OPINION: Editor James Bennett's column: I've been dreaming of a Suns-Hawks clash in NBA Finals

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Jul. 2—I never thought we would be seeing the Atlanta Hawks and Phoenix Suns playing in the NBA Finals.

For me, it's like two worlds colliding, if it happens.

The Hawks were the first NBA team I ever covered on a regular basis, and the Suns were the last.

The Suns have won the Western Conference and await the winner of the Eastern Conference finals series between the Hawks and Milwaukee Bucks. The Bucks lead the Hawks 3-2 and will advance with a victory over the Hawks in Atlanta on Saturday night. A Hawks victory will force Game 7 on Monday night.

I started my career at a newspaper in Marietta, Ga., and became sports editor. I covered dozens of Hawks home games.

The coach at the time, Mike Fratello, got to know me so well, he called me "Jamie" instead of James. No one else had ever called me "Jamie," and I just let it go. On second thought, I guess I didn't make much of an impression on Fratello, though I sat next to him on press row for two seasons. The Hawks' bench was next to press row, and the diminutive Fratello continually blazed a trail in front of us, complaining to referees about calls or barking out instructions.

Before the 1984-1985 season, I predicted in a column that the unheralded Hawks, with Dominique Wilkins and "Doc" Rivers, would win 50 games and make the playoffs. Impressed with myself, I asked Fratello what would he think, if someone told you at the start of the season that you would finish 50-32 and make the playoffs?

"I would tell that person that he was a real (expletive)," shot back the "Czar of the Telestrator," as NBA play-by-play broadcaster Marv Albert later nicknamed Fratello when the coach became a color commentator for NBC.

The Suns started playing right down the street from our office when I worked in Phoenix. They had threatened to leave Arizona if the city did not build a new arena, which it did in 1992.

In their very first season in their new palace, the Suns and Charles Barkley made it to the NBA Finals, losing 4-2 to the Chicago Bulls and Michael Jordan. The fans were thrilled, anyway, desperate for a drink of sports glory in the parched desert. Nearly 300,000 turned out for a downtown parade in their honor a few days later.

From 2000-2005, I was sports editor in Tucson at a time when the newspaper covered the Suns regularly. The Suns made it to the Western Conference finals in 2005, losing to the eventual NBA champion San Antonio Spurs, featuring all-time great Tim Duncan. The state sizzled with excitement, only to fall short again. There would be no parade.

This year, Suns fans might be celebrating their first NBA championship. Chris Paul was the final piece to the puzzle for a team that had not been to the playoffs since 2010. Paul taught young stars Devin Booker and Deandre Ayton how to win.

My former sports editor in Phoenix was a Hall of Fame inductee named Joe Gilmartin. Whenever the Suns would open a playoff series, he would predict, "Suns in Six!" In memory of Gilmartin, I will say Suns in six, no matter which team they play.

With the NBA Finals looming, I looked back over a preseason column that I published in December. I had some hits and misses.

My five best and worst predictions:

Bests

1. "The Hawks should make the playoff this season with an improved roster and continued development of Trae Young." The Hawks overachieved. I was correct in writing that Trae Young is the best player the Hawks have had since Dominique Wilkins in the 1980s and the best guard since Pete Maravich and Lou Hudson in the 1970s.

2. "The Phoenix Suns have their own Big 3 in Chris Paul, Devin Booker and Deandre Ayton." I wrote that I would NOT want to face the Suns in the playoffs. They have been unstoppable so far. I predicted Paul would wind up finishing in the top five for MVP. He did.

3. "Nets can be the best in the East." I was spot-on in predicting the Brooklyn Nets' success. Most experts believe they would have won the NBA title ifKyrie Irving and James Harden had not been injured. Kevin Durant proved he's the best player in the NBA season.

4. "There's nothing better in Milwaukee than Giannis Antetokounmpo except the Bronze Fonz (a statue of Henry Winkler's character on "Happy Days") on the city's river walk." Giannis was injured in Game 4 of the Eastern finals with the Hawks. With him at full speed, I think the Bucks would have won the series 4-2. He's the best defensive player in the NBA. Unfortunately, he's the second-worst free-throw shooter (behind the Philadelphia 76ers' Ben Simmons).

5. "Keep an eye on the Denver Nuggets with ever-improving Nikola Jokic, Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr." Jokic was the NBA's MVP.

Worsts

1. "The Lakers have a stronger roster than three months ago." With injuries to LeBron James and Anthony Davis, the Los Angeles Lakers never caught fire. I thought the acquisitions of Mark Gasol, Montrez Harrell and Dennis Schroder would be upgrades for the defending champions. They weren't. LeBron, meanwhile, started to look his age (36). He was not willing to mix it up inside as much, preferring to pass or shoot from around the 3-point line. I was correct in writing, "No one defeats Father Time or messes with Mother Nature."

2. "I am just wondering how long it will take new New Orleans Pelicans coach Stan Van Gundy to throw Zion Williamson under the bus." Actually, it was Van Gundy who got fired after just one season. Williamson was not run out of town because of his inability to get along with his coach like Dwight Howard was when he played for Van Gundy in Orlando. The Van Gundys (Stan and ESPN color analyst Jeff Van Gundy) talk a good game. They don't coach nearly as well.

3. "If the Lakers and Clippers stumble in the West, look out for the Utah Jazz." Donovan Mitchell was a star. Mike Conley returned from injury. Rudy Gobert was dominant. This team was as good as Jazz teams from the Karl Malone-John Stockton era. But it flamed out in the playoffs despite being the No. 1 seed in the West.

4. "The Dallas Mavericks have an MVP candidate in Luka Doncic, who has risen in class with the ability to win games by himself." Donic took a step up in his development, but the Mavericks were a train wreck. Coach Rick Carlisle was fired. Donic could not get along with his designated sidekick, Kristaps Porzingis.

5. "The Memphis Grizzlies won't contend for the championship trophy, but in Ja Morant, they have the league's most exciting player, night in and night out." Morant was, indeed, worth the price of admission in Memphis. He led Memphis to the playoffs, which did put them in contention for the NBA title.

The Suns should be favored in the NBA Finals, which will start next week. The biggest problem they face between now and then? Inactivity. They wrapped up their Western Conference finals series with the Clippers on Wednesday night.

Hall of Famer Charles Barkley was the NBA MVP when the Suns reached the 1993 finals. His biggest regret was not being ready for Game 1 in the spotlight when they lost to the Bulls.

"I was so passive in Game 1," Barkey told a Phoenix radio station in 2020 and repeated the similar sentiments on TNT on Thursday night. "I regret that I was not aggressive and didn't have my team ready. It was my fault. It really was the only bad game we played. Every other game we played was a one- or two-point game. I blame myself."

Hopefully, the 2021 Suns were listening.

James Bennett is Executive Editor. Contact him at 256-235-3540 or jbennett@annistonstar.com.

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