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Barkley, Gonzalez reflect on their Arizona sports legacies

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The crowd roared as cameramen and reporters surged forward. Children stood on their toes to get a better look as their parents lifted their phones high to get the best picture they could. Charles Barkley had arrived.

The Scottsdale Hilton was the site of the 45th Induction Ceremony for the Arizona Sports Hall of Fame on Wednesday. Inductees included Arizona Diamondbacks World Series hero Luis Gonzalez and former Arizona State University golfer Danielle Ammaccapane. But the unquestioned center of attention was Barkley, the enigmatic former star of the Suns.

“I think Arizona sports are forever indebted to Charles,” said Jerry Colangelo, the most influential sports entrepreneur in Arizona history. “He elevated our stature not just nationally but worldwide. He meant that much.”

“Twenty years?” said Barkley, when told by a reporter it had been that long since his peak as a Suns player. “Damn, I’m getting old. I can hardly believe that.”

After walking the red carpet, Barkley took picture after picture with fans waiting in line for their turn with the NBA Hall of Famer. He spent time talking and laughing with each one, joking with an older woman who told him how much she loved him and telling a group of young boys how handsome they looked in their suits.

“It was the camaraderie we had,” said Barkley, when asked about what made those Suns teams so successful. “We all got along great. When you’re in this city, it’s a great place to play.”

For the inductees, it was a night of celebration and laughs but also one of reflection. On everyone’s mind were the four seasons Barkley spent on the Suns in the ‘90s. It was a unique time in the history of the state, when Arizona fans were blessed to watch not just a championship contending team but also one of the most popular and entertaining athletes in American history.

“It was such an incredible moment for Arizona,” Colangelo said. “Getting the new arena, making the NBA finals against the Bulls, Charles winning the MVP. It doesn’t get much bigger than that.”

Part of the legacy of the Barkley-led Suns is the excruciating playoff losses that prevented them from bringing a championship to Arizona. The Suns lost back-to-back seven-game playoff series against the Houston Rockets in 1994 and 1995. The most memorable loss took place in the 1993 NBA Finals, when Phoenix fell in six games to Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls.

“You’d be shocked how many Hall of Famers never won championships,” Colangelo said. “There will always be a little bit of a hole in my heart for the fact that we didn’t get a championship with the Suns. As I look back, I think there were three or four times we could’ve won it. But it just wasn’t meant to be.”

The Suns clearly hold a special place in Colangelo’s heart. The team was the first professional sports team in the state, and Colangelo spent time as the head coach, general manager and owner. The Suns own the NBA’s fourth-best winning percentage of all time but have gone all of their 47 years without a championship. Oddly, a different sports franchise brought Arizona its first major championship.

“Within four years we won a championship with the Diamondbacks,” said Colangelo, who was part of the group that brought baseball to the Valley in 1998. “And I remember in that moment, as excited as I was, thinking about all the irony involved when it came to the Suns and all the years we’d been so close but no cigar.”

The hit that won the 2001 World Series is arguably the greatest sports moment in Arizona’s history. And the man who hit it understands what it meant to a state that had waited decades for a title.

“It’s pretty special,” said Gonzalez, whose bloop single ended Game 7 of perhaps the greatest World Series ever played. “Especially in Arizona, with the Cardinals, Coyotes and Suns. Everyone wants to win one and for us to be the first really means a lot. It was an exciting time.”

Also included in the Hall of Fame class were award-winning sports journalist Joe Gilmartin and Cotton Fitzsimmons, who passed away in 2004. Fitzsimmons had three separate coaching stints with Phoenix during his 21-year career. His absence was a bittersweet element to an otherwise celebratory evening.

“Cotton was always a mentor,” Barkley said. “He and Jerry brought me to Arizona. I think probably the coolest thing about tonight is getting to go in with him.”

Colangelo took a deep breath before trying to explain what Fitzsimmons meant to the Suns as a franchise and to him personally.

“He was a great friend,” Colangelo said. “One of the greatest people I’ve met in sports. I’ve never met anyone so positive, and he had such a great impact on everyone he ever met. There’s so much more I could say about him, but I’ll get emotional.”