Devoted sports town or prime title game destination? Super Bowl week, Durant trade provide evidence both can be true, Phoenix sports fans say

Gorilla mascot in orange shirt walks around a room.
Gorilla, the Phoenix Suns mascot, crashes NFL Media Row on Friday. The Suns stole headlines away from the Super Bowl buildup with their trade for forward Kevin Durant. (John Riker/MEDILL)

By John Riker
Medill Reports

PHOENIX — A couple of blocks from the masses swarming the NFL’s central hub downtown, the Footprint Center, home of the NBA’s Phoenix Suns, remained relatively quiet during the first half of Super Bowl week. That all changed for employees at the Suns team store when the most significant sports news to come out of the week — Phoenix’s trade deadline acquisition of 13-time All Star forward Kevin Durant — broke late Wednesday night.

In response to the news, the employees pulled from the team store’s inventory of custom uniforms and rushed to print Durant’s name and his  No. 35 on the team’s purple Icon Edition look, all while hiding jerseys of former Sun Mikal Bridges. Within a couple of hours of the Suns’ blockbuster addition, replicas of Durant’s new uniform — retailing for a pricey $149.99 — hung on one of the racks featured at the store’s entrance on East Jefferson Street.

“As soon as we found out that Durant was active on our roster, we could make some with our blanks,” employee Tim Marshall said. “We were able to get one style out the past two days since the trade, but that’s all we’ve got right at the moment.”

Sports have been front and center in the greater Phoenix area this week. Among Sunday’s Super Bowl LVII in Glendale, the NFL’s extensive week of festivities in downtown Phoenix, the golf world descending on Scottsdale for the weekend’s WM Phoenix Open and preparation for spring training later this month, the city is proving this month to be a prime location for big-time sporting events. 

But Phoenix’s Big Four teams have rarely fielded champions of their own, with just one championship across a combined 141 seasons from the Suns, Diamondbacks, Coyotes and Cardinals. With the championship buzz and Durant’s surprise arrival in “The Valley,” Phoenix fans believe their city’s reputation as a sports town will be able to match its status as a winter getaway and go-to destination for major events.

“They lift each other up,” Wyatt Duncan, a Surprise, Arizona, native, said of the city’s slate of home games and championship events. “All of the (events) attract more attention to each other.”

Phoenix locals claim the Suns as the team they follow most closely, and their 2021 NBA Finals appearance re-energized the city’s sports scene. Even with the Suns on a five-game road trip, the team has made its presence felt at Super Bowl events. The Gorilla, the Suns’ distinctive mascot, made the rounds at Media Row on Friday and used hand gestures to react to the Durant trade in TV interviews, and Steve Nash and Devin Booker Suns uniforms were popular choices for those attending NFL Experience.

Albert Gonzalez, who also hails from Phoenix and is a devoted supporter of the city’s teams, tested his speed in the NFL Experience’s 40-yard dash while wearing a Booker 1990s-style Suns uniform. Gonzalez was planning on watching the Super Bowl with friends rather than attending the game, but enjoyed his first trip to NFL Experience and most appreciated the emphasis on Super Bowl history.

Even with the buzz around the Super Bowl, Gonzalez said the Durant trade has been the highlight of his week. He already has plans to add a Durant uniform to his Suns collection and has raised his hopes Phoenix is nearing a title of its own.

“We’ve been through a lot,” Gonzalez said. “Getting a championship would make it up.”

The leadup to the Super Bowl has made Phoenix’s lack of titles all the more glaring. 

In contrast to the city’s 21-year run without a championship, the two cities with Super Bowl representatives, Philadelphia and Kansas City, have been regulars in championship games. In baseball, the Phillies and Royals have combined for three World Series appearances and one title in the past decade, and the Eagles and Chiefs each snapped lengthy Super Bowl droughts in the past five years. 

The Suns’ addition of Durant to a lineup already featuring guards Booker and Chris Paul and center DeAndre Ayton positions Phoenix as the favorite in the Western Conference, but even an acquisition as impactful as Durant doesn’t guarantee series wins come playoff time. Despite teaming with Kyrie Irving and James Harden in Brooklyn, Durant never advanced past the second round of the playoffs in his three seasons playing for the Nets.

Suns fan Austin Moyer grew up in Mesa and started following the team most closely in the past five years as Phoenix started to take off as a title contender behind Booker. Moyer likened Durant’s addition to the Suns’ title contention with Charles Barkley and Nash and said the move makes the Suns the NBA Finals favorites.

“KD gives us a real chance to win the title the next three to four years,” Moyer said. “We’re really the first super team since KD was on the Warriors, in my opinion. The sky’s the limit for us.” 

From NBA superstars to NFL officials and owners to visiting fans, Phoenix has established itself as a premier host city with its balmy weather and top-notch facilities. Now, Phoenix sports enthusiasts like Gonzalez are hoping their franchises can parlay the appeal that has lured title games and superstar talents to their city into championship parades.

“It’s a hot spot, man,” Gonzalez said. “Everyone wants to be here.”

John Riker is a sports media graduate student at Medill. You can follow him on Twitter.