As victory celebrations go, Frank Kaminsky didn't think anything could come close to the one he experienced at the 2015 Final Four.
Kaminsky and his University of Wisconsin men's basketball teammates returned to the team hotel in Indianapolis after knocking off previously unbeaten Kentucky that night and were greeted by bedlam: A throng of Badgers fans standing shoulder to shoulder in the lobby, partying before, during and after the arrival of their heroes.
It was the perfect end to a magical day.
So was last Wednesday night, when the charter flight carrying the Phoenix Suns arrived from Los Angeles after the No. 2 seed in the Western Conference knocked off the Clippers to book a trip to the NBA Finals. Thousands of fans were waiting for the Suns at Phoenix's Sky Harbor Airport, lined up on the streets in hopes of getting a glimpse of players and coaches leaving the terminal.
Traffic was halted — not that Kaminsky and his teammates minded. He embraced the madness and, at one point, maneuvered his 7-foot frame through the skyroof of the vehicle in which he was traveling. In a moment that went viral, Kaminsky chugged a beer, chucked the can high in the air and delivered fist bumps to the fans going wild around him.
"You know me," Kaminsky said during a phone interview. "I know how to celebrate."
The party didn't get out of hand because the Suns still have work to do. They'll begin the NBA Finals on Tuesday, July 6, at home against the Milwaukee Bucks, a series that will give Kaminsky a chance to return to the state that feels like a second home to him.
Kaminsky left UW six years ago as the consensus national player of the year, a star on back-to-back Final Four teams and a first-round pick. He's now a role player who didn't get off the bench in the Suns-Clippers series and realizes that may be the case again against the Bucks.
That change of status hasn't soured his attitude, however. Watch a Suns game and it's hard not to notice Kaminsky doing his part to add energy from the sidelines. Watch even closer during timeouts and you'll see Kaminsky pull aside standout center Deandre Ayton to deliver a tip or two based on something he's seen.
That the NBA is business was hardly a revelation to Kaminsky, but that point has been driven home over the past 12 months.
Kaminsky signed a two-year, $10 million contract with Phoenix following the 2018-2019 season, a fresh start for him after a four-year run with the Charlotte Hornets. But his first season with the Suns was derailed by a patella stress fracture in his right knee and, after that frustrating campaign was over, Phoenix declined a team option worth $5.2 million.
Not only was Kaminsky out of a job, his phone wasn't exactly ringing off the hook with offers.
"I had pretty much everybody tell me I was done, and that was kind of shocking to me," Kaminsky said. "It happened fast."
The Sacramento Kings invited Kaminsky to training camp but cut him when it came time to decide on a roster. Kaminsky eventually landed back in Phoenix, albeit at a more team-friendly salary of just under $2 million for the 2020-2021 campaign.
"I wanted to stay there the whole time," Kaminsky said. "It was a roundabout way to get exactly what I wanted."
Kaminsky says he's had a blast playing for a franchise on the rise. The Suns were 19-63 in 2018-2019 — tied for the second-worst record in the NBA — but showed signs of progress late season by going 8-0 in the NBA bubble and barely missing the playoffs.
The organization showed how serious it was about winning last November by acquiring veteran point guard Chris Paul in a trade with the Oklahoma City Thunder. Paul joined a talented young nucleus that included Ayton, shooting guard Devin Booker and forward Mikal Bridges.
"When you go from being a team where the bubble was kind of our most successful thing in a while to trading for Chris Paul, your expectations rise," Kaminsky said. "Because at this point of his career, you know what Chris is playing for, you know what he's trying to get to. He's not waiting for people to develop. So that's a signal to everybody that it's time to step up."
Kaminsky pulled aside Paul after the Suns-Clippers series and told him how much he's enjoyed getting to watch him up-close this season. He called Paul the "consummate leader" and, to his credit, Kaminsky has been the consummate teammate during a season in which it'd be easy to sulk.
When Kaminsky arrived in Charlotte, Marvin Williams was there waiting for him and made a huge impact as a mentor. Kaminsky, 28, now finds himself trying to pay it forward with Ayton, whether it's the advice on the court or sticking around practice to get in some extra shooting with the 22-year-old former top overall pick.
"It's definitely difficult because you want to play," Kaminsky said. "But at the same time, our culture is so great. Everyone has good relationships. It kind of reminds me of our Wisconsin teams. There's no bad egg in the locker room. It's been a lot of fun."
Kaminsky was the star at Benet Academy when it was the No. 1 team in Illinois during his senior season but was upset on its path to state.
He was the go-to player for UW when, two nights after that win over Kentucky in 2015, they dropped a heartbreaker to Duke in the title game. Kaminsky and the Badgers had lost in the closing seconds to the Wildcats in the national semifinals the previous season.
"The NBA is really my last chance to go and get a championship," Kaminsky said. "So whatever part I get to play in it, I'm going to celebrate it like it's my first one because it will be."
Contact Jim Polzin at firstname.lastname@example.org
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