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Around the Suns

An inside look at Phoenix's run-and-gun attack and talented but mercurial forward Shawn Marion

Posted: Friday November 17, 2006 10:48AM; Updated: Friday November 17, 2006 4:44PM
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Around the Suns
Courtesy of Touchstone

By Jack McCallum, SI.com

SI senior writer Jack McCallum spent last season behind the scenes with the Phoenix Suns. The following is an excerpt from his book :07 Seconds or Less. We pick it up during the first round of the Western Conference playoffs against the Lakers with the series tied 1-1.

Reprinted by permission of Touchstone, an Imprint of Simon & Schuster, Inc., NY.

"Around here, 'it's Steve this and Amare' that. What people forget is that I had to adjust my game to different people."
--Suns forward Shawn Marion

The friend Suns assistant coach Phil Weber has brought along to the morning coaches meeting in head coach Mike D'Antoni's suite in the Loews Santa Monica hotel looks familiar. Weber introduces him as "Jim."

It doesn't dawn on me who he is until Mike asks him what film projects he's been working on. "I was gonna say, 'You look like the guy,'" I tell him, "except you are the guy." It's Jim Caviezel, the actor who played, most famously, Jesus in Mel Gibson's controversial The Passion of the Christ. He and Weber met years ago when Weber was working out players at UCLA and Caviezel was an avid pickup player.

"He gets that a lot," says Weber.

"I feel confident now," says assistant coach Alvin Gentry. "Phil Jackson doesn't have Jesus sitting in his meeting."

"Phil's probably got some Eastern guy in a white robe," says assistant Marc Iavaroni. "Advantage, Suns."

The mood changes quickly. The Lakers' 99-93 win in Game 2 two nights earlier in Phoenix had put a dark cast on the series, the presence of the Son of God notwithstanding. Nash had played well with 29 points, but, with the exception of Raja Bell, who had 23, everyone else pretty much disappeared, Shawn Marion most conspicuously. Marion had 13 points (only two in the first half), while the man he was most responsible for checking, Lamar Odom, had an active game, making nine of his 12 shots.

A graver concern is that Marion has gone into the tank, or at least stuck one foot into it, partly because news has leaked out that Steve Nash has won his second straight Most Valuable Player award. Marion legitimately likes Nash, and, at some level, recognizes his greatness. Marion never openly challenges Nash's primacy within the team and seems to have accepted his own role as a kind of vice president. When he is critical of the ways the Suns are playing, he generally leaves Nash out of it. "I could be under the basket by myself and don't nobody pass or want to push the ball," Marion complained to Paul Coro of the Arizona Republic late in December. "Steve's the only one pushing it. He can't do it by himself."

Still, Marion sees himself as every bit as valuable to the Suns as Nash, and, further, his people around him, in particular his agent, Dan Fegan, see him the same way. During the regular season, Fegan had lobbied with D'Antoni to include Marion in any MVP conversations with the press. Over the next couple of weeks, D'Antoni did exactly that. Yet voters, taking note of his limited ball-handling skills and inability to get off his own shot, don't see him that way at all -- only one of 127 MVP voters had Marion in their top five.

His delicate psyche is never far from the coaching staff's collective mind. On the one hand, Marion is outwardly confident, cocky even, buying into that wonderful nickname, Matrix, given to him by TNT commentator Kenny Smith early in Marion's rookie year. The special-effects-driven movie was hot then, and "Matrix" was perfect for a player with an uncanny ability to suddenly materialize in the middle of a play (Marion seems to come from nowhere when he makes a steal, grabs a rebound or makes a quick cut to the basket) and leap from a standing start as if he's on a trampoline. Sometimes Marion refers to himself as the Matrix, as if he has bought into the idea that he is a super-hero who defies normal physical laws. His teammates call him "Trix."

On the other hand, Marion lives in a perpetual state of fear that he is being overlooked, underrespected, ignored, dissed, persecuted, singled out, patronized, whatever. He grew testy with Dan Bickley of the Arizona Republic when the columnist asked him about past playoff failures. (Specifically, his 7.8 points-per-game average when San Antonio's Bruce Bowen locked him up in last year's Western Conference finals.) Back in January, Marion told reporters that, in regards to the Olympic team, "Jerry hadn't asked me." At that time, stories were beginning to filter out about which players Colangelo was inviting to the summer tryouts in Las Vegas. Marion was clearly upset; Colangelo was clearly stupefied and came over to resolve it at a practice session.

"Do you remember we talked about the Olympic team last May?" said Colangelo. "During the Dallas series?"

"I remember that," says Marion, "but, you know, I read about the formal interviews and stuff going on and we haven't done that."

"All right, Shawn, look at me," says Colangelo. "Are you in?"

"Yep," says Marion, breaking into a smile.

"Good." And they shake hands.

The Colangelos have always been strong supporters of Marion -- it was Bryan who squelched any franchise talk of trading Marion (managing partner Robert Sarver wanted to at least entertain the notion when he took over), and it was Bryan who gave him a contract that pays him $13.8 million this season and about $48.6 million through 2009. That is substantially more than Nash, who on his free-agent deal is getting $9.6 million this season and about $34.2 million through 2009. But Marion's view is that no matter how hard he tries, no matter how completely he fills up a box score with points, rebounds, steals, blocked shots, and assists (well, not assists), he cannot gain traction in an organization and a press corps bent on canonizing Nash and anointing Stoudemire as the next superstar.


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