Come to Arizona, they say. There’s been a disaster. Not of the environmental variety, like in California, nor of the ideological sort, like in Oregon. Much, much worse. It’s an athletic disaster, forging its path of destruction at a terrifying rate.
Why would I come to Arizona when I can just as easily cover athletic disasters from the mid-air comfort of my hammock? There’s backstabbing, inter-generational struggle, and carnage, they say. Well, maybe no carnage yet, but there will soon be enough carnage to make generals blush. Seeing I have not been swayed, they dig deeper. It’s pretty warm in Arizona, they say. I glance at my space heater’s “ERROR” reading, note the strangeness of the space heater-hammock combination in my bedroom, and leap down to catch the next flight.
Ah, the flight. My life is now divided into two distinct periods: pre- and post-Phoenix. The flight was the final four hours in which my mind was oblivious to the grotesqueries that would later wrap their tendrils around my hippocampus. Never again will I know the joy of a window seat, the elation of an iced cran-apple, the ecstasy of a Paul Blart: Mall Cop 2 in-flight presentation. Now the only emotion my brain is capable of producing is borne of that dreadful malaise which hangs in the rafters of Talking Stick Resort Arena, home of the Phoenix Suns.
Things may seem rosy at University of Phoenix Stadium, but just 18 miles southeast lies a hellscape the likes of which east-coast dwellers could not possibly envision. You enter the concourse, and a hideous Balkan tour guide named Zoran greets you. His eyes are the same sunken black as the empty seats that surround the court, but first, we drink in all the broken-down amenities: rusty popcorn poppers, crimson pools of ketchup on the floor (at least, that’s what they claimed) and torn strips of jersey that may once have helped to spell out “BARKLEY” or “KIDD” in their former lives.
The building and its inhabitants are haunted by long-dead spirits named O’Neal, as well as youthful, bloodthirsty demons called Markieff. This franchise once heralded for its record-breaking pace of play now thuds its legs around like tree trunks, head (branches?) hung. The team has recently suffered consecutive losses to the Los Angeles Lakers and Philadelphia 76ers, two professional basketball outfits dealing with hauntings of their own. Those teams carry winning percentages that read like Martin O’Malley’s poll numbers, but they have not yet reached the Suns’ subterranean nadir. The Lakers, in all their turmoil, can still count themselves among history’s most vaunted occupants of the hardwood, and the 76ers still have a Process in which to place their ill-begotten trust. The Suns, meanwhile, have nothing but a coach put out to pasture, an owner-father in a paternal stalemate with his insolent player-children, and a leaky roof that is said to cry the tears of Steve Nash’s disconsolate fans.
“Where is the other basket?” I ask when I’m led out onto the floor, and a red-haired man in a suit emerges. Play-Doh cakes his fingernails, and I swear I can hear him humming the “Blue’s Clues” theme song faintly, begrudgingly, as if it has become as automatic as breathing, or receiving disappointing draft lottery results. He introduces himself as Sarver, and when I shake his hand, his pinkie finger breaks clean off, as if it’s trying to hitch a ride with someone who can grant it a more fulfilling pinkie life. Not a drop of blood pours out.
“We decided we only need one basket,” he says. “A basket for the opponent. On any given night, there is only one professional basketball team on the premises. There is another group of individuals who may look the part, but they are a daycare class, unprepared for adult life even though their bodies long ago reached physical maturity.” He then proceeds to fill me in on an insidious species known as the millennial, a species that has invaded the Phoenix roster despite Sarver’s and Nash’s best attempts to ward it away. They cannot handle setbacks, he says. Their unreasonable demands never stop: chocolate-chip cookies after every made free throw, smartphones to provide diversion during those seemingly interminable periods known as “defensive possessions,” and even functioning toilets in the locker rooms.
With the zeal of dehydrated camels, Zoran and Sarver lead me down a hallway toward a small office, completely dark save for a bright blue glow in one corner. There is a mass of tangled wires pouring down from the ceiling where a light fixture once hung. The clicking and gnawing sounds at my feet alert me to the rodent infestation. And, quieter even than the rats, a soft weeping rises out of the same corner that emits the room’s only light.
“Does he just sit there and watch that all day?” I ask.
“It’s all he can do,” Sarver says. “If he tries to talk to the players, they just plug their ears with their fingers. And then they miss shots. Oh, do they love to miss shots. The further the ball ends up from the hoop, the better. They figure I’ll blame it on him, and run him out of town. But they’re not smart. They don’t realize that no coach could possibly tell his players to shoot three-pointers into the scorer’s table.”
Coach Jeff Hornacek, who fails introduce himself due to the possibly permanent loss of his verbal faculties, does not look up from the screen. The television plays footage of a Mailman from an era past, and of a man whose penchant to assist seems to defy everything the millennial stands for. The coach himself once played on that team, capably filling his role as a world-class shooter. It is hard to comprehend that the man on the screen and the man in the chair are one and the same. He does not even flinch when a rat crawls up on his face and begins to dine on his few remaining wisps of hair.
I have described horrors that even the most twisted mind cannot properly understand, but I am afraid I have not yet reached the end of this woeful tale. I had resolved to conduct a thorough investigation of this wasteland and the circumstances that created it, but after two hours, I can no longer stand to be there. I cannot tolerate the smell (the facility burns basketball sneakers to generate its own power), nor the protestations of the ushers, silver-haired retirees who were promised “a fun part-time job” but whose bones now creak with the weight of the atrocities they witness during each home game. But as I make my escape from the scene (dodging the pleas of a marketing intern who wanted to show me “great new sleeved-jersey designs”), I see the worst sight of all. A large, black mass of fur and muscle, slumped in a cage, occasionally making half-hearted efforts to pry at the bars.
“Gorilla, what are you doing here?” I ask, even though I know I am not the least bit fluent in his language of grunts. This is an iconic figure who has left many speechless with his aerial feats, who has softened the hearts of even the most anti-mascot personalities by putting the “fury” in “furry.”
“We had to sell him,” droned an approaching maintenance worker. “The banana expenses just got too high. He’s going to the Phoenix Zoo to star in a new show that encourages visitors to get their yearly flu shot.”
Upon hearing the words “flu shot,” I feel a tear flow from my eye. And I must confess, dear reader, that the tears have not stopped since that moment. There are moments when I wish I could simply amble back down into the cave of ignorance, but one cannot repress the memories of a day spent with the Phoenix Suns. My doctor has prescribed trips to Oakland, San Antonio, and Cleveland to help ease the trauma, but my reservoir of hope has nearly run dry.
On the eve of this account’s publication, I received word that the Phoenix Suns snapped a nine-game losing streak in a win against the Charlotte Hornets. The idea that Charlotte’s once-adored franchise is in even greater distress than the Phoenix Suns is too awful to bear, but I must investigate once more. It’s not as if I could lay eyes upon anything more revolting than the ten-year-old chicken finger from Stoudamire’s Downtown that still sits in a display case in the halls of Talking Stick. And, hey, it’s probably pretty warm in Charlotte, too.
Dustin Petzold is the editor-in-chief of Crooked Scoreboard. You should follow CSB on Twitter, and dissuade its writers from traveling to dystopian wastelands ever again.