How the Suns became the NBA sleeping giant they were always destined to be

How the Suns became the NBA sleeping giant they were always destined to be

Near the end of the American Civil War, following early settlements by Native Americans, Mormon missionaries, and Mexican immigrants, a prospector named Jack Swilling traveled south from communities in Arizona’s Vulture Mountains to the Salt River Valley and what would eventually be called Phoenix.

In the city, history tells us he saw rich soil, few stones, and a temperate climate. What it needed was water. Swilling moved to the Valley and formed a company around the canal and farming system that would make the new city livable. A colleague would veto Swilling’s idea to name the city after a Confederate war general and instead went more ethereal with the newly discovered wonderland’s moniker.

It would be called Phoenix. “A new city will spring phoenix-like upon the ruins of a former civilization,” the man said.


Phoenix’s population would quadruple during the 1950s as military, production and agriculture bloomed in the city and produced new jobs while technological advancements allowed inhabitants to survive the brutal summers more safely. A new airport made it easier to travel to Phoenix, and midwestern mangates including the McCormick and Wrigley families built massive estates on the outskirts of town for the winter months. Thus, the paradox of Phoenix was born: abundant yet treacherous, populated yet distinctive. There for the taking.

Not long after, a hard-working young Chicago Bulls assistant made like many of his citymates and came from the Windy City to the Valley of the Sun, where he was hired to be the first general manager of the newly formed Phoenix Suns, the city’s first pro sports team. His name was Jerry Colangelo, and he would go on to buy the Suns in 1987 at a discount, following drug troubles for Suns players.

Colangelo led the team to great success as president and general manager into the 1990s, capped off by the team’s trade for Charles Barkley in 1992. Barkley would be named league MVP in his first season in Phoenix, leading the team to the NBA Finals. Though the Suns lost the series to Colangelo’s old pals in Chicago, fans greeted Barkley and his teammates in downtown Phoenix with a crowd of 300,000 in 114-degree heat to celebrate the season.

By 2004, Colangelo and the Suns had hired a young, progressive basketball thinker named Mike D’Antoni from Italy to be head coach, and signed a long-haired Canadian named Steve Nash back to the Valley after originally drafting him in 1996. As the signing materialized, Colangelo was already selling the Suns to a group headlined by a San Diego banker named Robert Sarver.

San Antonio Spurs v Phoenix Suns

For years in Phoenix, the name Sarver was synonymous with the word “cheap.” From 2005-2010, effectively the entirety of Nash’s prime, Sarver got rid of the rights to everyone from Luol Deng to Rajon Rondo to Serge Ibaka in the name of saving money. He let a young Joe Johnson leave when the two sides were less than $1 million per year apart on a new contract, and later salary-dumped Shaquille O’Neal to Cleveland to save less than $5 million. Sarver was more than just a walking HR violation — he was unwilling to spend.

By 2004, Phoenix had again doubled in population since Colangelo came to town. And still, Sarver refused to put money into the young metropolis’ favorite team. A team that lies uniquely close to Los Angeles and Las Vegas, a franchise baked into the heart of the celebrity southwest, with comfy tax codes and buildable land as far as the eye can see.

Sarver was openly cynical about owning the beloved franchise. Longtime Suns wing Raja Bell once told a story about Sarver going to dinner with Bell and then-general manager Steve Kerr to discuss a new contract. Sarver told Bell there would be no new deal, and asked if Bell wanted to know why. After Bell said yes, Sarver told him “because I don’t have to.” After Goran Dragic was traded to Miami in 2015, he gave an interview in Slovenia in which he described Sarver openly celebrating Dragic’s All-Star snub the previous year because it meant he wouldn’t have to pay Dragic a $1 million bonus.

But since Michigan mortgage tycoon Mat Ishbia purchased the franchise at an NBA-record valuation of $4 billion in February, the Suns have been the most aggressive franchise in the league collecting superstar talent, “exploding through” the punitive second luxury tax apron approved by players and owners in the new Collective Bargaining Agreement. They acquired Kevin Durant the week of Ishbia’s approval for one of the biggest hauls in league history, then added a third $40 million-plus player in Bradley Beal before the draft. Amid this flurry of transactions, Phoenix may have begun to realize its destiny as the glamor market NBA insiders long believed it could be.

With Durant, Beal and cornerstone combo guard Devin Booker in tow, the Suns are on the hook for $560 million over the next four seasons. That’s more than Sarver bought the entire franchise for in 2004. They are more all-in than perhaps any team in the NBA.

League insiders saw this coming. After the Suns went 8-0 in the NBA’s Orlando Bubble in 2020, ESPN’s Brian Windhorst called the organization a “sleeping giant,” explaining that during Colangelo’s tenure, “people loved being in Phoenix and there are so many advantages” in the city. The only thing standing in the way, he said, was “shaky” ownership that had “squandered” those advantages. Months later, future Hall of Famer Chris Paul requested a trade to Phoenix to play with the young up-and-comers and, most notably, be near his old life in L.A.

When Ishbia arrived ready to un-squander what made Phoenix a sleeping giant, he made no mistake about the opportunity he saw. “This is the dream, the dream city, the dream opportunity, the dream organization,” he told reporters at his introductory press conference. “And so in my head, I couldn’t believe it became available.”

While the Suns suffered another embarrassing home knockout in the second round of the playoffs in Ishbia’s first postseason as team governor, they will be nothing if not more talented with a full season of Durant and the addition of Beal. Under the new NBA CBA, though, the cost of the team’s superstars means Phoenix was limited to just the veteran’s minimum for any incoming free agent signings. Their hands were tied when it comes to adding depth around their dazzling core.

In spite of that, promising additions including Eric Gordon, Yuta Watanabe and Drew Eubanks flocked to Phoenix during the early hours of free agency to bolster the team’s depth. The Suns gave out unsubsidized two-year deals to veteran free agents in order to beat out offers from other glamor markets like Golden State.

Ishbia will be hoping the city continues to solve that problem, too. Recently, Phoenix radio host John Gambadoro reported “there’s a concern from other teams that everybody is going to want to go to Phoenix before anywhere else, because of playing time. A chance to win and playing time.” Of course, it’s more than that.

Denver Nuggets v Phoenix Suns - Game Four

Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

Around the time Sarver said goodnight to the Nash-D’Antoni era and the Suns slipped into a decade of losing, Phoenix became one of the pictures of excess during the Great Recession, with negative growth in the housing market for four straight years. Construction ground to a halt, and the space between suburbs never fully filled in. Share prices for Sarver’s Western Alliance Bancorporation plummeted from $39.10 to below $3.

Today, the Valley is already beginning to restrict water use and new builds due to drought. The heat is more brutal than ever. But downtown is developing around the Suns’ arena, with luxurious rentals and commercial space. In recent years, people have flocked to Phoenix from California and Texas in search of something newer and cheaper.

The Valley is estimated to add another 1 million residents before severe limitations on resource usage are enforced.


The Suns fell into ruin as Phoenix’s future grew brighter. Now, like Swilling and his partners before him, Ishbia sees something new, springing phoenix-like upon those ruins.

“(Ishbia) wants to make the Suns and Mercury the premier franchises across all of sports,” new chief executive officer Josh Bartelstein recently said in an article claiming Ishbia’s desire to turn Phoenix into “America’s Greatest Basketball City.”

In just four months, Ishbia has not only upgraded the roster but hired a new coaching staff, promised a new G League team, begun a legal battle to expand the TV broadcast audience, and promised to invest more into the team’s arena. There were no stones in Phoenix during those early days, but most would say Ishbia isn’t leaving a single one unturned now.

In search for a new outside prospector, the Suns found Ishbia, the latest to look to Phoenix for extraction and opportunity.

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