PHOENIX – He arrives early on game nights, usually finishing a modest shooting routine before the early fans enter US Airways Center two hours before the opening tip.
This is the time reserved for main-court work by the Phoenix Suns’ out-of-the-rotation players, with the others chugging through several grueling drills while he waits for an opportunity to squeeze in a few jumpers.
“I’m kind of like car in the garage you haven’t gotten to yet that just needs to sit,” Channing Frye said at the end of one of these sessions.
Right, the car that has been parked since the check-engine light went on during a routine stress test. At age 29, the Suns’ power forward was diagnosed with an enlarged heart caused by a rare virus.
So, as his teammates attempt to climb out of another early season cavern, their 6-foot-11 floor-spacer waits in the wings, monitoring the ups and downs front the second row, wishing he could go out and occupy some help-side defenders.
Although his shooting range was incapable of helping the Suns reach the playoffs the past two seasons, Frye’s importance to the efficiency of their offense was genuine.
According to the analytics heads, the Suns’ points-per-100-possession numbers have been much greater with Frye on the floor than not over the previous three seasons. The only player who moved the needle more in the team’s favor was Steve Nash.
But with a logjam of good-but-not-great guys at power forward on the current roster, Frye’s ability to pin a help defender at the 3-point line and help Marcin Gortat protect the rim could help . . . eventually.
“The season’s pretty much out of the realm of possibility,” Frye said. “I’ll probably get retested in March. Right now, I’m just trying to stay involved a little bit, you know, and just make sure I’m mentally taking notes and really working on things that, before, I never had time to do.”
To a professional athlete in — at least chronologically — his physical prime, having all the time in the world is the real challenge. Yoga, golf and “light, old-people-light weightlifting” do little to assuage the competitive drive.
“I’m getting a slice of what it’s like to be retired,” Frye said, “and I’m not ready to go yet.”
Frye believes he’ll play again, but the requirement for preparing his body for a return has been turned upside down. Waiting for his heart to not be enlarged is something of an anti-rehab rehab.
“If it was something I could work out,” he said, “something that I could put time in on . . . you know, eat this or don’t drink that . . . take this vitamin . . . it would be something different.
“It’s the one problem that hard work can’t solve — only resting can.”
And for a gangly local kid who always has been told he’s probably not going to be good enough, this is an entirely new battle.
When he reached the varsity level at Phoenix St. Mary’s, for example, Frye’s ability to keep pace with his gifted teammates was doubted. When he became one of the region’s best high school post players, critics were quick to diminish his potential when compared to that of a California kid named Tyson Chandler.
When he began suiting up for the University of Arizona, the naysayers — wondering whether being a productive Wildcat was beyond his capacity — chirped again. And when he was drafted in the lottery by the New York Knicks, Frye was expected to flop in the big city.
But now, instead of lobbing any doubt onto his motivational fire, Frye must engage his current obstacle by relaxing.
“If you think about it,” he said, “from the time I was in seventh grade, I’ve never had time to rest. Somebody was always doing something or somebody somewhere else was working harder.
“I always had that level of stress — you know, am I doing enough? And now, it’s like am I doing not enough . . . am I resting enough?”
He could stay away from US Airways Center and perhaps mitigate the frustration of not playing. For a young man attempting and needing to sidestep stress, being that close to something you love makes it easy to gather anxiety.
But staying away only would serve a young man giving up, an athlete doubting his ability to play again.
While still knocking in 3-pointers — four, five, six in succession — with an easy snap of the wrist, Frye fussed to himself about keeping the mid-foot area of his new Kevin Durant-model Nikes in contact with the USAC’s shiny new floor.
“Stay off your toes,” he whispered.
These, by the way, were Oklahoma City Thunder-colored Nikes; Frye said the shoes are A-plus in the comfort department, but he’s waiting to be sent a few pairs that match the Suns’ uniforms. He’s considering far more than a future in golf shoes.
Speaking of uniforms, Frye is a bit peeved that — of all seasons — he’s forced to miss a campaign marked by the return of black jerseys.
“I’ve been telling ’em to bring those back for years,” he said, affecting a mock groan. “It’s little things like that. And being around my teammates . . . I miss the camaraderie.”
Maybe the retro look will be accompanied by some good karma and the black uniforms will return next season — maybe just in time for Frye’s comeback.
While he’s attempting a big recovery by doing as little as possible, Frye’s attempting to block the career disappointment by leaning on life-related perspective.
“Why fight it?” he said. “That causes more stress. I won’t say I’m pretty Zen right now, but I’m pretty cool about a lot of things, and it’s taken a lot of stress out of my life.”
But refusing to close the door on competing again requires Frye to stay within shooting range of his team. He’s grateful for added time with his family at home while maintaining ties with his family at work, shooting a few jumpers on game nights to “make sure things are staying functional.”
Doctor-ordered “chillin’ out” takes some soul-searching.
“It’s very difficult,” Frye said. “You know, I think — especially at the beginning — I worked so hard this summer to get back from my shoulder. It’s been a long road back. Like I said, I’m not going to stress about shoulda, coulda, woulda.
“I didn’t know what was wrong with my heart. The doctors didn’t know. If people knew that for a week I thought I was going to die the next time I exercised . . .”
And now, people who frequently were aggravated when Frye failed to do more, when he wasn’t Amar’e Stoudemire — or one of several nasty power forwards working the NBA glass — might be wondering how the local kid is doing, how he’s holding up.
“Tell them I’m doing great,” he said. “I’m very positive, and I do appreciate their support.
“Going through this process has really basically shown me that this is a game, I love this game — I want to come back and I’m going to come back. But I have to be patient, because there are things that are way more important. Life is good, man.”