Sunset for "Thunder" Dan
Phoenix guard “Thunder” Dan Majerle went out the way Suns fans will always remember him. With a three and a smile. Fan Appreciation night quickly turned into Dan Appreciation night at America West Arena as the Suns closed out their first playoff-less season in thirteen years by paying tribute to one of the most popular players in team history.
After a year in Cleveland and five in Miami, Majerle returned to Phoenix for his 14th and final season in the NBA. "The Suns have tried for several years to get me back here”, Majerle said. “We just hadn’t been able to do it and after I was done in Miami I was a free agent. I just signed a one-year deal knowing it would probably be my last year. I started my career here; it’s fitting that I ended it here. The organization’s great, the fans have been great to me and I really like the guys on this team. Although it’s been a disappointing year, it’s been a fun year.”
The fun began with Majerle making his first start in a Suns uniform since 1995. He resisted the offer of starting by head coach Frank Johnson at first, but a conversation with teammate Stephon Marbury in San Antonio changed his mind. “Steph asked me to do him a favor and he told me to say ‘yes’ first. Steph is crazy, so I wanted to know, but I told him yes. Then he said ‘I want you to start and a bunch of the guys on the team want you to start,’ so I said that I’d do whatever the guys wanted.”
Teammates donned #9 headbands in his honor; fans waved #9 placards and cheered every move. Video highlights of Majerle’s career were shown and the team presented him with a HumVee golf cart at halftime. As the fourth quarter was winding down and Suns in command of a meaningless game for both teams, everyone in the arena wanted one more thrill from their favorite Sun.
With every trip down the court the ball was given to Majerle, who hoisted up a three at his first opportunity. With 90 seconds to go, he threw up a 28 footer that bounced off the backboard, clanked off the front of the rim and punctuated a 14-year career of hard nosed, scrappy play by giving Majerle the final three points of his career, his 800th career 3-pointer for the Suns. The crowd chanted his name as he did a couple of pushups and came out of the game for good, smiling and waving to a thunderous ovation.
It capped a career highlighted by three All-Star appearances, a trip to the NBA Finals and a place among the games all-time three-point shooters.
All this for a guy that was booed at the Suns draft party when the announcement came that they had selected the little-known guard out of Central Michigan with their 14th pick of the 1988 draft. They were anticipating the team drafting Derek Chevious out of Missouri, whom they had seen play in the NCAA tournament. When it was Majerle instead, Suns fans were stunned, certain their team had thrown away their first-round pick.
Cotton Fitzsimmons, former head coach and current Suns broadcaster, remembers that day well. “Our fans at the (Phoenix) Civic Center booed unmercifully. First of all they couldn’t even pronounce his name. I couldn’t take it anymore. I just went to the microphone said ‘you people will be sorry that you ever booed this young man once you see him play’, and they were.”
It did not take long for Cotton’s words to ring true and Majerle became an instant fan favorite. “I had a hard time spelling it for awhile and saying it,” says Lou Welker, 63, longtime Suns fan from Safford, AZ. “He became a favorite of mine right away because he played as hard as he could every game, he had a good attitude, didn’t get into trouble and I thought he was just a good all-around fella.”
A single man about town during his first stay in Phoenix, Majerle (now married with two daughters and a son on the way) was frequently seen around town at charity functions or just hanging out with the fans. He opened Majerle’s Sports Bar and Grill down the street from the arena, which thrived even in his absence. He had the ability and willingness to reach out to the fans and make them feel like he was one of them.
“I was out in the community a lot,” recalls Majerle. “I did a lot of things around town and I just think all those things really helped me become a guy who was just seen a lot, somebody a lot of people liked to watch play because I went out and worked really hard every night.”
Roger Allec came in from California to get one more glimpse of Thunder Dan. “He’s a winner, he’s a gamer. He’s always been a fan type of player, community type of guy; he’s a giver, a fan type of favorite. Pure class.”
Cedric Ceballos roomed with Majerle during the 1993 season when the Suns met the Bulls in the NBA Finals. “He has an ability to make you do things harder, make you smile nicer, put yourself in a better perspective. There’s not a word I can come up with to describe what he meant to me in my basketball career and life period.”
“I had a great career,” Majerle said from the solitude of his locker before his final game. “The only thing I wish I could have done was win a championship but I got real close, I was able to play in the Finals, played in the World Games, played in the Olympics, played in All-Star games, did pretty much everything I wanted to do. Fourteen years is a long time. It’s been a long career, it’s been a good career.”
Perhaps Joe Kleine, a former teammate of Majerle’s put it best: “If you don’t like Dan Majerle, you don’t like basketball.”
Steven Koek is a regular contributor to HoopsHype.com
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