PHOENIX — Let’s start with Jerry Colangelo because that’s always the best move in these situations. In his career, Colangelo has run both the Phoenix Suns and USA Basketball. He has seen it all.
Since Kevin Durant first requested a trade from the Brooklyn Nets in late June, reportedly listing the Suns as a preferred destination, the conversation has hijacked the Arizona summer. First, hope. Then, doubt. Now everything seems to be stucktires spinning, engine back-firing, in a maddening state of … maybe?
Colangelo first met Durant in the winter of 2006. Durant’s Texas squad was in downtown Phoenix to face Gonzaga in a key nonconference contest. Durant, a freshman on his way to winning nearly every major individual award in college basketball, went for 29 points and nine rebounds, but Gonzaga defeated the Longhorns 87-77.
Four months later, Colangelo, then the managing director for the men’s national team, ran into Durant in a hotel lobby during the Final Four in Atlanta. He told the Texas forward that he wanted to invite him to USA Basketball’s training camp. Colangelo was struck by Durant’s excitement. He noticed how Durant looked him in the eye, something others his age had not.
“He just overflowed with enthusiasm,” Colangelo recalled earlier this summer.
Durant didn’t make the Olympic team in 2008, but he blossomed into an NBA star, among the purest scorers the league has seen, and a USA Basketball mainstay. He helped produce gold medals in 2012, 2016 and 2021, the most prolific scorer in USA Basketball Olympics history. From his position, Colangelo saw a changed person but the same basketball talent.
“He’s not the same effervescent, glowing kid he was when I met him as a college freshman, but no one is,” Colangelo told The Athletic. “Everyone changes. I will say this: I have great respect for him. What he’s done with his talents and contribution … he’s a hooper, for sure. He loves the game. But he’s not a real outspoken guy, so when you talk about levels of making splashes, he does his splashing on the court. That’s who he is.”
Last season the Suns posted the NBA’s best record but fizzled in the playoffs, losing to the Dallas Mavericks in the Western Conference semifinals. In July, they matched a max offer sheet from the Indiana Pacers to keep center Deandre Ayton in place alongside guards Devin Booker and Chris Paul. Since Ayton cannot be traded until Jan. 15 — and not for a full year without his consent — the Suns face difficult cap constraints in any trade for Durant.
But nothing in the NBA is impossible. Disgruntled stars have a history of getting their way. The 33-year-old Durant, under contract through the 2025-26 season, would not be the first to force his way out.
“Obviously, if there’s a way for him to get to Phoenix and play with Booker and Paul,” Colangelo said, not needing to finish the sentence. “Chris is near the end, I’m not saying he’s at the end. But if (Durant) can get a couple years with those two guys, they could be great years for the Suns. I’d love to see that.”
Actually, Colangelo has seen it.
Thirty years ago this summer, the Suns made the biggest trade in state history, acquiring Charles Barkley from the philadelphia 76ers in exchange for leading scorers Jeff Hornacek, Tim Perry and Andrew Lang.
There are similarities here. Like last season’s Phoenix squad, the 1992 Suns were considered a rising team. They had finished 53-29 the previous season, losing to Portland in the Western Conference semifinals. They had a new coach in Paul Westphal, a new home in America West Arena and a growing demand for season tickets. They just needed one more piece.
The 29-year-old Barkley, a future Hall of Famer, provided it and more.
From the time he stepped off USAir Flight 353 from Philadelphia, wearing jeans, a short-sleeved shirt and Nike hat, he elevated an entire franchise and state. As Barkley walked through Sky Harbor International Airport, fans seated in restaurants reportedly yelled out to him.
“Go to it, Charles!”
“NBA fields next year!”
“Move over Chicago” — a reference to Michael Jordan and the world champion Bulls — “here comes Phoenix!”
Barkley joined point guard Kevin Johnson, scrappy Dan Majerle and veterans Tom Chambers and Danny Ainge. The group needed three weeks to jell. On Nov. 28, the Suns lost in overtime at Golden State to fall to 7-4. They didn’t lose again for 36 days, running off 14 wins in a row. Local enthusiasm exploded. Everything Barkley did became news.
“One day, Charles said something (newsworthy) and we weren’t there,” retired television sports reporter Bruce Cooper said. “Our news director says, ‘Why didn’t we have this?’ Well, we weren’t out at practice that day. He calls the entire sports team in after the 6 pm show and rails on us. He told us we would never, ever miss another practice. ‘If the Suns are having a car wash, you’re there.’ That was because with Charles Barkley, you never knew what he was going to say.”
Phoenix finished with the NBA’s best record, two games better than Patrick Ewing’s New York Knicks and five better than Jordan’s Bulls. In the playoffs, the Suns defeated the Lakers, Spurs and Sonics, advancing to the NBA Finals to face Chicago. They rallied from an 0-2 series hole but lost in six. A week later, the city featured the Suns in a downtown parade, an unusual step for a losing team. An estimated 300,000 people attended. In 100-degree heat.
“There were a lot of positive things that happened because of (Barkley’s) presence in Phoenix,” Colangelo said. “We just didn’t finish it.”
No doubt, Durant and Barkley are different spirits. Durant wouldn’t have his own weekly television show as Barkley did, but his basketball skills would lift the franchise all the same. His arrival would ignite the Valley of the Sun, producing the same vibe as the Barkley trade 30 years earlier. A vibe this city hasn’t experienced much.
Championship gold bust.
The radio segment last Thursday on Arizona Sports 98.7 FM announced that it was time for “KEVIN DURANT WATCH,” and for the next 10 minutes, hosts Dave Burns and John Gambadoro discussed the latest reports.
How Durant had, as The Athletic reported, told Brooklyn owner Joe Tsai that he didn’t have faith in the team’s direction and that it was either him or the pairing of general manager Sean Marks and coach Steve Nash. How Philadelphia and a meeting with James Harden could be in play. How Brooklyn initially had asked Boston for Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum.
No local topic in the past few years has topped Larry Fitzgerald on radio airwaves. For a stretch, it was nearly impossible to go a day without discussion on the former Cardinals receiver’s future. Would he retire? Would he return? It was an offseason tradition. (Fitzgerald last played in 2020.)
Durant, however, has made up astonishing ground in just a couple of months. On Thursday, Burns and Gambadoro moved on to the Cardinals and the challenge of keeping star players fresh. But even that didn’t last. After returning from a commercial break, Gambadoro said, “take it for what’s worth,” but he had just heard that Durant was scheduled to arrive in the Valley that night. Not for official business, of course. That would be against NBA rules. But perhaps the 12-time All-Star was coming to play pickup or just hang out.
Alas, no photos surfaced over the weekend. A drive to popular gyms revealed nothing. Calls to basketball sources went nowhere. Someone tweeted Durant had canceled. Another posted the former MVP was in Los Angeles. Regardless, speculation again had been sparked. Hope was revived. A cruel summer in the desert continued.
(Top pic: Brad Penner/USA Today)