Foreign-Born Coach, Players Shoulder Phoenix Suns' Hope For Turnaround

By Bret Jaspers, Matthew Casey
Published: Wednesday, October 17, 2018 - 5:10am
Updated: Wednesday, October 17, 2018 - 10:36am

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Igor Kokoskov
Matthew Casey/KJZZ
Igor Kokoskov.

The roar of the crowd inside Talking Stick Resort Arena made it a bit hard to hear the announcer say the Phoenix Suns chose Deandre Ayton as the No. 1 overall pick in the 2018 NBA draft. But the excitement among fans was unmistakable.

As the regular season starts, Suns fans look to Ayton and his teammates with great hope for a turnaround. But he has to shoulder expectations from far beyond the Valley. Before the draft, Ayton talked about the pressure to be the No. 1 pick.

“I already have a whole load,” Ayton said. “I have a whole country on my back that I’m representing. And I just want to fulfill that achievement.”

The last time the Suns were actually good, they were led by people born in other countries. Think Steve Nash, Leandro Barbosa and Boris Diaw.

As the Suns begin a new era, they have a head coach from Serbia and a No. 1 draft pick from the Bahamas. It’s a chance to unite the Valley over basketball, amid ongoing sharp division over immigration.

Ayton moved to the United State when he was 12. On draft day, he flashed a Bahamian flag stitched inside his blazer. He joins two other foreign players on the Suns, as well as new head coach Igor Kokoskov, the first in the NBA born and raised outside North America.

Deandre Ayton
Bret Jaspers/KJZZ
Deandre Ayton

Arizona’s first major professional sports franchise has often been on the cutting edge of the league’s push to appeal to a cross-section of U.S. and international fans. According to the NBA, the Suns were the first in the league to sign a player from the Eastern Bloc.

“We signed a player named Georgi Glouchkov and this was in 1985,” said Tom Ambrose, former director of public relations for the Suns. “And Georgi didn’t turn out to be a great deal. He was called the Balkan Banger. He was a big guy.”

There were some challenges with Glouchkov, like translating for him mid-game.

“You know, if you’re saying ‘fast break!’ It’s kind of too late at the end of that,” Ambrose said.

The Balkan Banger lost his size and was off the Suns after a year. But the experiment came at the beginning of the internationalization of the NBA, a trend that’s continued.

The Suns’ last run at a title came in 2010, the year controversy over immigration was exploding in Arizona with Senate Bill 1070. On Cinco de Mayo, the Suns played the San Antonio Spurs in Game Two of the Western Conference Semifinals. The team won and made a splash wearing jerseys that said Los Suns.

The playoff game wasn’t the first time the team wore the jersey. But the move was controversial. Superstar Steve Nash, born in South Africa and raised in Canada, said the squad felt pride in Phoenix’s Latino community.

Dragan Bender
Bret Jaspers/KJZZ
Phoenix Suns player Dragan Bender is from Croatia. This will be his third season playing in Phoenix.

“My belief’s our team stood up for that part of our community because I think that’s the one that’s targeted by the side of this bill that could open a door to racial profiling and racism,” Nash said in 2010. “And I’m talking primarily about American citizens who are Latino … Their quality of life and freedoms could change because of this bill.”

The New York Times reported the final decision to wear the jerseys was made by Suns owner Robert Sarver. But the choice was driven by the players, said Igor Kokoskov, who was an assistant coach at the time.

“Like in every other aspects of this job, you just follow the player’s lead and we felt the same way, so were nothing but supporting,” Kokoskov said.

Kokoskov is the Suns’ new head coach. Born and raised in Serbia, he became a citizen in 2010, while with the Suns. Kokoskov said he tries to focus on coaching basketball, taking a lesson from his grandfather, a World War II vet who told him not to be manipulated by political movements or ideology.

“People are watching us, and so you have to be very careful but you know, we’re just, at the end of the day we’re just a trying to be a good citizen and good man and role model for my kids at home,” Kokoskov said.

In interviews, several foreign-born players on the team said similar things. They are focused on playing basketball as best they can. Tom Ambrose, the former Suns PR man, said there’s probably not much room for professional athletes or coaches to weigh in on current events.

“I think that a lot of sports fans like to keep politics out of sports,” Ambrose said. “In fact, sports is their only escape from it. It’s everywhere. And so I think you can make a statement as the Suns did with the Los Suns, but it was a subtle statement.”

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