NBA Finals run brings back memories of original Phoenix Suns ball boys

From the outside it looked like a lot of other tween parties. Steve Adams called it a “boy-girl party,” the two groups of college kids parted ways across the house that spring night of 1968 in Arizona.

Adams doesn’t know what the girls were talking about. It could have been a similar topic – there was big news in town – but the eighth graders were too shy to interfere.

And across the room, the boys were plotting.

“We had just heard the news and we were like, ‘Isn’t that amazing? We’re going to have our own team,” said Adams. “And then we started to say, ‘Wouldn’t it be nice to be the ball collectors for the new basketball team?’ They didn’t even have a name yet. ”

When news broke that Phoenix would get an NBA team, Adams and his friends were elated. They were already big sports fans, but their hometown didn’t have a major team. In 1968, the Suns will fill this void.

“All of us, the kids who grew up here, this is the most important thing that has ever happened to us,” Adams said.

Soon they would have something to celebrate. But John Joyce, then eighth grader at Madison Meadows, was the first of the group to come up with something more, something that would deepen their love for the first Phoenix franchise and their friendship for years to come.

Now in their late sixties and still close, they keep in touch. And with the Suns now in the NBA Finals for the first time since 1993, there’s even more to say.

The deeper connection with the Suns began with Joyce’s determination. He had gotten a taste of what it was like to be a ball collector when the NBA hosted an exhibition game in Phoenix in the late 1960s before the expansion. He showed up to the game and he talked about his way to a job. He adopted the same mindset when the Suns were forming.

He found an address, and he wrote. Letter after letter, at least 30 if he had to guess now. But when they went unanswered, he decided to step up his strategy. Joyce found phone numbers for various members of the homeowner group. There was one flaw: the names he found, although accurate, were people based in Tucson.

“Of course my mom got the phone bill, and at the time you were billed for long distance,” Joyce said. “So I was responsible for about $ 20, and I didn’t have that kind of money. So I had to take a different approach.”

He found another owner, none other than Karl Eller, and his Phoenix-based phone number. Joyce called him. And this time, Eller responded. Businessman and entrepreneur, he was about to hear a memorable speech.

“I was explaining to him that I was the only person in Phoenix who had the skills to do it, because I had done it before,” Joyce said.

Eller laughed, but it was clear that Joyce was very serious.

“He was, what do I mean? Persistent,” said Joe Proski. “I’ll put it this way: he wanted to be a bad ball boy.”

It was a lesson in perseverance: one thing led to another, and Joyce got the job, the Phoenix Suns’ first ball boy. Then he attracted other friends: Adams, Brian Behrens and Mike Himelstein.

They worked under the direction of Proski, the team’s longtime first athletic trainer and a member of the Phoenix Suns Ring of Honor. It was a win-win situation. Speaking to someone else on the Suns staff, Proski had already realized that he was going to need help with less glorious jobs: getting clean towels, getting rid of the dirty, cleaning the locker rooms.

Suns star Alvan Adams with longtime head coach Joe Proski.

“I said to him, ‘Oh my God, I’m going to have to have kids, or rugrats around here,’” Proski said.

By the time that fall arrived, the Suns’ first ball collectors were freshmen in high school.

Typically, two would work with the Suns and two would work with the visiting team. After this separation, one of each pair sat on the bench to help the players, the other under the basket.

They were there for that first season, and they left with more than a first job to list on their CV. Jerry West’s shoes. True friendship with Connie Hawkins. Almost getting rolled under the basket by Wilt Chamberlain. Working a full season, the close-up view of the NBA has also become routine in some ways. At school, they could go over these skirmishes the way a classmate would relate to seeing someone at the grocery store.

Phoenix Suns fans shown off during the 1968-1969 inaugural season at the Veterans Memorial Coliseum on West McDowell Road.

After that first season, most of the boys retired from the ball-picker world. They had to attend their own basketball games and attend high school celebrations.

Joyce stayed a few more years, balancing schoolwork. His mother said he could only stay with the Suns if he maintained his grades at Brophy. So Joyce studied on the sidelines when he needed it. Once, as Joyce memorized the Latin declension, Bill Bradley of the Knicks noticed.

He commented to me, ‘You know what, you should study, do your homework,’ said Joyce. I’ll give you all the answers. ‘ “

Joyce couldn’t drive yet and her parents, who were caring for 10 children, couldn’t take her to or from games. So he biked about seven miles or more often hitchhiking, even gamers. He sometimes infiltrated non-work rides.

“I was in my second year in high school and in the summer I used to hitchhike around Phoenix and play different public high schools in pickup games,” Joyce said.

“And twice we were picked up by Dick Van Arsdale and once by Gail Goodrich to take us to different places.”

Gail Goodrich, shown in 1970, was taken off the Los Angeles Lakers roster by the Suns in the 1968 NBA expansion draft.

It wasn’t a usual move for an NBA player to pick up someone for a ride in the Phoenix heat, but the players recognized Joyce and were happy to do the kid who kept their locker room a favor. in perfect condition. There were other reasons to be on the safe side of the bale collector as well. Joyce remembers getting four tickets for each game, sort of more than some of the other staff.

“It was the strangest thing, but no one ever told me about it,” Joyce said. “The players were like to the other players, ‘Well, I can’t get tickets, but I know who can.’ “

Eventually, his time with the Suns would come to an end as well. New children would come to take care of the suns. Proski can make a list when he remembers the years.

Joyce and Proski still stay in touch. In fact, Proski, now 82, loves to see where life took all these teenagers back then.

“They all did something on their own,” Proski said. “We always have a good time every time I get together with them, and we laugh at different things the players have done.”

The original group is scattered: Joyce is in Colorado these days, Himelstein is in Los Angeles, and Adams and Behrens are in the valley. But regular phone calls keep longtime Sun fans in touch.

They will watch TV, often with the volume turned down and Al McCoy and the radio turned up. Adams looks around the house he grew up in. And then, the next morning, they pick up the phone.

“Some of us will be on the horn the next day to watch the games again,” Adams said. “A lot of us will talk very soon after a game, like the day after a game.… And then a lot of times, we’ll talk again before the next game.”

That’s worth both pre-game and post-game discussion these days. In the Suns’ last decade of basketball, friends still followed every move: game results, schedule, standings. Coaching changes and the player moves. But they wouldn’t necessarily break every game. The resurgence of almost daily calls has been welcomed.

“We’ve been doing it forever, and the playoffs just add to the excitement,” Adams said.

And that’s what a big part of that final race represents for Adams and Joyce and countless Phoenix Suns fans of this generation. That brings them straight back to that exhilaration of finally getting a franchise. To the teams they knew and loved growing up. Remember a much smaller Phoenix and cherish how the city, the team, and their friendships have developed.

For Adams, it brings him back to another time, this one in his first year English class at Central High. The infamous 1969 NBA Draft draw is tied to all of his memories of the Suns’ early years.

“Our English teacher one morning announces, ‘Guys, we’re going to close our books and turn on the radio. We have a toss to listen to, ”Adams said.

The teacher had brought his own radio and interrupted the lesson to turn it on. Adams and his friends were completely surprised that their teacher was so invested and didn’t bother to postpone their lessons. They were surely the only class to have witnessed this, they thought, as the toss went in Milwaukee’s direction.

“All in unison, including our teacher, it was that collective moan,” Adams said.

“And not just in our classroom, but obviously all the other classrooms in our English building were doing the same thing. Because you can hear that collective moan in the hallway.… Every classroom was doing the same thing, because this is how big of a deal that was. “

Decades later, he sees the same collective fear and anticipation across a city, and he hopes for the opposite. For a long awaited title for what was once a long awaited team.

But the old bullet collectors will be there for the Suns no matter what. After all, they’ve been there from the very beginning.

“It was a big deal for us,” Adams said. “It was so surreal. So many times we remember those days and those people and the players. And we remember all the interesting characters and players that were on the team and everything.

“So that was a big part of our friendship. It was one of the many monumental moments of our years, of the decades that we’re friends.”

Contact the reporter at [email protected] or 480-356-6407. Follow her on Twitter @ kfitz134.

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