- J.A. Adande, ESPN Senior Writer
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The "Los Suns" jerseys the Phoenix Suns wear annually for the NBA's "Noche Latina" program just went from marketing gimmick to political statement.
And a playoff series with a narrative already worthy of The History Channel just added a subplot that would make for a rowdy segment on Fox News Channel.
In announcing the Suns would wear their Spanish jerseys for Game 2 against the San Antonio Spurs -- which falls on the Mexican holiday known as Cinco de Mayo -- Suns owner Robert Sarver went out of his way to knock Arizona's controversial immigration enforcement law known as Senate Bill 1070.
Good for Sarver. The only time we're used to seeing pro sports team owners take a public stance on a political legislation is when there's a stadium funding bill on the ballot. But something has gotten into Sarver. In the Suns' 111-102 victory over the Spurs in Game 1 on Monday night he was on his feet, exhorting the crowd to make more noise. Now he's jumping into this divisive issue.
The bill was signed into law last month by Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer. It makes it a misdemeanor for immigrants to be in Arizona without proper documents and allows police officers to request proof of status if there is a "reasonable suspicion" that the person is in the country illegally.
We need to crack down on the illegal immigration problem, which is why many welcome the tougher legislation. It is the potential racial profiling and abuse of the reasonable-suspicion clause that make this law suspect. It's not too hard to guess who will be asked to provide their papers (Hint: They're more likely to look like Leandro Barbosa than like Steve Nash). If Americans are regularly stopped and asked to prove they're American, then America feels less like America.
In a news release from the team, Sarver said, "Our players and organization felt that wearing our 'Los Suns' jerseys on Cinco de Mayo was a way for our team and our organization to honor our Latino community and the diversity of our league, the State of Arizona, and our nation "
The next paragraph was when he teed off on the politicians.
"The frustration with the federal government's failure to deal with the issue of illegal immigration resulted in passage of a flawed state law. However intended, the result of passing this law is that our basic principles of equal rights and protection under the law are being called into question, and Arizona's already struggling economy will suffer even further setbacks at a time when the state can ill-afford them."
Businesses and unions have already announced they will boycott travel to Arizona. The University of Arizona says it has already received notices from out-of-state students that they won't be attending school there in the fall because of the law. There are calls for Major League Baseball to move the 2011 All-Star Game from Arizona, as the NFL once did with the Super Bowl after the state refused to honor the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday.
On Sunday, The Arizona Republic ran a rare front-page editorial that bashed both Democrats and Republicans, saying "Arizona politicians are pandering to public fear. The result is a state law that intimidates Latinos while doing nothing to curb illegal immigration."
The backlash against the law has already led to change. On Friday, Brewer approved modifications that would prohibit police from using race as a base for questioning people about their status. But there are also changes that could lead to increased questioning when violations of local municipal codes are investigated.
The best way to get attention is by waving or withholding dollar bills. Sarver doesn't have that option. The NBA can't use its All-Star Game as leverage because Phoenix just hosted the weekend event in 2009 and wouldn't be due to come up in the rotation again for a while.
Holding the Suns' home playoff games in another state would hurt Sarver and the team more than it would hurt any politician. (Such a dramatic venue switch wouldn't be unprecedented; the Lakers moved a home playoff game against the Trail Blazers to Las Vegas when Los Angeles was engulfed in the post-Rodney King verdict riots in 1992). Besides, if Amare Stoudemire is going to keep playing the way he did in Game 1 (23 points and a big 13 rebounds), the Suns are going to need every ticket and bucket of popcorn sold in their home arena to re-sign him.
Asking for a player sit-out to prove a point would be unfair. They've worked too hard to get here and could finally get the franchise past a Spurs team that has ended four of the past five Phoenix playoff runs. The Suns have been victimized by an untimely bloody nose on Nash, a suspension because Stoudemire walked 15 feet down the sideline and the shot of Tim Duncan's career. It would be cruel and unusual for them to go down this time because of a piece of legislation.
So it's best to go with this small gesture that speaks volumes. The "Los Suns" jerseys are part of a leaguewide effort to reach out to Latino fans every year. The Lakers, Spurs and Heat also wear Spanish-tweaked jerseys on the Noches Latinas. I always wondered why they didn't go all-Spanish (the Suns should be "Los Soles," for example), but it's a start. At least the league is recognizing a sizable and important part of its fan base. The Suns could have let the uniforms speak for themselves, but Sarver decided to put the message out there and remove all doubt.
It could make him more enemies than it wins him fans. One poll showed that 70 percent of respondents favored the bill. He could face backlash from sports fans who might have hoped the games could provide a nice break from the issue. When Jared Dudley asked his Twitter followers what it would mean to Phoenix if the Suns beat the Spurs, one hoped it could "unite the city in light of what is going on with the government immigration issues."
Instead, three letters added to the home team's jerseys will serve as a reminder that there's more than just a playoff series being contested in Arizona right now. Sometimes we all need to be aware of the bigger picture and not just get lost in the games. Thanks to Sarver, the rivalry that once gave us the Robert Horry-on-Nash hip check just provided us with a reality check.