RISING SUNS: From Charles Barkley to Chris Paul and a long-awaited return to the NBA Finals, Julie Fie has seen it all in Phoenix
By Brandon Hurley
Julie Fie’s Midwestern roots remain deeply imbedded.
The Jefferson native’s loyalty is perhaps her greatest tool, sidestepping a decade’s worth of inadequacy in order to once again reach her profession’s pinnacle.
Sure, the 1977 Jefferson High School graduate was there to witness the glory days of Steve Nash, Amar’e Stoudemire and the seven seconds or less Mike D’Antoni led-Phoenix Suns of the late 2000s, and prior to that she embraced her front office role during Phoenix’s great 90s era of Charles Barkley, Kevin Johnson and Thunder Dan Majerle, but the excruciating pain of losing never seemed to soften.
The Suns’ vice president of communications’ grittiness, born in Jefferson, has been witness to the only two Finals appearances in franchise history, nearly 30 years apart.
Phoenix is back the NBA Finals 28 years later, aided by a sizable lead over the Milwaukee Bucks.
Fie began working in the NBA in 1981 with the then Kansas City Kings. She’s been with the Suns organization since 1992, marking a career in professional basketball that’s spanned 40 years.
The return trek to the mountain top was certainly not an easy one.
A simple cure for historical mediocrity is winning. Victories which come in bulk are even more tantalizing.
A fierce loyalty plays a key as well.
That familial, ingrained characteristic has allowed Fie to endure some one of the worst stretches in franchise history, grinding her way through the lean years, waiting for a return to glory.
From intoxicating highs to excruciating lows, the Arizona-based organization spent the last 10 years toiling as bottom-feeders, averaging just 25 wins per year over a three season span. Fie stuck with the franchise, piloting the communications department, engineering credential requests via phone calls and email inquiries along with timely execution of player interviews. She witnessed an astonishing rebuild first hand, admiring the franchise’s patience, which was parlayed into the Suns’ first playoff appearance since 2011, eventually bleeding its way into the magical Finals appearance.
Fie’s fierce passion is not something she developed on the fly, it was planted within, its roots carving their way 1,100 miles back to Iowa.
Without the lessons gained from her upbringing in small town Jefferson, Fie may have thrown in the towel and moved on to another more prosperous team. But she stuck it out, and now enjoys the fruits of her labor.
“I don’t think if I was raised outside of Iowa, or if I wasn’t raised where you set (down) your roots and go through the good times and hard times - whether it’s the weather, the crops, whatever,” Fie said. “There’s just something in the Midwest (that) people who share the ups and downs but keep on going.
The Fie family is a model of perseverance. Julie has worked in the NBA for more than 40 years while her late father, Larry, coached many successful teams at Jefferson High, which he later parlayed into an executive position at AAI in town. His daughter developed her persistence while watching her role model generate his own success. She maintained a belief success would come back.
“I think I would credit my family (for that),” Fie said. “My dad was a lot that way too. Your loyalty wins out. I maybe could’ve had different opportunities to leave and do things, but I really love Phoenix. Once I’d gotten here and loved being in this environment, I don’t want to say it made it easier, but that is perhaps why it was not always an option to try to go someplace else when the times were tough, because I just always believed that the times can get better.”
Phoenix’s return to greatness was blessed with a young core and a surprising offseason trade.
INSERT A LEGEND
With a remarkable similarity to the Suns - and Fie’s - first Finals appearance in 1993, the Suns franchise transformed via a blockbuster transaction the offseason prior.
Future Hall of Famer Charles Barkley was traded to the Suns via Philly prior to the 1992-93 season in exchange for former Iowa State Cyclone Jeff Hornacek, Tim Perry and Andrew Lang, which propelled the Suns to a season-ending matchup with Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls. In a similar turn of events, a recent superstar acquisition sprang Phoenix to the top this summer. Chris Paul was brought in from the Oklahoma City Thunder this past offseason for Ricky Rubio, Kelly Oubre and a future first round pick.
It’s safe to say that gamble paid off.
The Suns ran through the 2021 playoffs before falling to the Bucks, 4-2 in the Finals, dispatching the defending champion LA Lakers in the first round, sliding past the Denver Nuggets in round two before defeating the LA Clippers in the Western Conference Finals a few weeks ago. The Suns captured a 2-0 lead in the Finals before Milwaukee initiated its stunning turnaround.
The trek was never as simple as it looked, to say the least. Paul was sidelined a few games for a shoulder injury, then was banned from Game 1 of the WCF for a positive COVID-19 test while leading scorer Devin Booker suffered a broken during that same series.
The Suns’ resiliency mirrors their long-time media representative.
The daughter of the late legendary Jefferson basketball coach Larry Fie was overwhelmed with emotion when the Suns knocked off the Clippers with a convincing game 6 triumph, 130-103 on June 30. Twenty-eight years of praying for a return, witnessing the worst, which included failed draft picks and good, but not great playoff runs, was finally a thing of the past.
It was a time to celebrate the achievements.
“I won’t lie about this, I had tears of joy,” Fie said, clearly shaken with emotion as she recalled the ensuing celebration. “It was very, very enjoyable. It’s been a long time.
I was so young and naive and focused on the job the first time (we went to the Finals in 1993) that I wasn’t understanding the so-called journey. This time, it was much easier to understand that it is all about the journey.”
There are natural differences between Fie’s last Finals appearance, of course.
The current state of the world is most noticeable. Though civil unrest was fairly prevalent in 1993 (Rodney King was beaten by a pair of LA police officers, later inciting riots), the US was focused primarily on space expeditions, launching a new space shuttle while monitoring the Mars Observer. In 2021, racial issues plague the nation while a still ongoing pandemic threatens the fabric of the world. And yes, the rules and regulations of the NBA are a tad more strict.
Navigating a professional season amid new and changing protocols will forever link Fie to this most recent Finals run. While the media credential requests are far inferior this time around, the email inquiries are almost overwhelming.
“The changes in the limitations that are both on the media and what the players can do, and how we go about doing those kind of things,” Fie said. “Whereas in 93, we had to have 500 media people on site. Here, this time, we have, 200 media and if you add broadcasting, more than that, but when you start adding how many people are being reached through (video calls), and just some of the international broadcasts that are going on, that’s a lot of people that aren’t on site, whereas the last time there was a lot of people on site.”
Fie has traveled through a whirlwind of gratification and redemption as the Phoenix Suns’ vice president of communications. She’s cherished the onslaught of coordination and celebration along with a bit of exceptional basketball as well.
“It’s been very, very fun,” Fie said. “When you’re in this kind of business, whether you’re playing the game or any of the other things that go with it, it’s just fun to be able to be at the top of it and see the best of it all. It’s been very enjoyable.”
Despite the monumental success this playoff run has brought, the season as a whole has taken its toll on the mental well-being of the entire organization. The stress caused by attempting to play basketball during a world-wide pandemic has been tough.
COVID WREAKS HAVOC
The isolation remains rather crippling.
All Fie can do is wave, send a few texts and answer pleading phone calls. Old friends become momentary acquaintances. Hugs are off limits. Seating is rather restricted.
Even as her career reaches another crescendo and family and friends flock to the southwest in celebration, Fie must abide by the rules for a little while longer. Safety and a championship are of the utmost priority, which means daily COVID testing and at times, even multiple tests per day.
“I’ll have friends that want to go do things, but the bottom line is, that’s really not an option I have right now. We are only supposed to be around people that are tested daily,” Fie said. “No one wants to be that person who upsets it all.”
The hardest part for Fie, she said, is not being able to share the joy of a title run with her friends and family. As a hugger, she’s found it rather difficult avoiding the human touch of compassion, even as her closest supporters flock to the Southwest.
“(It’s meant) a lot more phone calls, texts, reaching out and keeping up with friends,” Fie said. “I think everybody felt isolated and we sensed the community of friends, and we felt it was time to pause and reconnect (no matter where we were), so that was nice. I’d call that a blessing.”
Road trips are restricted to relaxing in the hotel room, no venturing out to see the sights and sounds of Milwaukee. But that’s OK, Fie said, she’s got plenty of inquiries to keep her busy.
As the COVID-19 pandemic begins to slow, the Suns and Fie are zeroed in on bringing home the title. The organization is just a few wins away from their first-ever NBA championship. The anticipation has really started to build within the city.
The decades long wait has not only worn on the Suns franchise, but the fan base and Phoenix community as well. The success of the 90s and the early 2000s was a bit of a tease, allowing the supporters to envision what could be. The down years were destined to make way for victory, Fie said, and they all stuck with it.
“There was so much angst within the community, whether it be the fans or the media, or just sponsorships or people like that, they became disgruntled,” Fie said.
As one of the longest tenured members of the organization, and certainly the most loyal front office member, the climb has been a tad bittersweet. Perseverance has won out thanks to an aggressive game plan.
The sun has risen again.
“Finally, people understood something really significant has to happen to change what’s happening in the franchise,” Fie said. “You have give ownership credit to understand that and say, ‘You know what, these hires have to be the right ones’ and they came through with it.”