PHOENIX - Despite being Arizona’s oldest professional franchise, the Phoenix Suns had seen their fan support wane significantly following several consecutive losing seasons.
But at the end of a 2013-14 season in which the Suns have exceeded all expectations and came just short of advancing to the NBA playoffs, the love affair between the team and Valley sports fans has been rekindled.
After playing in front of thousands of empty seats at each home game early in the season, the Suns ended have enjoyed multiple sellouts in recent games. And despite the 97-91 loss to the Memphis Grizzlies in their regular-season home finale on Monday night that ended their playoff hopes, they were backed by 18,422 raucous fans at U.S. Airways Center who made playoff-caliber noise throughout the game.
"It's a lot better," said Suns’ head coach Jeff Hornacek of the difference in fan turnout from the beginning to the end of the season. "Coming off the last few seasons, I think fans were doubtful with what was going on, trading some of our veteran guys – (Luis) Scola, (Marcin) Gortat, Jared Dudley – and having a bunch of new guys, inexperienced guys, and they probably didn't know what to expect.
"And as the season went on, I think everyone thought we'd be fading, and we kind of stayed afloat. The fans got behind us, and it was great."
Suns center Channing Frye, who returned to the team after taking the 2012-13 season off to monitor a heart condition, said he noticed and appreciated the increase in attendance figures – especially toward the end of the season – and it’s one reason why he's already anxious to do it again next year.
"The continued support in the community has been awesome," he said. "I try to explain to guys that this is a great basketball community. It's exciting when we're that team, you know? And we just kind of came up short (of the playoffs).
"I think next year is going to be cracking from the beginning, and I'm excited to see what happens."
Suns guard Goran Dragic, who started the team’s last two games despite a sprained ankle, said he understood fans' skepticism when the season began.
"Of course, at the beginning of the season, everybody was (talking about) what kind of situation we had coming in and how many games we're going to win, so maybe at first (that’s why) the gym was not so full," he said. "But when we were our first 20 games in, when they saw how we played... everybody knew it was going to be an exciting year, and they showed up every game. They were great. They were supporting us.
"We had some crazy games where we were down 20 points and we came back. It's unbelievable that you can come back and play for those fans, for this city, for this organization. It's always something special."
With a renewed optimism that has Valley fans firmly back in the team's corner, Hornacek said he's hopeful for more sold-out home games in what is already shaping up to be an even more successful 2014-15 season.
"Going forward, we want the fans to pack the gym every time, every night," he said. "The guys love to play for packed houses, and they appreciate when fans come out and cheer them on and get in the game. It was good to see that."