For 25 years, Dan Majerle's heart has belonged in the Valley. Now, in the first year of his first-ever head coaching position, he's ready to take the Phoenix-based Grand Canyon University men's basketball team to new heights.
The former NBA guard-forward and three-point-shooting specialist who was drafted by the Phoenix Suns in 1988, "Thunder" Dan spent seven seasons with the Suns before being traded, but returned to Phoenix in 2001 to end his playing career. When he sought a coaching position, he took one with the Suns as an assistant in 2008.
And when his bid to become the Suns' head coach last season didn't pan out, he found a way to remain in the Valley by accepting the head coaching position at GCU, which is moving up to Division I play this year.
"It's a fantastic university and has been that way for a long time," he said. "And for them to be transitioning to Division I and for me to be able to stay in Phoenix and fulfill my dream as a head coach, it was a no-brainer."
Majerle's connection with Phoenix-area sports fans runs perhaps as deep as that of any local professional athlete.
"I kind of grew up in their eyes," he said. "I came here as a rookie. I was fortunately on some really good teams. I think I played extremely hard every night and they knew what to expect out of me."
"I've always been around. I own bars. I'm easy to find. I think that's always the case when an athlete's been in the community for a long time: people start to relate."
It's that connection that is responsible for Majerle literally becoming the face of the Antelopes in the seven months since his hiring. Upon arriving on campus at 33rd Avenue and Camelback, one is immediately inundated with signs and banners that feature his mug.
But Majerle said he's not the only reason that Valley fans should catch a GCU game, beginning with its home opener against UC San Diego on Nov. 1.
There's the enhanced level of competition, as the Antelopes move up to the Western Athletic Conference this season. There's the state-of-the-art, 5,000-seat GCU Arena that opened in 2011. There's the affordability factor, as tickets begin at $5 per game. And there's the addition of several players who transferred to GCU from several top-level NCAA basketball schools – including Demetrius Walker, who played for Arizona State in 2009-10.
"Our facilities are great, it's an exciting brand of basketball, and it's not as expensive as a professional sport," he said. "It's a college atmosphere, and these guys are going to be easy to get behind. (Fans are) going to come out and love how hard they play."