropolitan area.

The sales tax in Arizona is 5.6 percent, but it's 8.3 percent within the City of Phoenix. Central Avenue is the source street for east-west house numbers; oddly, the north-south streets are numbered Streets to the east, and numbered Avenues to the west. Washington Street divides addresses into north and south.


A single ride on Phoenixbuses and Valley Metro Rail is $2.00, with an All-Day Pass a bargain at $4.00. With the ballpark being downtown and thus probably near your hotel, you probably won't need the light-rail system to get there. If you do take Metro Rail, it's Washington at 3rd Street station going westbound, and Jefferson at 3rd Street station going eastbound.

Going In. The official address of the U.S. Airways Center, formerly known as the AmericaWest Arena, is 201 East Jefferson Street. Most nearby parking lots charge only $10.

Just as U.S. Airways bought out AmericaWest, and changed the original name of this 1992 arena 2006, American Airlines has bought out U.S. Airways, including the naming rights to the arena, and has said the arena's name will change. But the Miami Heat play in the American Airlines Arena, and the Dallas Mavericks play in the American Airlines Center. There's not going to be a 3rd NBA arena with the airline's name on it. So the next name remains -- pardon the pun -- up in the air.

You're most likely to enter the arena on the north side of the building, on Jefferson Street. The purple seats, matching the Suns' away uniforms and the lettering on their white home uniforms, has led to the nickname "The Purple Palace." The court is laid out north-to-south.

The WNBA's Phoenix Mercury and the Arena Football League's Arizona Rattlers also play at the U.S. Airways Center. From 1996 until 2003, the NHL's Phoenix Coyotes played there. Now known as the Arizona Coyotes, they have their own arena in nearby Glendale.


Food. As a Southwestern city, you might expect Phoenix to have a Mexican/Spanish/Southwest food theme. Which is the case, but not the entirety of the case. As the arena's website states:

"US Airways Center offers more than just general concessions on every floor. Noshing has been perfected to an art, as fans enjoy not only traditional fare, but also unique USAC specialties, including Ancho-chile grilled chicken quesadillas and the exquisite Pizza Margherita from ZZ To Go’s wood burning pizza oven."

Team History Displays. As the oldest team in Arizona, the Suns do have some history, but not a lot. They hang banners for their 1976 and 1993 Conference Championships, and for their 1981, 1993, 1995, 2005, 2006 and 2007 Division Championships. That's as many finals appearances as the Cardinals, and twice as many as the Diamondbacks and the Coyotes combined. And it's more Division titles than the other 3 teams combined. But, unlike the Diamondbacks, they have not yet gone all the way in their sport.

Despite being around for less than half a century, the Suns have retired 9 uniform numbers:

* From their early days: 42, forward Connie Hawkins.

* From their 1976 Conference Champions: 5, guard Dick Van Arsdale (but not the 4 of his twin brother Tom Van Arsdale); 33, center Alvan Adams; and 44, guard Paul Westphal. (With Adams' permission, Grant Hill wore 33 with the Suns for 4 years.)

* From the period between their Conference Titles: 6, guard Walter Davis.

* From their 1993 Conference Champions: 7, guard Kevin Johnson; 9, forward Dan Majerle; 24, forward Tom Chambers; and 34, forward Charles Barkley. Westphal coached this team.

Kevin Johnson is now the Mayor of his hometown of Sacramento, and has been trying like mad to keep the Kings, the city's only major league team, from moving. It looks like a new arena will open in time for the 2016-17 season, so, while K.J. couldn't bring a title to a team in one city, he may have saved a team in the city that means the most to him. Unfortunately, the Basketball Hall of Fame only counts actions in a particular category, so, while he has been elected as Mayor twice, his saving of Sacramento's team can't be combined with his playing achievements to get him elected to the Hoophall.

Unique in the NBA (as far as I know, while this distinction is far more common in the NFL), the team has the Phoenix Suns Ring of Honor. In addition to the preceding, it includes former owner and general manager Jerry Colangelo, former head coaches Lowell "Cotton" Fitzsimmons and  John MacLeod, and former trainer Joe Proski.

In 2000, Suns fans chose an All-Century Team. The First Team: Guards Johnson and Jason Kidd, forwards Barkley and Chambers, center Adams, coach Westphal. The Second Team: Guards Westphal and Majerle, forwards Hawkins and Davis, center Mark West, coach Fitzsimmons.

In 2008, Suns fans chose the 40th Anniversary Suns Team: Guards Van Arsdale, Johnson, Davis, Westphal and Steve Nash (whose Number 13 will presumably be retired when he retires as a player); forwards Hawkins, Chambers, Barkley and Shawn Marion; and centers Adams and Amar'e Stoudemire. Whether their All-Century Team and/or their 40th Anniversary Team is on display anywhere in the arena, I don't know.

Also hanging from the rafters of the U.S. Airways Center are banners for the Phoenix Mercury's 2007, 2009 and newly-crowned 2014 WNBA Championships; their 1998, 2007, 2009 and 20014 Western Conference Championships; and Number 7, retired for one of their early players, Michele Timms. In her native Australia's Women's National Basketball League, she was the 1st woman to dunk in a pro league. She was also the 1st Australian women to play pro ball abroad. She didn't win a title with the Mercs, but won 5 back home, and is now an assistant coach for one of her former teams in the WNBL.

Stuff. According to the arena's website, "Event merchandise can be purchased during the event at the various merchandise stands located throughout the US Airways Center. On nonevent days, Suns, Rattlers & Mercury and other merchandise can be purchased at our Teamshop located on the north side of US Airways Center. The store hours are: 10 am – 5 pm on non-event/game days and 10 am – 2 pm on event/game days."

The Suns have usually been, at the least, a good team; but, aside from their Charles Barkley period, they haven't been especially interesting. So it's not surprising that there aren't a lot of books about them. Steve Silverman wrote The Story of the Phoenix Suns as part of the NBA's History of Hoops series. A new version is coming out in January, written by Nate Frisch. Howard A. DeWitt wrote The Phoenix Suns: The View from Section 101, from a fan's perspective.

I couldn't find any team videos about the Suns, except for a VHS celebrating their 25th Anniversary on Amazon.com. If you have a collection, it may be worth your while to wait until their 50th Anniversary in 2018. And, since they've never won a title, there's no NBA Finals DVD package for them.

During the Game. Wearing Knick or Net gear in Phoenix will not endanger your safety. The Suns' biggest rivals are the Los Angeles Lakers, the Utah Jazz, the Denver Nuggets, and the San Antonio Spurs -- and the great distances between them means that none of them is especially heated, although there's been some tough Suns-Spurs Playoff series. For the most part, Arizona fans are okay, not known for making trouble for fans of teams playing MLB's Diamondbacks, the NFL's Cardinals or the NHL's Coyotes, either. In fact, their biggest rivalry is intrastate: The University of Arizona vs. Arizona State University. It's a heated rivalry... but it's a dry heat.

Of note (to me, if not to anyone else outside Arizona) is that, with the Coyotes having changed their geographic identifier, the Suns are the only remaining team in the big 4 sports that names itself after the City of Phoenix, rather than the State of Arizona -- unless you count the WNBA's Mercury, and Phoenix doesn't have a Major League Soccer team.

In 1980, an employee of Eastern Onion Telegram service, Henry Rojas, was sent to the old Coliseum to deliver a message during a Suns game -- wearing a gorilla costume. Rather than stopping him, arena security suggested he stick around after his delivery, and entertain the fans during game stoppages. He kept coming, and proved so popular that the team invited him to become their official mascot, officially named Go the Gorilla. Between the 3rd and 4th quarters, he usually uses a trampoline to perform a wild dunk. The team website says he graduated from Hairy Truman High School in Monkey West, Florida (which is funny because President Harry Truman actually had a vacation home in Key West) and Fur-Man University. Go is now played by a 4th different performer.

However, the character is an acquired taste, and the origin story is necessary to explain why a gorilla would be associated with Phoenix, or the Sun. (But it's no sillier than San Diego being associated with a chicken, or the New Jersey version of the Nets with a dragon.) And New Yorkers might not like this: A few years ago, when New York still had the image of being an irredeemable cesspool of crime and trash, the Gorilla came out to the tune of Frank Sinatra's version of "Theme From New York, New York," with garbage stuck to him, and was set upon by guys dressed as muggers.

After the Game. Phoenix does have crime issues, but you should be safe as long as you stay downtown. It's incredibly unlikely that Suns fans will try to provoke you. As I said, the lack of nearby rivalries, and the fact that the Knicks or the Nets wouldn't be such a rival anyway, helps.

The arena's website recommends some nearby restaurants. Majerle's Sports Grill, owned by the former Suns star, is at 24 N. 2nd Street. With a name like The Arrogant Butcher, the place at 2 E. Jefferson Street has got to have something going for it. And the one and only Alice Cooper, originally from Detroit and a huge Tigers and Red Wings fan, but living in Arizona for more than half his life now and a part-owner of the Diamondbacks (and a golf fanatic), has opened a restaurant named Cooperstown at 101 E. Jackson Street.

As for anything New York-friendly, the closest I can come at this time is a place called Tim Finnegan's, the local Jets fan hangout, but that's 11 miles north of downtown, at 9201 North 29th Avenue. It appears that the local football Giants fan club meets at Loco Patron, at 1327 E. Chandler Blvd., but that's 21 miles south. I've read that LagerFields Sports Grill, at 12601 N. Paradise Village Pkwy. W., 14 miles northeast, is a Yankee Fan hangout.


Sidelights. Until September 1988, Phoenix had just the 1 major league sports team, and was better known as a college sports city due to Arizona State's proximity. But these locations may be worth checking out:



* Chase Field. Previously known as Bank One Ballpark for a bank that Chase bought out, the home of the Diamondbacks since their 1998 premiere is 2 blocks east of U.S. Airways Arena, at 4th & Jefferson. Met fans may want to check it out; Yankee Fans, remembering November 4, 2001, may want to have a drink before casting eyes upon it.

* Arizona Veterans Memorial Coliseum. The Grand Canyon State's 1st home to big-league sports, opening in 1965, was home to the Suns from their 1968 arrival until 1992, and to the World Hockey Association's Phoenix Roadrunners from 1974 to 1977.

Elvis Presley sang at the Coliseum on September 9, 1970, and again on April 22, 1973. Early in his career, on June 9, 1956, he sang at a grandstand at the adjoining Arizona State Fairgrounds. (While individual ex-Beatles have performed in Arizona, the band as a whole did not do so on any of their 3 North American tours.)

The Coliseum still stands, and is part of the State Fairgrounds. 1826 W. McDowell Road. Northwest of downtown. Number 15 bus to 15th & McDowell, then 3 blocks west.

* Phoenix Municipal Stadium. This 8,755-seat ballpark was home to the Phoenix Giants/Firebirds from its opening in 1964 until 1991, and is the current spring training home of the Oakland Athletics, the Diamondbacks' Rookie League team, and Arizona's State high school baseball championship. The Giants won a Pacific Coast League Pennant there in 1977, although they never won one under the Firebirds name. Arizona State will make "Phoenix Muni" its home field in the 2015 season.


5999 E. Van Buren Street. East of downtown, take the Light Rail to Priest Drive/Washington station, then a short walk up Priest.

* Scottsdale Stadium. This stadium was home to the Firebirds in their last years, 1992 to 1997. Its seating capacity of 12,000 was meant to showcase the Phoenix area as a potential major league market. It's the San Francisco Giants' spring training site, and replaced a previous stadium on the site that dated to 1956, used as a spring training home for the Giants, A's, Red Sox, Orioles and Cubs -- sometimes all at the same time. The Phoenix Giants won a Pennant there in 1959.

Because it was the Cubs' spring training home, thus leading to Phoenix becoming "Chicago's Miami," where retirees from the city tend to go (paging Michael Wilbon of the Washington Post & ESPN's Pardon the Interruption & NBA coverage), it was where former Cub catcher Randy Hundley hosted the very first baseball fantasy camp. Those of you who are Met fans, you might remember Randy's furious reaction to Tommie Agee scoring on a controversial umpiring call at home plate at Shea in September 1969. You might also remember Randy's son, former Met catcher Todd Hundley.

7408 E. Osborn Road, at Drinkwater Boulevard. Northeast of downtown. Light Rail to Veterans Way/College station, then transfer to Number 72 bus to Osborn, then walk 2 blocks east.


* Glendale Sports & Entertainment District. The University of Phoenix Stadium, home to the Arizona Cardinals since 2006, is in Glendale, and New York sports fans know it as the place where the Giants derailed the New England Patriots' bid for the NFL's first 19-0 season, winning Super Bowl XLII.

The Cardinals defeated the Philadelphia Eagles there in January 2009 to advance to Super Bowl XLIII. The stadium is also home to the Fiesta Bowl. (There is an actual University of Phoenix, on the ground, not just on the Internet. But that's not here, and they don't have sports teams.) It's hosted 3 matches of the U.S. soccer team.

The neighboring Gila River Arena, formerly the Glendale Arena and the Jobing.com Arena, has been home to the Coyotes since 2003. In 2012, for the first time since the Jets/Coyotes franchise entered the NHL in 1979, they reached the League's last 4 (now the Western Conference Finals). Nevertheless, the team is still having financial troubles, which could yet lead to it being moved.

The official address of the stadium is 1 Cardinals Drive, and that of the arena is 9400 W. Maryland Avenue. Number 8 bus from downtown to 7th & Glendale Avenues, then transfer to Number 70 bus, to Glendale and 95th Avenue, then walk down 95th.

* Arizona State University. The University of Arizona is 114 miles away in Tucson, but ASU is just a 24-minute Light Rail ride from downtown. The station is at 5th Street & Veterans Way, and is 2 blocks away from Sun Devil Stadium and the Wells Fargo Arena (formerly the ASU Activity Center), home to their football and basketball teams, respectively.


Sun Devil Stadium was built in 1958, and ASU still plays there rather than move to the larger, more modern (but well off-campus) University of Phoenix Stadium. The Cardinals played there from 1988 to 2005, and the Fiesta Bowl was held there from 1971 to 2006.

The Dallas Cowboys treated it as a second home field when they played the Cardinals, as there always seemed to be more Cowboy fans there, because the Cowboys had extended their "territory" into the Southwest -- something that Bill Bidwill didn't consider when he moved the Cardinals there from St. Louis. The Cowboys won Super Bowl XXX there, when the world learned A) it was possible for the Pittsburgh Steelers to lose a Super Bowl, and B) Terry Bradshaw was smart compared to Neil O'Donnell. It also hosted 2 U.S. soccer team matches in the 1990s.


Packard Stadium, opened in 1974, was the longtime home of the ASU baseball program, one of the most successful college baseball teams, east of the stadium and arena, at Rural Road and Rio Salado Parkway. It's been closed, and will be demolished, because the University decided that the necessary upgrades, including some mandated by law, would be too expensive, and that's why they're moving to Phoenix Muni.



The Sun Devils have won 5 National Championships, most recently in 1981. They won the Western Athletic Conference 11 times from 1964 to 1978, and the league now known as the Pacific-12 Conference 10 times, most recently in 2010, for a total of 21.

There have been 102 Arizona State players who have moved on to the major leagues, a record they share with Texas and USC. Their legends include Reggie Jackson, his 1970s Oakland A's teammates Sal Bando and Rick Monday, Atlanta Braves All-Star Bob Horner, Barry Bonds, and current stars Dustin Pedroia, Ian Kinsler and Andre Ethier. Notable ASU and Met alumni include Gary Gentry, Duffy Dyer, Lenny Randle, Craig Swan, Hubie Brooks, Paul Lo Duca and Ike Davis. As for the Yankees, aside from Reggie, the most notable name from Sun Devil baseball history is... Ken Phelps. So let's move on.


The US Airways Center, the Wells Fargo Arena, the University of Phoenix Stadium, and the University of Arizona's McKale Center have all hosted NCAA basketball tournament games, but, as yet, the State of Arizona has never hosted a Final Four -- although the University of Phoenix Stadium certainly could. UA has been in the Final Four in 1988, 1994, 1997 and 2001, winning it all in 1997; ASU has never gotten any closer than the Sweet 16, in 1995.

Phoenix is not, as yet, a big museum center. And while there have been Native Americans living in the area for thousands of years, and Spaniards/Mexicans for hundreds, its Anglo history is rather short.

No Arizonan has ever become President, although Senators Barry Goldwater and John McCain got nominated by the Republicans in 1964 and 2008 respectively, and Congressman Mo Udall finished 2nd in Democratic delegates in 1976, so there's no Presidential Library or Museum. And it doesn't help history buffs that the city only goes back to 1867, and Statehood was gained only in 1912, along with New Mexico, the 48th and 47th States, respectively -- still within the lifetimes of people alive today.


But the Arizona Science Center is at 4th & Washington, just a block from the ballpark. And Arizona State has a renowned Art Museum. Either of those might be worth a visit.

The tallest building in Phoenix, and in all of Arizona, is the Chase Tower, bounded by Central Avenue and Van Buren, 1st and Monroe Streets. That it's only 483 feet, and that no taller building has been built in the city since it opened in 1972, says something about this city, but I'm not sure what. But the city seems to be intent on growing outward, not upward.


Television shows set in Phoenix, or anywhere in Arizona, are few and far between. The High Chaparral, another Western created by Bonanza creator David Dortort, ran on NBC from 1967 to 1971, and is fondly remembered by some. But the best-remembered show is Alice, starring Linda Lavin as one of several waitresses at fictional Mel's Diner, running on CBS from 1976 to 1985.


Although the show was taped in Hollywood (Burbank, actually), that once-famous "14-ounce coffee cup" sign is still used outside a real working diner in Phoenix. It was Lester's, until the owner agreed to change the name to "Mel's Diner" for the publicity. Today, it's Pat's Family Diner, at 1747 NW Grand Avenue, 2 miles northwest of downtown. Number 15 bus to 15th Avenue & Pierce Street, and then walk one block east to Grand, Pierce, and 12th. There are also still-in-business diners in Ohio and Florida that use the same sign design. "Pickup!" "Mel, kiss my grits!"


*

If you go to Phoenix to see the Knicks or the Nets play the Suns, or one of the hockey teams play the Coyotes, you'll probably be okay as far as safety and the infamous dry heat of Arizona are concerned. It's during baseball and early football season that you'll have problems with the weather. But you should still be able to have a good time in Phoenix.

Just make sure you show your ID if a cop asks for it. You know how they can get if you appear to be nonwhite.

I'm only half-joking. Don't take any chances.

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