Tom Chambers had heard enough. More importantly, he had seen enough from Devin Booker to know the whispers didn't align with reality. Throughout the summer, the four-time All-Star and current Suns TV analyst witnessed a litany of criticism aimed at Booker—his bypassing Team USA, the double-teaming workout video—and knew the critiques bore little reality to the player who worked himself into one of the game's best shooters. So Chambers quietly left a plaque of one of his favorite quotes, one that fueled him during his own playing career, inside Booker's locker.
It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, starts Theodore Roosevelt's "The Man in the Arena."
"It just hit home," said Booker, who was headed home on this November morning from Talking Stick Arena, where he surprised five nonprofit organizations by telling them he would be donating $500,000 annually to them throughout the next five years. "I put so much work into my craft to where outside noise really hasn't been a problem for me through my career, and that just comes with the work that I put in. I know the game."
The plaque still resides inside Booker's locker, to Chambers' surprise. Though his name can be found in the Suns' Ring of Honor, he allows the current team its space. But he knows the realities of starring for a struggling franchise better than most. Drafted by the San Diego Clippers in 1981, Chambers quickly became the leading scorer for a woeful team that lost 122 games in his two seasons with the club. What more do I have to do? Chambers often wondered. He did not find team success until he joined Seattle, and later Phoenix, where he reached the Finals in 1993.
"Until you get on a team that is winning and is fighting at least for a playoff spot, that individual stuff, they will write up that you've got some points, but there's always, 'Oh, you don't play defense,' or 'Oh, you don't do this,'" Chambers said. "But when the team starts winning, everything just falls into place. You appreciate the good times much more when you've gone through some tough times, and Devin certainly has had that in his first few years here in Phoenix."
Propelled by an ultra-efficient Booker, the Suns are playing competitive basketball in the early season. A team that didn't crack a dozen wins until after the All-Star break last season is already nearing that total in early December, including quality wins over the Clippers, Nets and 76ers. Talking Stick Arena is scheduled for $230 million in renovations. And a new practice facility is under construction. In total, a franchise that hasn't been to the playoffs in almost a decade seems to be regaining its footing thanks to a revamped roster that has allowed its biggest star, Booker, to regain his sense of self.
"Coming from Kentucky, we only lost one game the whole time I was there, and you think you're going to come in the NBA and it's going to be the same way," Booker said. "It's not going to be like that. So, it kind of sat me down, humbled me a little bit and just let you know that you got to keep going. You got to raise the bar every night. Dealing with losing is something that I could never—and still don't—I can't get comfortable with it."
As a result, it's been hard for those in and around the league to get comfortable with Booker. Yes, he could drop 70 in a single night, but it didn't prevent the Suns from losing that game against the Celtics in March 2017 and a lot more. Many wondered whether Booker's skills could translate into winning.
"I become a mental coach then," said Devin's father, Melvin Booker, a former NBA player. "It's not even about basketball then."
Devin tried not to engage with the swirl of questions but, rather, he worked. He got better.
Coming from Kentucky, we only lost one game the whole time I was there, and you think you're going to come in the NBA and it's going to be the same way. It's not going to be like that.
— Devin Booker
"I've been in that state where you try to deny everything," Booker said. "Like, 'I'm the perfect human. I'm the best basketball player. I'm the best at this,' when in actual reality, you're not. It's fine, not being the best at everything, but if you're putting the work into it to become better and making progress every day, that's what it's about."
When Devin Booker shoots a basketball, odds are it's going in.
"It's an effortless shot, and he can shoot it seven, eight feet behind the three-point line like it's a layup," Suns coach Monty Williams said. "When he does miss a shot, I am internally surprised."
He's not the only one.
"Honestly, some nights … I'll have like 25 or, say, 30, I'll be like, 'No, I could have had 50 that night,'" Booker said. "I'm never happy about where I'm at. There's always room for improvement. … It's like a bar that you just keep trying to set higher for yourself and just keep trying to reach it."
Growing up in Grandville, Michigan, Booker came to appreciate the shooting form of Rip Hamilton, his favorite player at the time. So Booker would log on to YouTube and type in searches for "how to shoot" and consume what he found—"like Kobe Bryant shooting tips. Or … probably one-off gigs with [some] random company, and I [would] just literally sit there and watch."
He'd go to a court and practice. Other kids drifted off to the three-point line to heave shots with all their energy. "I would stand in the paint and form-shoot because the ball was too heavy," Booker said." I knew if I went to the three-point line, I would literally have to push it and throw it. So, I would just shoot in the paint, just form shooting, which I still do today."
Before his sophomore season of high school, Devin moved to Mississippi with his father and began to hone his game with Melvin, the 1994 Big Eight Conference Player of the Year at Missouri, who had ended his overseas professional career. The pair worked constantly as Melvin tutored Devin on the game's finer points.
In his one season at Kentucky in 2014-15, Booker had expanded the range he struggled to establish as a kid and shot 41.1 percent from three. While his NBA evolution may be in question to some, his shot-making is not.
"Just the way he gets to his spots, when he picks and chooses to be aggressive, the footwork he uses when he gets to his spots, how he reads the defense. Really, [I'm] just trying to dissect everything from his game."
Booker is still exploring his game too—not only to keep one of the league's most enviable shooting strokes in tune but also to be more than what he has been.
"I've got to the point where it's like I know I'm not the best at everything," Booker said. "Us as athletes, I think once you can get to that point where you're comfortable with saying you're not good at something—'I need to work on it'—that's when you can get the most out of it. Personally, you know what you're not good at, and to actually embrace that and go work on it is what I did this summer. It wasn't just one part of my game or working on my body. It's just collective—everything."
It's mid-November, and Talking Stick Arena was empty. A night earlier, the Suns battled the Lakers for four seesaw quarters. Booker tried pump-faking LeBron James, another well-known fan of Roosevelt's "Man in the Arena" quote, into a foul near the end of the game. "You ain't going to get me with that, Book," James said after Booker's shot attempt landed errant in an eventual eight-point loss.
Still, the game was an instructive one for a franchise that isn't accustomed to playing under pressure. Veteran point guard Ricky Rubio had discussed what to expect with the team before the game, but it didn't make a difference this time. "It's a different kind of game," Booker said after absorbing it all. "It's a different energy, but I haven't been in a playoff game, so I don't know what that feels like. Last night was definitely a high-intensity game."
The vibe is decidedly more relaxed the following day. A spotlight shone on midcourt, and Booker walked out of the arena's tunnel to the surprise of a contingent from Special Olympics Arizona.
I think once you can get to that point where you're comfortable with saying you're not good at something—'I need to work on it'—that's when you can get the most out of it.
"I know you're here to give a final pitch to be selected part of the Starting Five," Booker said of the initial allocations of the $2.5 million pledge he made to donate over five years to Phoenix Suns Charities. "I want you to know you've already been selected. It's a done deal."
Chastity Fermoile, the organization's chief development officer, covered her mouth with her hand in shock. Her hands soon cradled an oversized $100,000 check.
"You don't even have to pitch it," Booker said.
The scene is played out four more times. Members of each charity arrive, believing they are delivering their final pitches, and they depart with a check for $100,000.
Each contribution holds meaning for Booker. His younger sister, Mya, has Microdeletion syndrome, a genetic chromosomal disorder. He admits things are not always easy for her, but he's taken some happiness in his ability to help her live a comfortable life his stardom allows.
"You never expect it, especially with my sister," Booker said. "It's been unbelievable … putting her through the NBA lifestyle at the same time. It's uncomfortable for her a lot of times being in these settings, but making her feel comfortable and happy and every day just feeling like she's a part of it has been my goal."
It's a feeling he has worked to find for himself in Phoenix.
When Booker was a rookie, Cardinals wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald invited him to a community event. Fitzgerald, well-known for his contributions in the area, told Booker: "This could be your city. Being involved in this community, they'll love you and you will love them."
The conversation lingered with Booker. I want to be known like that, he thought. I want that kind of a reputation.
Handing out those $100,000 checks is part of the effort. So was committing to Phoenix for the long run last summer by agreeing to a five-year maximum extension ($158 million), even with another gloomy season on the horizon.
"This a basketball city," Booker said. "People have Phoenix Suns tattoos on them. There's a serious fanbase here from the Charles Barkley, Dan Majerle…those days. Coming out here, I was like, Well … I know they love the game of basketball.
"To show that passion, especially in what likely was the worst state that the organization had ever been in, and just to still have that unconditional love and support for me through all of that was unbelievable. At the same time, it's just in me just to be a part of the community. I live here now. My whole family lives here. It's just something that we embrace and took on. This is our home."
"You don't want to get happy on the farm."
It's one of the many folksy sayings Coach Williams has hit Booker and his teammates with this season. One day Booker may actually ask him what it means. For now, it's part of a new mindset the franchise is trying to establish. Outside critiques can't matter. Opponents can't walk into the Suns' home confident they'll leave with a win.
"You can feel the swagger and the confidence of the other team just to start the game, and changing that perception early in the season is important for us," Booker said. "I think we're pushing that narrative right now, that it's not going to be easy."
The roster is a mesh of ascending young players like Booker, Mikal Bridges, Kelly Oubre Jr. and Deandre Ayton (serving a 25-game suspension for violating the NBA/NBPA anti-drug policy for testing positive for a diuretic) and playoff-tested veterans like Rubio, Aron Baynes and Dario Saric.
"We were looking for guys that were accustomed to winning," said James Jones, Phoenix's general manager. "And guys that know what it takes. If you look at all of our acquisitions, from our players to our coaches to our staff, every single one of them, they have a similar pedigree. At some point in their career, they got accustomed to winning and they crave it, and they compete every day trying to pursue that. That's the common thread."
Williams was hired over the spring to weave that thread through a difficult Western Conference. But it's a long season, and there are a lot of old habits to break. As he intimated in another of his unique sayings, "Everything you want is on the other side of hard."
Said Booker: "He never put an explanation behind it, on what it meant. But I think it's kind of like a personal thing ... on what is hard and what's hard to you. … So, every time when it comes down to that nitty gritty, like being able to dig in and just get past that mental wall of where this is hard or there's an easier way around it, instead of just doing it."
Williams is a disciple of Spurs coach Gregg Popovich. "Pop taught me a long time ago not to mess it up, and that was my main goal, was to not get in [a player's] way and mess up what he already had done and could do," Williams said in describing his approach with Booker.
If you look at all of our acquisitions, from our players to our coaches to our staff, every single one of them, they have a similar pedigree. At some point in their career, they got accustomed to winning and they crave it.
— Suns GM James Jones
In assessing him, Williams noticed a player overburdened with offensive duties, an issue he hopes Rubio alleviates. "I thought if we could put [Devin] in an environment, in a culture, that he was excited about, he would be more inclined to keep growing in his game," Williams said. "No disrespect to anybody that's been here before, but ... Ricky was a huge part of it."
The pair developed a quick rapport. Rubio labeled Booker an MVP-caliber-type player, one who can score at will but also one willing to deliver the ball to open teammates. "That's a winning player: when you know you can score over two or three guys and it makes look you good, but it's team first," Rubio said. Booker, in turn, described Rubio as the game's greatest passing point guard, a player who thinks a couple of plays ahead.
"He's not the most athletic," Booker said of Rubio. "He doesn't shoot the ball the best. He's not going in there dunking on anybody or using lightning speed to get by anybody. Everything with him is up here in his mind. He won't say it, but you can tell when he's playing, he's thinking the whole time and he's putting people in the right position.
"He's made it easier for me off the ball. He'll come tell me before a play what's going to happen. Just like this, 'I'm going to dribble at you, I'm going to look at you. This time you're going to do a handoff. Next time you're going back door.' He's two, three plays in advance when he's out there."
Rubio has made the game easier for Booker, which has allowed Williams to ask more from Booker in other facets of the game.
"I know that he's already achieved a lot, and the chasm between where he is now and where he wants to go is huge, and that's a hard thing to overcome," Williams said. "I've seen younger players who wanted more than just scoring points and money. The next big thing is really hard. It usually comes with winning, and winning is hard.
"I ask more of him than I ask of anybody on the team, and that's a hard thing when you're already scoring a bunch of points and playing your butt off every night. And yet I'm on him about boxing out. I'm on him about getting back in transition. But I think if he does that stuff consistently, the whole world is going to see what I believe is one of the most complete players in the NBA."
His teammates see it too—as well as why he needs them to achieve it.
"Book already has the physical skills, everything that a superstar NBA player has," Oubre said. "It's about the guidance at this point. Being in Phoenix, I think his first five years, four years, he hasn't had the necessary stability that he needs to be better every day. Now he does."
The season is still young, but so far the Suns' plan to allow Booker to be himself is helping them get toward the "other side of hard."
"Right now, my main focus is my team's success," Booker said. "In the past, I've put the numbers up, and it doesn't matter. Right now, I think everything comes with winning."
Jonathan Abrams is a senior writer for B/R Mag. A former staff writer at Grantland and sports reporter at the New York Times and Los Angeles Times, Abrams is also the best-selling author of All the Pieces Matter: The Inside Story of The Wire—available right here, right now. Follow him on Twitter, @jpdabrams.