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Patty Talahongva
ICT

Sounds of appreciation resonated around the locker room as the Phoenix Suns players got their first glimpse of the City Edition jerseys they’ll play in this season.

“Oh snap,” “wow,” and happy nods came from the players with Chris Paul saying, “The uniforms are dope!” And Cameron Johnson adding, “Oh, they’re pretty, they’re very pretty.”

This season each NBA team is unveiling a jersey that’s unique to the city where they play. The jersey can also divert from the team’s official colors.

Suns’ management, guided by Shawn Martinez who is Diné and the senior director of live presentation, spent more than two years designing the jersey. They consulted with the Inter Tribal Council of Arizona, Nike’s N-7 program, the Heard Museum and more Native groups in Phoenix.

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“Our City Edition this year is a lot more than basketball, it has a lot more meaning than the other ones out there,” Graham Wincott, the senior marketing director of the Suns told the players.

(Related: NBA rez dreams: A reality for Shawn Martinez)

The players were given the new jerseys on Oct. 14, 2022 along with some tribal history.

“The Hohokam tribe actually helped build the canal system that makes Phoenix a viable city to live in,” Wincott explained.

Wincott, Martinez and Stephen Lewis, the governor of the Gila River Indian Community spoke to the players in the locker room.

Cameron Payne. Photo courtesy Phoenix Suns.

After greeting them in his language, the governor said, “This land, even here underneath the beautiful Footprint Center, all of Phoenix, was our traditional land.”

Lewis jokingly nicknamed the jersey. “I would call it the Tribal edition, right? Or the Rez edition that is very special.”

The bright turquoise jersey features the word “Sun” in each of the 22 tribal languages in the state prompting Deandre Ayton to raise his eyebrows as he looked over each word.

“Turquoise is such an important stone to us. The color, it’s like you’re going into battle and this is going to protect you,” said the governor.

“You’re going to be honoring all 22 tribes everytime you wear this,” he added.

Martinez told the players the jerseys are going to bring hope to all the Native kids who see them playing in the jerseys. He also introduced himself in the Navajo language and told them the handmade beaded medallions they also received were made by Bethany Smith.

“This is a shield, it’s also protection, that’s why I wear this down there cause we all go to battle together,” he said.

The players know Martinez and many have complimented him on the beaded Suns medallion he wears at each game. They were thrilled to receive their own medallion and several put it on as soon as they saw it in the gift box. Mikal Bridges said he was hoping they would get a beaded medallion and Chris Paul said he’s going to keep it in his locker all season so he can see it before each home game.

“So all this history is dope to me,” said Paul. He admitted not knowing much about the tribes in Arizona prior to this.

“Not much to tell you the truth. Not as much as the information that we just got in there which makes it really dope. You know anytime you're going out playing, you know playing for something bigger than yourself is always really special.”

“I've designed shoes over my 18 year career and every last one of my shoes theres a chevron logo on it that represents my late grandfather that was murdered, right? I have my kids' birthdays and all these different type things on them. It's very meaningful when I play. So to find out that all the 22 tribes are represented on the jersey, the color turquoise is not just a cool looking color, you know they told us that means that you're shielded when you're going into battle. I think that just gives all of us a little bit more purpose and it makes it a lot more meaningful.”

Devon Booker, Damon Lee and all the players listened intently as Gov. Lewis spoke calling the jersey historic and unprecedented to have a major sports franchise recognize the Indigenous people of Arizona.

In 2018 the Oklahoma City Thunder had a jersey that represented the tribes in their state. It was also turquoise and had Native designs. The team worked with Nike to design the jersey.

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Gov. Lewis thanked the Suns’ organization for working with tribal leaders on this unique jersey. “I really appreciate the Phoenix Suns going above and beyond, and they wanted to do this right, instead of doing it without tribal input,” he said. “They came to the experts who are the tribes themselves.”

“I think the design catches your eye enough that you’re gonna be like, what’s the meaning behind that? And I think it’ll drum up some noise on that end,” Johnson said.

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“You as the Phoenix Suns, you show hope to all of the Native ballers,” the governor said.

Paul added, “Everything is always a lot more meaningful when there's an education component to it. You should have seen the guys in the locker room, everybody was just so excited to learn. It's a big credit to the team, the organization and everybody that made it happen.”

After the uniform reveal the players suited up for a promotion photo and video shoot with 22 youth representing each tribe.

“When the players came out I kinda got nervous,” said Navasta Dennis, who was representing the Hopi tribe. “I was happy to see them.”

After warming up to the idea of standing next to top NBA players, the kids chatted them up. Dennis says he talked to Torrey Craig. “I was asking him about his season and how he’s going to improve this year.”

Katie Roveldo says the experience was awesome. “The feeling I felt was like, super exciting because usually I’m in the stands watching the games but I actually got to be on the court.”

She said Coach Monty Williams asked her what sports she played and where she was from. He also wanted to know what it was like on her reservation.

Shatalya Titla, represented the White Mountain Apache Tribe. “Everytime I took pictures with them I felt so tiny beside them because they’re taller than me,” she said and giggled.

Shatalya Titla and her mother, Hersha, stand on the new court that features the Suns' logo with feathers representing the colors of the Medicine Wheel. Shatalya is the Miss White Mountain Apache Princess and represents the children of her tribe. (Patty Talahongva, ICT)

Title was seated next to Johnson during the photo shoot. The Suns’ forward had a lively conversation with her. “She was talking the whole time, giggling, even during serious pitches,” he laughed. “She was showing me her shoes, her moccasins. She was showing me her buckskin bag with the bells on it.”

“She had on two bracelets and maybe three rings, all of them turquoise for protection, like the jersey.”

Title says they talked about what she was wearing. Johnson learned about her bag with an elk tooth clasp which she called her lucky charm.

As the photographer tried to wrangle the excited kids for the photo shoot, Martinez noted the atmosphere.

“It was both exciting and emotional,” he said. “As we were taking the picture I could feel the energy of the 22 youth that were standing there and I almost started crying but I held it in.”

Everyone got to see the newly designed court that also pays homage to the tribes in Arizona. At center court a feather design forms a medicine wheel and a turquoise accent surrounds each basket.

The governor said Barnaby Lewis, a spiritual leader from Gila River, blessed the new court.

It’s a tribute that Johnson says will give notice to tribes, who he says aren’t given enough attention. “I don’t think the Native presence here is talked about enough, looked at enough, helped enough. So I think this is a good place for us to start right now.”

The home game against the champion Golden State Warriors was specifically targeted for the debut of the uniform on Nov. 16, 2022, according to Wincott.

“Playing the champs on ESPN, this is intentional,” Wincott said. “ESPN is going to have to tell the whole country, ‘Why are the Suns wearing turquoise and what does it mean?’ So all of the United States is going to find out in one game, why we’re doing this.”

The announcers will have a fact sheet to help explain the designs on the jersey as well as the tribal words for sun.

The players will wear this uniform seven times on the road and in cities that have a large Indigenous population like Oklahoma City, Minneapolis and Toronto.

They will wear the jersey at 10 home games as they honor the tribes throughout the season. It’s all part of the celebration called Originativ and is being sponsored by the Gila River Resorts and Casino.

The celebration kicks off during Native American Heritage Month.

“Man, I think it's all about representation to tell you the truth and to be out here and take these photos with these kids, you know for me, I honestly hope I get a chance to go visit one of the rez,” Paul said. “I would love to go see these kids and you know, show them we care about them.”

“The kid that was standing next to me was 12 years old. I'm a parent, I've got a 13 year old and a 10 year old. Hope is one of the biggest things I think a lot of people lack, so if we can do that, you know, today on that small scale, I can only imagine what it's going to feel like when we actually playing the game,” Paul said.

Martinez added: “It's unbelievable. It's something that I could never dream growing up in Fort Defiance on the Navajo reservation saying, ‘Wow, I'm with the Suns and they're wearing a Native American jersey.’”

“I hope it shows that we see them and we care about them and we want to honor them and we want to give them hope. We want to give them motivation and, you know, whatever else we can for them to achieve their goals, Johnson said.

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