Behind the scenes of the Suns' championship run
Prediction is a fool's game. And predicting sports is no different.
Sports Illustrated picked us, the Phoenix Suns, to win the NBA championship this year, which is great. Until you realize that they picked us having not seen any of the other teams play a regular-season game.
|Preseason Journal, Day 1
Preseason Journal, Day 2
Stuff like that also makes our job harder. We're among the hunted now, and we're not going to be sneaking up on anybody. The other teams feel disrespected because some magazine picked us to finish atop the heap. Damn sports mags. I don't read them, or the papers, or watch too much "SportsCenter." Forget that stuff. I need to stay focused. Hopefully, my teammates feel the same way.
Don't get me wrong. It's an honor that people think so highly of us. What's more, a prediction like that can help raise the bar for us. We know the expectations. And since that night in May when we came up just short of the Dallas Mavericks in the Western Conference finals, we've been doing all we can to meet them.
Of course, we've tried to enjoy ourselves in the process. What follows -- and what you'll read throughout this season -- is the fun behind what some consider to be our championship run.
Not that I read that stuff.
A Wild Offseason and The Start of Camp
The last six months have been crazy. I've enjoyed some amazing highs and suffered through some lows, too. I'm hearing that the '06 playoffs have been called my launching pad. I don't know about that. If it was, great, but I was merely out there trying to win a championship the only way I know how. And in the process, I enjoyed some career-defining moments.
A lot of people have suggested that the "The Kobe Incident" was my signature moment. But for me, it was my 3-pointer from the corner in overtime of Game 5 against the Clippers. Of course, as a team, we ultimately fell short and that hit me hard. So I did my best to keep busy and stay positive.
In the early part of the summer, my wife Cindy and I took a bunch of college friends and some family to the Cayman Islands basically to lay on the beach and hang out. And we hung out -- hard.
Then, in August, I paid a visit to the Bahamas on Brian Grant's boat. It was me, Steve Nash, Pat Burke, Mike Elliot (one of our trainers) and some good times, including Hawaiian Sling fishing, some back flips off the boat (which cost me a diamond earring) and other stuff that I'm, um, barred from relaying to you all.
Then, after a Nike basketball camp in Switzerland, it was finally time for training camp in Europe. Italy was awesome: Great food, great people, great culture. We saw the Coliseum, the Venice canals, and two soccer games: an AC Milan match and Italy vs. Ukraine.
I'm sort of obligated to be a soccer fan because Cindy was the soccer Player of the Year at our alma mater, Florida International. So I guess you can say I do it for love. I even learned how to play a bit of futbol this summer, but my game doesn't hold a candle to Steve's. He's our resident soccer player.
After Italy, we were off to Germany. Let's just say Deutchland wasn't the coolest. Coming from Italy, the food took a serious hit. I love my pasta, and Germany's might be the world's worst. And they love their meats and sausages. Me? Not so much.
For most meals, I had to steal bread from the kitchen and sneak it back to the room to make peanut butter sandwiches to dine on before some pretty awful German TV. The highlight: Watching "Pimp My Ride" in German.
Vegas, the Lakers, and How They've Helped Me
Before we had a chance to unpack, we were off to Vegas for a game against the Lakers. I won some money playing craps, which is always nice. What wasn't so nice: Boris, LB, Pat Burke, a couple others and myself were turned away from the club at Caesar's Palace. The culprit: My Chuck Taylor sneaks. Can you believe that? NBA players getting turned away by a bouncer? Vegas doesn't mess around with their attire rules. Whatever. It was a one-day trip, so I brought what I was wearing. And no, I'm not the guy who comes to the Vegas bacherlor party with jeans and sneaks and screws up everyone's plans. I take my bachelor parties very seriously.
And I'm fairly sure 99 percent of you want to know how it was like playing the Lakers after "The Kobe Incident." It was cool. Truth be known, I'm past the Kobe thing. And Kobe wasn't playing, so there's that. I didn't even know he was there until I passed him after the final whistle. (And, no, we didn't acknowledge each other. That's not our style.)
But I admit, the one thing that the Lakers series did, and the Clippers series helped cement, is my profile as a player. To this point in my career, I haven't had enough of a "face" to gain the attention of companies who can help me make a difference within my own family, the children of Phoenix, and back home in Miami. But I'm now getting that opportunity.
Taco Bell is a sponsor for the Suns, and I guess "Bell and Bell" made sense to someone, because I'm now neck deep in The Bell. This weekend, I went in to meet-and-greet some Bell honchos and to talk about some charitable endeavors. They also gave me a card with my name and photo on it, which basically means I can dine at any Taco Bell whenever and with whoever I want, all courtesy of The Bell. Good stuff, that Bell.
Immediately after that meeting, I accepted an invite to a local Cadillac dealer. I don't know what the exact arrangement is, but I get a Cadillac Escalade for the entire season in exchange for, well, love. Could be a commercial, or an appearance, but I'm game for whatever. I mean, we're talking about a black-on-black Escalade here.
A Baby On The Way!
No single offseason development -- not my newfound marketing ability or even free tacos -- outshines what transpired on the homefront.
I'm pleased to announce that my wife is three months pregnant with our first child! I just saw the sonogram, which is basically an image of a two-inch long human with a head, arms, legs and what I think (and hope) is a nose! We'd been trying for about a year now, so I'm really too excited to express it in words.
But we're going to have to figure something out because the due date is May 13 -- in the heart of the playoffs. We'll probably have to induce on an off-day because I'm not about to miss the birth of my child and I'd rather not miss a playoff game.
The one thing I didn't see in the sonogram is a penis, but it's too early for that. We'll know in about four weeks. I don't really have a preference as to the sex. Part of me really wants a boy because I'd like to have a little boy at some of my games before I retire so he'll have those memories. But if it's a girl, I'm good. She'll be daddy's little girl. Really, all I hope for is a healthy baby.
The Preseason Turning Point and Another Minor Fracas
I thought our victory over the Kings in Phoenix last Thursday was a good step for us, a real turning point in our preseason. We showed some offensive cohesion, particularly in the second half, when we scored 43 points in the third quarter.
What happened? Well, first, I can tell you it had nothing to do with my minor fracas with Brad Miller near the start of the third. People seem to think the turning point in the Lakers playoff series last season was my moment with Kobe. I'm not sure about that, but in this case, I promise you my hard foul had nothing to do with our surge.
Here's what I think about the Brad Miller incident: I like Brad. He's a really good player, hard-nosed, and I respect that. I just felt that he was laying the wood to me on some screens. I felt I needed to run into a screen one time, just to let him know I wasn't going to take the hits. So I ran through him. And he took exception to that, saying some not nice things, and his teammates had to hold him back a little.
Did you notice that my teammates didn't get involved? That's because after all this time together, they know when I'm losing it. And that night, I hadn't completely "lost it." I just don't like it when big men tee off on me with hard screens. I wasn't angry and out of my game. It was just a simple message.
That said, look, when I see Brad again, I'm going to tell him that I regret what I did. It was a poor move on my part. I'll tell him that it's preseason, which doesn't mean a lot, and I got caught up in the competitive moment.
My wife thinks that happens a bit too much. When she's right, she's right. And she's right a lot.
One other thing I drew from that incident is the new mind-set of the refs this season, and how my reputation as a "hard-nosed defender" (whatever that means) precedes me. Basically, Joey Crawford didn't like what he saw, so he teed me up and said next time he'll throw me out. Of course, I told him that wouldn't be a problem.
I think the refs are getting to know me now, so something I've worked on is not arguing with the refs and not trying to show them up. Hopefully, that will help and they'll let me do what I do without severe punishment.
So why did we click to the tune of 43 third-quarter points? We've had a preseason of stagnant offense. And at halftime, we realized that we only have three preseason games left. So at some point, we needed to pick that up. That's exactly what happened.
We came out of halftime with a lot of energy. We were crisp offensively, and that's mainly because we were cleaning up on the defensive glass. When we rebound, that provides a big boost to our transition game. So we were clicking offensively, and if we can add just a little bit of defense, we'll be tough to beat.
Another solid development has been Amare's progress.
A lot has been made of this supposed sit-down between Amare and Coach (D'Antoni) a few weeks ago. "Shape up or sit out" is how a local headline summarized the conversation (OK, I read papers sometimes). I can honestly tell you I know nothing about that.
Amare and I are cool, but we're not exactly the tightest on the team. He wasn't around us a lot last season, so I'm still getting to know him. I'm looking forward to getting to know him better.
Here's what I do know: I like Amare. He's a good guy and he's working hard to get into shape and to be a good teammate. I also know that everybody on our team has a responsibility to give 100 percent. If you're not doing that, then you're letting down everyone who plays with you and for you.
I think Amare is just feeling his way around right now. He's getting used to being back in the huddle and in the flow. Remember, he missed a whole year. That's a long time, and enough to make you feel disengaged from the team. So I give him the benefit of the doubt. He's working hard to find his way with us.
We all understand that Amare at 100 percent can get us over the hump. He's that great a player.
But if he's not starting right away, or if one of us needs to give up a spot in the starting lineup, we need to understand that it's for the betterment of our team. I'd like to think that Amare is a pro and can handle a sixth man role -- for however long he's told to.
Calvin (Los Angeles, CA): I'm not a naturally gifted defender so I try to make up for it by drawing offensive fouls. I've learned that last season you managed to draw the most offensive fouls in the league. What's the secret to your flopping success?
Raja: Love the backhanded compliment, Calvin.
Yup, I've been called a flopper. But I consider a flop to be when you create something out of thin air -- when there's no contact and you lay down anyway. My take: If someone pushes me and I fall down, that's not a flop. There's no way to gauge a person's strength level. You're not allowed to push me, and I don't have to stand there and take a beating.
To answer your question, it's about anticipating someone's move, getting your body in the right place, and being willing to sacrifice your body. Taking a charge isn't easy. Your elbows get banged up, you get bursitis and all that. But if that's your role on the team, you need to relish it.
Sam (Torrance): Do you feel you are one of the toughest guards and defenders in the NBA? What is your biggest challenge coming into this season?
Raja:As far as being one of the better defensive players in the league, that's not for me to say. If people deem me worthy of that type of praise, then great.
But my biggest personal challenge this year is improving my all-around game, specifically my ball-handling, my ability to drive to the hoop, shooting off the dribble, and my playmaking ability as a passer.
Brandon (Dallas): I'd have to say I'm one of the biggest Suns fans here in Dallas. Mavs fans laugh at me all the time when I tell them if you hadn't torn your calf in Game 1, the Suns would have beaten the Mavs and then the Heat. Do you agree?
Raja: I do agree that we'd have beaten the Mavs. My calf didn't allow me to give any more than 50 percent of my capabilities. But I'm not prepared to say we would have beaten the Heat. Our lack of healthy bodies, in general, would have made that a tough hurdle.
As for my calf, it feels great. I had a couple of setbacks earlier in the summer because some scar tissue had built up. They worked it out with messages and stretching, basically breaking stuff up (I'll spare you the gory details). The result was a light basketball load this summer.
So right now it's all about rehabbing and getting it right. Thankfully, no problems so far.
Neil (Phoenix): How did you become the tenacious player you are today?
Raja: It was survival. Coming out of high school, I wasn't recruited. I played at two small schools, and coming into the league, I earned only one workout (with the Atlanta Hawks). So I became this way out of necessity.
My first team out of college was the USBL's Tampa Bay Windjammers. My game day duty as a rookie was to fill up a garbage bag full of filthy jockstraps and socks, then sit in a laundry mat and wash them.
So how did I become a tenacious player? Dirty jockstraps. Try it. You'll see.
Ryan "The Kobe Hater" Hart: Raja, you are the ultimate teammate and character guy, but here's a tough question? With the signing of Boris [Diaw} and the "Brazilian Blur" [Leandro Barbosa] the Suns look to be way over the cap next year, and with [Suns owner Robert] Sarver looking more like someone just trying to make a dollar, who is the odd man out next year: Shawn or Amare?
Raja: That's a tough question that I'm going to have to dodge, which is exactly the reason why I'm not the first ever GM/player. You want the answer to that, read the Mags.
Somebody has to.
Phoenix Suns guard Raja Bell will be keeping a journal throughout the NBA season for ESPN.com.