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Shawn Marion Ring of Honor induction represents full-circle moment for The Matrix, the Suns and their ownership
It took way longer than it should have, but Friday night, Shawn Marion was finally inducted into the Phoenix Suns Ring of Honor.
In a postgame ceremony following the Suns’ loss to the New York Knicks, fans who stayed long enough afterward were treated to heartfelt speeches from The Matrix, as well as the unveiling of his retired No. 31 jersey in the rafters.
“It’s surreal right now,” Marion said before the game. “Everybody keeps asking me if I cried or if I got emotional yet. Well, I guess I got to wait and see when it actually goes up there. It’ll tell me what happened. I don’t know, but it’s definitely sending chills through my body.”
Marion played with the franchise from 1999 when he was originally drafted to 2008 when he was traded to the Miami Heat. For the next 15 years, he was overlooked for his well-deserved place in the Ring of Honor as one of the five greatest Suns of all time.
But as much as his exclusion and fractured relationship with the organization ate away at everyone involved, Friday’s ceremony marked an opportunity to amend that relationship and do right by one of the franchise’s all-time greats.
From Marion’s point of view, it happened exactly when it was meant to happen.
“I actually get asked this question a lot over time of why it hadn’t happened sooner and all this other stuff, but this is the right timing for this,” he said. “And that’s how I’m looking at it right now. Forget about everybody asking me shit, everybody keeps saying shit, ‘They should’ve done this long time ago.’ It’s done. It wouldn’t have been right then. It’s right now, and that’s what it’s about.”
For Suns fans, though, it was a moment that had long been denied to Marion and the purple and orange faithful thanks to a bitter, long-running feud with former owner Robert Sarver.
As soon as new owner Mat Ishbia took over, the equation changed. Ishbia understood the value in honoring the best players in the organization’s 55-year history, and he quickly sought to make things right with estranged Suns like Marion and Amar’e Stoudemire.
“Mat took over this team, and it’s been guns-a-blazin’,” Marion said. “One of the first things he did was reach out to me personally and told me what he wanted to do and how he wanted to do it the right way. And I see it tenfold right now moving forward.”
It’s a very different situation now compared to when Marion helped turn the Suns into a Western Conference power. Phoenix’s current Big 3 of Devin Booker, Kevin Durant and Bradley Beal began with drafting Booker, but has since been built through blockbuster trades by an aggressive owner willing to spend.
During the Seven Seconds or Less era, the Suns had to build their Big 3 by drafting Marion, drafting Stoudemire and drafting (and then eventually signing) Steve Nash. But Sarver’s stringent spending limited their potential to get over that championship hump — a drastic difference from the guy in charge now.
“You can’t compare it, because I think the wallets are different,” Marion said bluntly when asked about the two periods under different owners. “That’s the truth. Money talks. B.S. runs the marathon. It’s the truth. So, if the wallet’s different, the bag’s different, you ain’t going out here and spending that money. And when somebody’s writing a blank check to go out here and do what they want to do, like hey, they’re gonna try to buy one.”
Rather than paying to keep talent and build something bigger, Sarver routinely cut the Suns down at the knees by trading away draft picks for cash and refusing to re-sign talented players like Joe Johnson, who went on to flourish elsewhere.
“That’s the reason Joe left: We didn’t want to pay him,” Marion said. “So you can say what you want, I’m just saying. We couldn’t run our team back because he didn’t want to spend the money.”
In spite of that, those Suns teams came close to breaking through several times. In 2004-05, they won 62 games and reached the Western Conference Finals before losing to the San Antonio Spurs in five games. They reached the conference finals again the following season, but fell to the Dallas Mavericks in six games. And in their 2006-07 season, a potential Finals path was cut short by a second-round loss to the Spurs thanks to the controversial suspensions of Stoudemire and Boris Diaw.
From his point of view, Marion thought the suspensions in 2007 were overhyped by the media, citing the 2005 team as the one that would’ve had the best chance to break through if not for Johnson’s orbital fracture.
“I felt it the first year that we went small-ball, that’s when Joe Johnson got hurt and had the fracture and missed some games,” Marion said. “If he was healthy, I think we probably could have pulled it off that year.”
Between bad luck, tough opponents and self-inflicted hurdles from management, Marion and the Suns never got to the promised land. Although he went on to win a title with the Mavs in 2011, being unable to do so with the Suns is still Marion’s biggest regret from his time in Phoenix.
“That’s one of the things I felt like I owed it to the fans,” he explained. “I wasn’t able to help bring a championship here. That ate at me a lot. That’s one thing I really tried to strive for here when I was here.”
Even so, Marion joins a long list of Suns legends fitting that same category. And there’s no question he distinguished himself from almost everyone else in the franchise’s proud history thanks to his all-around production:
As a four-time NBA All-Star and two-time All-NBA selection, Marion averaged 18.4 points, 10.0 rebounds, 1.9 steals and 1.4 blocks per game on 48.1 percent shooting during his time in Phoenix. Under Mike D’Antoni, he became essential for making small-ball work, taking the league by storm and changing the NBA forever in the process.
“I’ve said this in interviews before, when [D’Antoni] came to me and asked me to do it, I was very, very — I don’t want to say unwilling, but I was ‘optimistic’ about playing power forward,” Marion recalled. “I was like, ‘Okay, you really want me to go guard these bigger guys? I’m 6’7″, 230 pounds. You want me to go guard these guys that are 7-foot tall, 280 pounds, really?'”
It was a challenge at first, but after a few preseason games, Marion realized the Suns could win playing that way. Current Suns coach Frank Vogel was an assistant with the Philadelphia 76ers at the time, but he still remembers Phoenix going 7-1 in the preseason and putting the fear of God in the rest of the league.
“They were saying, ‘Well, don’t pay attention to the preseason,’ but we were watching them on film like, ‘No, this isn’t preseason; this team is scary,'” Vogel said. “And they went out and won 60 games that year.”
In that first season of small-ball, Marion was the only player in the NBA to rank in the top 25 for points, rebounds, steals, blocks AND minutes. He also joined David Robinson as the only players in NBA history to ever rank in the top-five in rebounds and steals in the same season…and then he did it again the next season. The year after that, he led the league in steals.
The fact that Shawn Marion never made an All-Defensive Team — an oversight the Matrix called “disgusting” — is indefensible. But his two-way play made him a thoroughly unique player well ahead of his time.
“I think he’s maybe an underrated part of that Seven Seconds or Less team,” Vogel said. “Everybody remembers Nash and Stoudemire and D’Antoni, but the way he played and filled up the stat sheet in every way, guarded every position on the floor, really accelerated their pace with his ability to get out and fly and catch lob dunks, on the boards — really did it all. It’s good to see that tonight, he’s not an underrated part. He’s going into the Ring of Honor, and it’s well-deserved.”
Vogel isn’t the only current Sun with appreciation for and ties to Shawn Marion. Kevin Durant used to battle with him quite a bit during his days with the Oklahoma City Thunder, back when Marion was on the Mavericks.
The two cultivated a rivalry between unstoppable scorer and immovable defender, fostering a deep respect between two of the game’s great wing players. Durant still remembers the time he dropped 50 points on Marion…as well as the couple of times Marion locked him up.
“When you got respect and you know that I can score at an insane level, and I know that he can guard anybody and make it tough for anybody, especially at my position, it’s just a clash,” Durant said. “Almost like a clash of the titans, especially with something on the line like a playoff game. So I had nothing but respect for him.”
The feeling is very mutual.
“Listen, I love KD,” Marion said. “We beat OKC to go to the Finals in Dallas to win a championship. But that rivalry was something serious….Our battles, I loved playing against KD. I think we both bring the best out of each other, there’s tons of respect.”
The feelings of admiration extend to the Suns’ other superstar, Devin Booker. Although he was still pretty young during Marion’s heyday in Phoenix, Book has always been well-versed in the history of his franchise and the NBA in general.
“Somebody that you would love to play with,” Booker said of Marion’s game. “Obviously great numbers, but he did a lot of things that didn’t show up on the stat sheet. Unorthodox shot, it went in. Just a special player, and he deserves everything he’s getting tonight.”
For Booker, paying his respects to the legends that came before him has always been a priority. Before Friday night’s game, he paid tribute to No. 31 with his shoes for the game, wearing Shawn Marion’s Air Jordan 5 PEs in his honor:
After the game, Booker made it clear to media in the locker room that it would be a short interview session, because he wanted to make it out to the court in time to witness the unveiling of Matrix’s retired jersey.
Booker did in fact make it in time, and he came prepared with a pair of Book 1s to give Marion as a gift.
“The history of this game, the history of this organization has always been something that I definitely paid attention to and made sure I gave my respects,” Booker explained. “Everybody that’s a fan of me now, the young kids, they started it, their parents watched these guys. Life just goes full-circle, and those guys deserve the credit for changing this game, and he was a big part of changing this organization.”
Booker — a player who will undoubtedly be one of the next Suns players in the Ring of Honor at some point — takes pride in acknowledging the legends who came before him. That was not lost on Marion, even on his big night.
“Man, Book is something special,” Marion said. “And I’m gonna tell you, he’s one of the few guys that definitely paid respect and homage to the guys that paved the way before him.”
In more ways than one, Friday’s Ring of Honor induction was a full-circle moment. Despite the distance between Marion and the Suns for more than a decade, it was clear his emotional ties to the organization had not been severed by a former owner with a grudge.
As a player who was ahead of his time and would’ve thrived in today’s small-ball, pace-and-space league, Marion joked that he still envisions what it’d look like if he could play on this current Suns team with Booker, Durant and Bradley Beal.
It’s a tantalizing thought, but even with a career that was well ahead of his time, Marion has a legitimate case for the Hall of Fame, not just the Suns Ring of Honor. Only time will tell if he has another overdue ceremony coming his way.
“Listen, man, I don’t control anything,” Marion said of his Hall-of-Fame case. “One thing I did control was my energy and effort on that floor. It speaks for itself, and the numbers don’t lie. So it’s just that simple.”
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