The morning practice passes quickly, and families and friends of the Phoenix coaches and players start arriving for tonight's scrimmage. Managing partner Robert Sarver, whose ownership group bought the Suns last year for $401 million, has proclaimed this Family Day and invited the public to spend the afternoon with the team. McKale has been transformed into a street fair with basketball clinics, raffles and photographers, along with appearances by the team's dancers and longtime mascot, The Gorilla. Mike D'Antoni tells the players, "You know you have to hang around a little while. Smile, say hello, sign some autographs and get out of there nicely."
It falls on the upbeat Weber to conduct the clinics for the kids. (The coaches call him Drill Phil.) As I leave the gym, I spot the D'Antoni brothers standing together, watching their children-Mike's 12-year-old son, Michael Jr., and Dan's eight-year-old daughter, Morgan-dribble upcourt together under the tutelage of Weber. I'm not even sure the dads appreciate what a fine scene this is.
Five hours later I walk back into the gym for the scrimmage. There are already a couple of thousand people in the stands. The pep band is warming up. Reporters are lounging on press row. I walk back to the locker room. The guard is unsure whether I'm legit, but the team shirt gains me access without question. Old school rap is playing loud. I wander back out and think, Man, this would be a great way to make a living.
The White team coaches-Iavaroni, Dan and I-huddle on the bench. We seem to be taking it more seriously than our counterparts in orange, probably because two of us are rookies and Iavaroni is, well, Iavaroni. He wants Dan to chart the offensive plays and me to chart the early offense (how many times we shoot within seven seconds) and deflections (steals, blocks or just getting a hand on the ball). "Uh-oh," says Quinter when he sees me, "Marc has you doing deflections? You know, he's going to go back over the tape and see if you screwed anything up." He's kidding. I think.
As the lineups are announced, I hear "... and coaches Marc Iavaroni, Dan D'Antoni and, from Sports Illustrated, Jack McCallum." I look over at a smiling Quinter. Tell you the truth, it felt good.
Iavaroni gathers the team around and shouts instructions: "O.K., we're blacking on the side. We'll gold when there's not an overload. And on offense we want to start with a drag." Incredibly, I know what this means. He wants to force everything baseline when the ball is on one side of the floor (black), wants everyone to front his man (gold) unless double-teaming help is warranted and wants the first offensive set to be a pick-and-roll (drag).
"The last time I was sitting on a bench," I say to Dan before tip-off, "I was coaching the Bethlehem Hurricanes in the Lehigh Valley Knee-Hi Basketball League."
He claps me on the knee. "In a way," he says, "this is no different."
On our first possession Thomas hits a jumper off a pick-and-roll, just like we drew it up. (All right, just like Iavaroni drew it up.) The game is a blur after that. Hands move fast and deflections are hard to calculate. I get so involved watching the symmetry of fast breaks that I almost forget to note a quick shot. My colleagues are immersed in the game; they have gone into a third gear of competitiveness.
"No way we should only be up two," Iavaroni says angrily in the second quarter. "We take [ Nash] out and everything goes to s-." He sounds like it's June and the conference finals.