Arizona Basketball Fans Thrill to Their Place in the Sun

(reprinted from the Chicago Tribune, June 9, 1993)

By George de Lama
Chicago Tribune

PHOENIX – Millie Reilly and her daughter Diane Friedermann nursed their beers in the smoky old bar, across from the Bulls and Cubs and Sox posters, the street signs and old jerseys, the glass-encased pictures of Sayers, Butkus, and Ditka.

Like everyone else at the Chicago Sports Bar in suburban Scottsdale, they were talking about the pandemonium that will erupt here Wednesday night.

“This place will be packed for the game, it will be unbelievable in here,” said bartender Joy Kasicki, 34, a native of the Chicago suburb of Rolling Meadows. “Half of the people will be rooting for the Suns and half will be rooting for the Bulls. It’s exciting to be here. This is history.”

Words like “history” are being tossed around often on the eve of the NBA Finals in Phoenix, an authentic part of the Old West but a city nonetheless sadly lacking in the long, antagonistic sports history that Chicago fans usually expect from their adversaries.

Not that anyone would ever confuse the two, with the cactus and tumbleweed and all, but this is not New York. Phoenix is a city still getting used to having to big league sports teams, much less having one of them play for a championship.

There is much excitement, or “Purple Passion,” as the locals call it, over the best-of-seven series against the Bulls that begins at America West Arena Wednesday night.

But after Chicago’s intense civic encounter with New York in the last two weeks, something is missing. There is little loathing or animosity toward Chicago, no historic rivalry between Gotham and the Second City, no Babe Ruth pointing toward the center field wall at Wrigley Field, no 1950s Yankees annually vanquishing the White Sox, no ’69 Mets, and definitely no dreaded Knicks.

On that last point, at least, everyone in Arizona seems to be happy. As if a city could pick its opponent, Phoenix fervently rooted for the Bulls to beat the Knicks in the Eastern Conference finals.

“It’s better they’re playing Chicago,” said Reilly, 65. “It will be better basketball this way. New York and the Suns would’ve been punching each other.”

Reilly and Friedermann, 42, pulled for the Bulls even though they are native New Yorkers. That’s par for the course in the Sun Belt, where nearly everyone comes from somewhere else, many of them straight from Chicago.

On Monday night, when the Bulls’ charter plane landed to live television news bulletin worthy of Air Force One, more than 200 diehard fans were at Sky Harbor Airport to greet them.

So many snowbirds from the Windy City and its environs have descended on the Valley of the Sun that you easily can spend days eating and drinking Chicago products in imitation Chicago settings.

The sliders and Vienna hot dogs are the real deal at the Chicago Hamburger Co. on Indian School Road, where owner Bob Pappanduros, 35, a native of Skokie, had to change the signs outside to read “Phoenix Suns Hamburger Co.,” for the next two weeks only.

“I grew up there for 23 years, but I’ve been here 12 years and I’m a Phoenician now,” Pappanduros said.

So he has bet his brothers Rick and John, back in Chicago, two Lou Malnati’s deep-dish pizzas for a case of sliders. And he bet his sister Pam some authentic Southwestern Indian jewelry versus a Southern Illinois University sweatshirt.

Phoenix Police Sgt. John Shamley, 35, finished his hot dog and waxed eloquent about the city’s ties to Chicago. The Cubs train each spring down the road in suburban Mesa, where a new replica of Wrigley Field shortly will be going up, and during the long, hot summer most Phoenicians are Cubs fans, courtesy of WGN on cable TV.

A few miles away, near downtown, owner Chang Huh and his wife, Hae Huh, hold court at Johnnie’s, another Chicago dog place where onetime Chicago area high school star Jeff Hornacek used to stop in for a taste of home when he played for the Suns a few years back before he was dealt to Philadelphia in the Charles Barkley trade.

Enjoying a Polish sausage with his wife, Katherine, and daughter Ashley, 9, was David Thirdkill, the former Bradley University star who played for the Suns, among other teams in a well-traveled NBA career, and now plays in France.

“Everywhere in the city you go, it’s just incredible, the excitement over the Suns,” said Thirdkill, 33. “I’ve lived here 12 years, and I’ve never seen people so excited.”

Suns mania centers on superstar Barkley, the civic hero of the moment. Barkley’s protestations that he does not date Madonna are page-one news, and the radio talk shows earnestly discuss his recent Nike ad exhorting parents to stop regarding him as a role model and start raising their own kids.

Tickets are always a rare commodity for Suns games and now they’re out of sight. Marty Fettman, owner of the Ticket Connection, a ticket broker agency, said he is getting as much as $1,200 for $60 seats in the first few rows and $2,500 each for $175 seats on the floor.

One fellow called and asked if he would be willing to trade. Trade what? Fettman asked. “The dog,” the man said. “People are willing to give away the family pet for a seat to these games. That’s what it has come to here,” Fettman said.

At the Team Shop at America West Arena, manager Stan Sack, 45, is surrounded by a mob of shoppers, swooping in to gobble up Suns posters, Suns pins, Suns shirts, Suns caps, anything with a purple haze and an orange sun on it. On Sunday night, the store was open until past midnight, he said, running up more that $100,000 in sales that day alone.

“A lot of us are thriving on this,” said Joe Mahon, 46, a native of Detroit. “For better or worse, the Suns are the only winner this town has.”

A couple of blocks away, the afternoon drink crowd packs Majerle’s, the hot new watering hole partly owned by Suns guard Dan Majerle. Forget about dinner, especially after the game.

Last Saturday, after the Suns beat the Seattle Supersonics to advance to the finals, more that 1,000 fans tried to get into the bar, which normally holds about 250, said manager Joe Wilson.

Police had to block off the street. It was so jammed that even Majerle and some of his Suns teammates couldn’t get in. They drove off rather than brave the crowd.

Back at the Chicago Sports Bar, a real shot-and-a-beer place where regulars know each other’s life stories and people take turns buying rounds, owners Dave and Barbara Puhl, native Chicagoans who moved to Arizona in 1978, have hung a doll of the famous Phoenix gorilla mascot by its neck behind the bar.

In what passes for the biggest controversy of the series, some of the regulars are ready to do the same with the Tribune’s Bernie Lincicome, whose column has been appearing in the Arizona Republic the last few days.

Lincicome has become Phoenix’s Most Wanted Man – a local television anchor actually called him that – after writing that the city is where America’s dirt is swept and, most offendingly, predicting the Bulls would would win in five games.

The insult was too much even for native Chicagoans such as bartender Kasicki and Peter “Chicago Pete” Pudans, 40, who moved from Chicago just last year to manage the local outlet for Chicago-based Aladdin’s Castle stores.

“That was a low blow against Phoenix and people are ticked off about it,” Pudans said.

No, it’s not New York, but Phoenix will have to do. Later, considering his situation, Pudans brightened noticeably. “It’s my dream,” he said. “I’m in Phoenix. I’m at the Chicago Sports Bar. The Bulls are playing the Suns for the championship. Bulls in five.”