50 Years of the Suns

50 Years of the Suns

Written by Ron Matejko, Craig Outhier & Douglas C. Towne Category: History Issue: November 2017
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Shazam! The Valley’s original big-time pro sports team is turning 50. tip off the season with this one-of-a-kind semicentennial salute.

Historic photos courtesy Phoenix Suns

Photography by Steve Fischer

Dawn of the Suns

by Douglas C. Towne

The 1968 NBA debut of the Phoenix Suns – then the Valley’s sole major sports franchise – prophesied big things for the modest-size desert city. And then came the coin flips.

As perhaps the greatest near-miss franchise in modern American sports – many winning teams, but no championships – the Phoenix Suns provide their fans with plenty of grist for one of those “most heartbreaking moment” debates. Some would cite the infuriating 2007 playoff series with the San Antonio Spurs, when Suns star forward Amar’e Stoudemire leapt to his feet to defend teammate Steve Nash during an on-court mugging, triggering a mystifying one-game suspension that tipped the series to the Spurs. Others ruefully point to Chicago Bulls guard John Paxson’s three-point dagger with four seconds on the clock in the decisive Game 6 of the 1993 Finals. Still others recall the 1987 drug scandal that effectively ended the career of beloved Suns great Walter Davis.

All worthy of consideration. But what could be more heartbreaking than losing a championship dynasty with the flip of a coin?

The year was 1969. Slam dunks were still called “stuffs” back then, Gatorade was the latest athletic fad and the Suns were limping to the finish line of a 16-66 season – their first in the NBA after joining the league the previous winter. But there was a 7-foot-2 lollipop waiting for them at the end of the ordeal: UCLA center Lew Alcindor, who would later cement his legacy as Hall of Fame superstar Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. The most celebrated player of his generation, Alcindor was so overpowering in college that the NCAA briefly outlawed dunks to temper his dominance. It didn’t work. He led the Bruins to three championships in three years.

To claim Alcindor, the Suns had but one hurdle: the Milwaukee Bucks, also an expansion franchise coming off a difficult year. Per the terms of expansion, the teams would flip a coin to determine who would have the first pick – which would be Alcindor, all pundits agreed – in the spring’s NBA amateur draft.

original Suns team
Original Suns team

On a balmy March afternoon in Manhattan, the stage was set for a Suns victory, as NBA Commissioner J. Walter Kennedy drew a piece of paper labeled “Phoenix” in front of three television cameras in his high-rise office. The draw allowed the Suns to call the coin flip via a three-way telephone hookup from Phoenix. Suns President Richard Bloch called “heads” on the toss of a 1964 Kennedy half-dollar – a proxy decision made not by the Suns front office, but by the team’s fans in an Arizona Republic poll.

After the coin landed, Kennedy said, “You should hear the cheering, it sounds like election night.” Unfortunately for Suns fans, the sound was coming from the telephone line connected to Milwaukee.

“It’s not the end of the world,” Suns General Manager Jerry Colangelo told the Arizona Republic. “It takes four to five years to build into a contender. But Lew would have speeded up the process.”

Two years later, Milwaukee would become the fastest NBA expansion franchise to win a championship. The Suns, on the other hand, are still waiting in the year 2018. What’s often forgotten, however, is that the Suns had an unexpected shot at coin-flip redemption just two months after that fateful day in Manhattan – a turn of luck that would lead to their own Finals appearance in 1975, and a five-decade tradition of winning surpassed by only three other franchises in NBA history.

Championship or no, Phoenix became a basketball town.

The Suns’ story begins, strangely, with hockey. Contrary to popular perception, the Suns weren’t the first “professional” sports team to call Phoenix home. Prior to 1968, myriad minor league baseball teams played in the Valley. There was also a semi-pro football team – ironically, also named the Suns – as well as a variety of fringy team sports. All professional, after a fashion.

There was also the Phoenix Roadrunners of the now-defunct Western Hockey Association. Launched by Phoenix businessman Karl Eller in 1967, the minor league team played to a rabid fan base at Arizona Veterans Memorial Coliseum and helped establish Phoenix – the country’s 29th most populous city with less than 500,000 residents at the start of the 1960s – as a viable market for professional sports.

The Roadrunners were also part of Eller’s master plan for a big-league sports empire in Phoenix – a stepping stone that he hoped would lead to an NBA team and ultimately an NFL franchise. Hatching his plot while hosting potential investors at center ice, Eller formed a partnership with Tucson attorney Donald Pitt and Beverly Hills investment broker Richard Bloch to put in a bid for an NBA franchise in late 1967.

PHOENIX magazine, October 1968

The Suns/PHX Mag Connection
Founded in 1966, PHOENIX magazine was toddling through its first few years of existence when the Phoenix Suns came squawking to life in 1968 – and maybe that’s why we took such a shine to the “NBA’s Newest Offspring,” as our editors described them in an October 1968 cover story. Over the years, we’ve profiled Suns players, coaches and owners so often – from Jerry Colangelo’s family photos to Raja Bell’s racecars – that their birthday feels like ours. Anyway, no way we’d miss the party. Salut!

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The NBA was in a growing way at the time. It had expanded in each of the two previous seasons, adding the Chicago Bulls, Seattle SuperSonics (now the Oklahoma City Thunder) and the San Diego (now Houston) Rockets to bring its total to 12 teams.

Phoenix was in competition with Milwaukee, Kansas City and Cleveland for two expansion slots in 1968. “We’re pretty confident,” Eller told The Arizona Republic. “I think the town is getting more mature in its thinking toward sports and more sophisticated. The timing is right.”

Despite Eller’s confidence, a question loomed in sporting circles: Was Phoenix a big-league city? Some NBA executives thought the Wild West town was more suited for rodeo cowboys and clowns than for a professional basketball team. Thus, the Suns became a referendum of sorts for the Valley itself and its readiness to step onto the great American stage.

NBA Commissioner Kennedy was so dubious about Phoenix’s capacity to support a team that he made an undercover visit in 1967. He caught a Roadrunners game and saw the energetic crowd. He chatted with barbers and cab drivers about sports. He saw the impressive 12,224-seat Arizona Veterans Memorial Coliseum, completed for State Fair events in 1965, which may have sealed the deal. Along with Milwaukee, Phoenix was awarded a franchise for $2 million in January 1968.

Reportedly, Eller and his partners wanted Alex Hannum, coach of the defending NBA Champion Philadelphia 76ers, to serve as the team’s founding floor leader. Hannum, however, wanted total control of the expansion team as both coach and general manager. Balking at Hannum’s power grab, the owners instead hired 28-year-old Jerry Colangelo, formerly an executive assistant with the Chicago Bulls, giving him the ambiguous title of “administrative manager.” He was soon promoted to become the youngest general manager in professional sports. When asked by the Republic if his youth was a liability, Colangelo replied, “On the contrary, I’m not so old that I have set ideas. I investigate every angle without preconceived notions.”

Colangelo hired Johnny “Red” Kerr, the 1967 NBA Coach of the Year with the Chicago Bulls, to lead the team, which had been christened the Phoenix Suns – a name selected from 28,590 contest entries in The Arizona Republic, beating out such suggestions as “Desert Cats,” “Peppers,” and “Tarantulas.” Selinda King, one of the 372 who suggested the winning name, had her name drawn to win $1,000, two season tickets and Stadium Club privileges. Previously a Philadelphia 76ers booster, King said, “From now on, I’m rooting for the Suns!”

The Suns’ moniker, as noted previously, had been used by a Phoenix football team in the Western Professional Football League more than a decade before. The football team’s owner had copyrighted the name and received an out-of-court settlement for its use from the NBA team, according to a 1981 Republic article.

young GM Jerry Colangelo serving as interim head coach during the ‘68-’69 season
young GM Jerry Colangelo serving as interim head coach during the ‘68-’69 season

The Suns’ first roster was stocked by drafting veteran players from the existing 12 NBA teams, each of which was allowed to protect seven players, with the rest exposed to Phoenix or Milwaukee. Dick Van Arsdale, called the “Original Sun” for being the first pick, came from the New York Knicks, and future NBA Hall of Famer Gail Goodrich from the Los Angeles Lakers. “Never in my wildest dreams did I think we would come out so well,” Colangelo told the Republic. The team also participated in the regular NBA amateur draft, selecting Gary Gregor, a center who played one season with the Suns and was named to the NBA All-Rookie team.

The team explored playing regular-season games in Albuquerque, El Paso and Tucson, thinking that a regional identity might provide a larger fan base. “We are interested in making Tucson a second home for the Phoenix Suns,” Colangelo said to the Arizona Daily Star. Four home games were scheduled in Tucson high school gyms, though none in the other two cities.

Incredibly, the Suns’ preseason debut was in Miami, Arizona, a small copper-mining town 80 miles east of Phoenix. The NBA team played the Seattle SuperSonics before 2,000 spectators in the town’s high school gym. While Suns fans are familiar with recent team catchphrases such as “Planet Orange,” “Eyes on the Prize” and “Seven Seconds or Less,” this was the Swinging ‘60s, and Coach Kerr preached “LSD” to his players in their opener. Kerr wasn’t promoting psychedelics, but a “Loose, Scrambling Defense,” which precipitated a 104-99 victory over the SuperSonics. More importantly, the Suns had bonded as a team, as evidenced by a bench-clearing brawl in the Miami game’s final moments.

The excitement surrounding the Suns enticed singers Andy Williams and Bobbie Gentry (of “Ode to Billy Joe” fame), actors Tony Curtis and Ed Ames, and composer Henry Mancini to become minority team owners. Williams and Mancini performed a halftime concert at the Coliseum during the Suns’ only preseason game against the San Diego Rockets. After a 2-6 preseason record, the Suns tipped off for their first official game, which featured a halftime concert by Gentry, on October 19, 1968. Van Arsdale scored the team’s first points on a layup; the Suns notched 41 points to set an NBA record for most points posted in an opening quarter, building a 20-point lead. The team beat the SuperSonics 116-107 before 7,112 fans in seats priced between $2 and $5 at what became known as the “Madhouse on McDowell.”

One of those spectators was long-time Suns broadcaster Al McCoy. “Goodrich had 27 points and 10 assists,” McCoy says in his distinctive voice, recalling the stats as if the game was yesterday. “He was an excellent ball-handler and the first of the Suns’ many outstanding point guards.” McCoy, who was the Roadrunners’ announcer, impressed Colangelo with his broadcast skills, and the team made him its play-by-play voice in 1970.

first Phoenix Suns program
first Phoenix Suns program

Despite the initial excitement of opening night, the Valley was slow to warm to the Suns, and the team averaged only 4,340 fans a game in its debut season. “When the Lakers or Celtics would come to Phoenix, they would draw the big crowds,” McCoy says. “The Roadrunners hockey team initially outdrew the Suns at the Coliseum.”

The team’s on-court performance cooled, too. After seven games, the Suns posted a respectable 4-3 record but had fallen to 8-26 when they made their national television debut on Christmas Day 1968, losing to the Lakers before a season-high home crowd of 10,355. Although the team finished its inaugural season with a 16-66 record, Van Arsdale recalls the year as a wonderful time. “We always came to play hard, but some of the other teams were just loaded with talent.”

The Suns’ prognosis was brightened by the possibility of drafting Alcindor – a possibility instantly dashed to bits with the team’s “heads” call in New York the following March. “It turned out to be the most costly lost coin flip in sports history,” Marshall Trimble, Arizona’s State Historian, says. “Some claim it produced a curse that has dogged the Suns ever since.”

In 1969, Connie Hawkins was perhaps the most talented basketball player on the planet never to step foot on an NBA basketball court. A graceful, electric, impeccably proportioned 6-foot-8 power forward, Hawkins was a playground legend from Brooklyn whose acrobatic drives to the hoop and bone-jarring dunks presaged Julius “Dr. J” Irving and other modern hoops stars. He was an evolutionary leap forward. An archetype in waiting.

“I’ve seen the best in the NBA, but I’ve never seen anyone better than Hawkins,” Alcindor said of the future Hall of Famer.

But Hawkins was also a pariah to image-conscious NBA executives. As a star player for the University of Iowa in the early 1960s, Hawkins was linked to a point-shaving conspiracy by federal investigators. Though he was never indicted and his role in the scheme was coincidental at best, Iowa yanked his scholarship and the NBA blackballed him from playing in the league. Faced with limited alternatives, he performed with the Harlem Globetrotters (1963-67) before signing on with the upstart American Basketball Association in 1967, leading the Pittsburgh Pipers to an ABA championship during his 1968 MVP season.

Phoenix mayor Milton Graham at the name unveiling with Colangelo, Coach Kerr and contest winner King
Phoenix mayor Milton Graham at the name unveiling with Colangelo, Coach Kerr and contest winner King
PHM1117PX46
original Sun Van Arsdale

Meanwhile, Hawkins’ lawyers chipped away at the NBA with a $6 million civil lawsuit alleging collusion and unfair labor practices. Finally, just as Hawkins was entering his athletic prime at age 27, the NBA settled, paying him $1.3 million and facilitating his entry into the league. The question was: Which of the NBA’s 14 teams would get him? Once again, it came down to a coin flip between the two teams deemed the weakest in the league: Seattle and Phoenix.

The toss took place in Detroit during the annual NBA owners’ meetings in the summer of 1969. Current ownership has no record whether the Suns called heads or tails, but one thing is certain: It was the correct call. Hawkins would be playing in Phoenix. “It was a great comeback for the Suns,” Colangelo told the Republic. “Not every club has a second chance to get a superstar.”

“The Hawk” immediately propelled the Suns into relevance, averaging 24.6 points and 10.4 rebounds a game during the 1969-1970 season while leading them to a 39-43 record and, more importantly, a playoff berth. Finally, the Suns were generating real buzz in the Valley – the kind of viral fan excitement that eluded them during their first year. “I learned how to play basketball by watching Hawkins, with his swoop shot, left-handed flip layup and finger rolls,” says photojournalist Rick Davis, who played basketball at Grand Canyon University in the 1980s and later covered the Suns for FOX 10 News. He occasionally attended Suns games for free, courtesy of his father, a Phoenix police officer who worked off-duty at the Coliseum.

“It was a happy time. Phoenix was a small town, and everyone knew one another and got along,” Davis says. “The guy who played the organ would get the crowd fired up. The biggest security issue was streakers running across the court later on.”

Former Arizona Republic sports writer Tom Gibbons recalls that every Jack in the Box restaurant featured a poster of Hawkins dunking on a Chicago Bulls player. “He had huge hands and could palm a basketball,” Gibbons says. “Everyone in Phoenix tried to do that; it was called ‘Hawking the ball’ in my neighborhood.”

The Suns’ popularity became apparent in some unexpected settings around Phoenix. “I was sitting on a barstool in a dark saloon, and this tall, beautiful woman walked over to me, smiled and asked if I was Dick Van Arsdale,” Trimble recalls. “I was 5-foot-10-inches in cowboy boots. ​When I stood up and gave her my best Robert Redford smile,​  a look of sad disappointment spread across her face as she slowly said, ‘No, I guess you’re not.’”

Hall of Fame forward Hawkins
Hall of Fame forward Hawkins
Colangelo at arena site in 1989
Colangelo at arena site in 1989

In the Western Division playoffs, the Suns opened a 3-1 semifinal lead on a star-laden Los Angeles Lakers squad – which included future Hall of Famers Wilt Chamberlain, Jerry West and Elgin Baylor – before surrendering three straight games and the series. Colangelo, who by then had also assumed head coaching duties, told the Republic, “We went farther than we thought we ever could, and we’ll be back.” Indeed, they would. The Suns had made their mark in the NBA and their average attendance increased 75 percent to 7,617 in their second season.

The Suns remained competitive throughout the decade, culminating in the team’s improbable 1976 playoff run behind the play of newly-acquired guard Paul Westphal – who would later coach the team – and rookie center Alvan Adams. Barely a .500 team in the regular season, the Suns advanced all the way to the NBA Finals against the vaunted Boston Celtics. The series included the NBA’s first Finals triple-overtime contest, which is sometimes cited as the greatest game ever played. McCoy recalls the iconic game as his most unusual broadcasting moment, with Celtics fans having purchased the seats next to the Suns’ broadcast table. “The guy next to me was enjoying his beer and every time the Celtics made a good play, he’d bang my arm and say, ‘How do you like that?’ During the second overtime when Garfield Heard hit his incredible shot, he passed out in my lap,” McCoy says. “I’m trying to see what’s going on live on the air and at the same time get this guy out of my lap.”

The Suns ultimately lost the series in six games, but the team’s bonding process with Phoenix was complete. Over the subsequent decades, the Suns cemented their distinction as one of the league’s most successful franchises – indeed, their current all-time winning percentage of .541 (2,146-1,866) is the fourth-best among the 30 active NBA teams. Skeptics note the team’s lack of a championship, but their two near-misses in the NBA Finals united the Valley in heartbreak like few other recent events. Moreover, the Suns’ relocation to the “Purple Palace” – then America West Arena, now Talking Stick Resort Arena – in 1992 helped reignite Downtown Phoenix as a true urban center, and the team’s success paved the way for the eventual arrival of the Cardinals, Coyotes and Diamondbacks.

And just think: The narrative may not have come to pass without some dreamers 50 years ago and pair of fateful coin flips.

“I love our other pro teams, but the bottom line is the Suns were here first and got the bus moving,” Davis says. “They really put a stamp on Phoenix.”

 

Suns Timeline

Karl Eller
Karl Eller

Summer 1967
Billboard magnate Karl Eller forms ownership group to petition the NBA for one of two expansion franchises.

Spring 1968
NBA awards expansion franchises to Phoenix and Milwaukee; Bulls talent scout Jerry Colangelo becomes GM.

First home uniform
First home uniform

Summer 1968
Tucsonan Stan Fabe designs the team’s first logo, which the team would use for 24 years.

Summer 1968
First home uni unveiled.

October 19, 1968
Opening night: a 116-107 win over the SuperSonics.

March 1969
The Suns lose Lew Alcindor coin flip; draft University of Florida center Neal Walk instead.

June 1969
Coin flip redux: team signs former ABA star Connie Hawkins, who scores 24.6 points per game (ppg) in his first season.

December 1969
After a 15-23 start, Colangelo fires head coach Johnny “Red” Kerr and takes over coaching; leads team to playoffs.

Summer 1970
Star guard Gail Goodrich is traded back to L.A. Lakers for center Mel Counts; Kansas State’s Cotton Fitzsimmons takes over as head coach.

Al McCoy
Al McCoy hired in Spring 1970 to be play-by-play voice

Spring 1970
The team hires Phoenix Roadrunners hockey broadcaster Al McCoy to be its play-by-play voice.

March 1971
The injustice: Suns go 48-34 but do not make the playoffs.

February 1972
ABA star Charlie Scott joins the team; would log All-Star campaign (25.3 ppg) the following season.

Summer 1972
Team unveils new “Western font” uniforms, which enjoy a 19-year run.

October 1972
Seven games into the season, Colangelo replaces head coach Butch van Breda Kolff with his favorite interim coach: himself.

March 1973
The team finishes 38-44 in Hawkins’ last full season with the Suns.

Summer 1973
Oklahoma Sooners head coach John MacLeod takes the reins – the first of 14 seasons as head coach; team finishes 30-52.

October 1974
The Suns start their seventh season with their youngest roster ever. Avg. pro experience: 2.8 years.

May 1975
The Suns make Oklahoma center Alvan Adams the fourth overall pick in the NBA Draft.

May 1975
Standout guard Scott is packaged to the Boston Celtics for future All-Star Paul Westphal.

Spring 1976
The “Sunderella” Suns squeak into the playoffs with a 42-40 record, and advance to the NBA Finals.

Summer 1976
Adams wins NBA Rookie of the Year; Hawkins becomes first Sun to have his number retired (42).

April 1977
At the conclusion of a disappointing 34-48 season, “Original Sun” Dick Van Arsdale and his twin brother Tom retire together.

February 1978
Behind All-Star play from Westphal (25.2 ppg) and rookie Walter Davis (24.2 ppg), Suns bolt to 34-16.

Spring 1978
No playoff run, but record attendance (11,464 per game); Davis wins Rookie of the Year.

Fall 1978
Goodbye, hideous candy-striper warmups.

Spring 1979
Late-season acquisition of Leonard “Truck” Robinson from the Jazz helps the Suns advance to the Western Conference Finals.

October 1979
The Suns start the season with five former All-Stars as starters: Davis, Robinson, Adams, Don Buse and Westphal.

Spring 1980
Cooperative team play – three players finish with 300 assists – propel the Suns to their best regular season record: 55-27.

Phoenix Suns gorilla debuts in Winter 1980
Phoenix Suns gorilla debuts in Winter 1980

Winter 1980
The Phoenix Suns gorilla debuts.

Spring 1981
Westphal to the Sonics for guard Dennis Johnson; Suns finish a conference-best 57-25, but are bounced in the first round of the playoffs by the K.C. Kings.

Fall 1981
Davis suffers a fractured elbow in the pre-season; MacLeod adapts by using 21 different starting lineups.

Spring 1982
Suns limp into the playoffs with a 46-36 record, get stomped by the eventual-champion Lakers.

March 1983
Second-year forward Larry Nance blossoms, setting a team record for blocked shots (217); Suns go 23-7 after All-Star break, only to be upset by Denver in the opening round of the playoffs.

Larry Nance
Larry Nance wins inaugural NBA Slam Dunk Competition in Denver

February 1984
Nance stuffs the competition at the inaugural NBA Slam Dunk Competition in Denver.

April 1984
The 41-41 Suns squeak into the playoffs, advance all the way to Western Conference Finals against the mighty Lakers.

April 1985
 Five-time All-Star Davis obliterates his left knee in the ‘84-’85 pre-season; Suns finish season 36-46.

February 1986
After an 0-9 start, Suns place no All-Stars – a franchise first. Team misses  ‘86 playoffs.

November 1986
Rebuilding Suns start the season with five rookies, including future star Jeff Hornacek.

February 1987
Suns (22-34) part ways with MacLeod; “Walter-gate” cocaine scandal roils team.

August 1987
Suns center Nick Vanos and his fiancée are among 156 killed in the Northwest Airlines Flight 255 crash.

October 1987
Capping a tumultuous year, Colangelo-led group purchases the franchise for a then-record $44.5 million.

February 1988
Blockbuster trade: Nance to Cleveland for rookie point guard Kevin Johnson, center Mark West and guard Tyrone Corbin.

Summer 1988
Fitzsimmons returns; All-Star Tom Chambers joins team as the first unrestricted free agent in NBA history.

Kevin Johnson
Kevin Johnson leads team to a 55-27 finish in April 1989

April 1989
Quick turnaround: Led by three 20-point-a-game scorers (Chambers, Eddie Johnson, Kevin Johnson), the Suns finish 55-27.

June 1989
KJ guides team to Western Conference Finals, where they’re swept by MVP Magic Johnson and the Lakers. Fitzsimmons wins NBA Coach of the Year.

Spring 1990
Chambers drops team-record 60 on Seattle; Suns set a team attendance record (578,661), including 26 sellouts.

May 1990
The 54-28 Suns upset the top-seeded Lakers in the playoffs – for the first time, beating L.A. in a best-of-seven series.

April 1991
Third straight 50-win season (55-27) sullied by opening round playoff loss to Utah.

December 1991
After an 8-9 start,  team goes 11-1 in December behind the play of KJ and emerging guard Dan Majerle (17.3 ppg).

Spring 1992
Another 50-win season (53-29)… and another early exit from the playoffs. Adieu, Coliseum.

Charles Barkley
Hornacek  and others to Philadelphia for rebound-gobbling future Hall of Famer Charles Barkley

June 1992
Stop the presses! Hornacek  and others to Philadelphia for rebound-gobbling future Hall of Famer Charles Barkley.

Fall 1992
25th season brings new arena, logo, unis.    

April 1993
Behind MVP Barkley (25.6 ppg, 12.2 rpg), Westphal-coached Suns finish a franchise-best 62-20.

May 1993
Down 0-2 to the eight-seed Lakers, the Suns rally back; advance to second NBA Finals.

January 1994
Injury bug strikes: Barkley (torn quad) and KJ (chicken pox) miss a month.

April 1994
The Suns finish 56-26 but fall to Houston in the semifinals.

Summer 1994
Formal wear? The Suns’ new alternate road threads are the first black unis in team history.

Spring/Summer 1995
Déjà vu. The second-seed Suns are stomped in the playoffs by eventual champion Houston. Fan-fave Majerle shipped to Cleveland.

January 16, 1996
Him again? Fitzsimmons replaces Westphal as coach. 41-41 Suns squirm into playoffs, lose in the first round.

Steve Nash drafted
Summer 1996, Suns draft Steve Nash in the first round

Summer 1996
Out: Barkley, to Houston. In: first-round draft pick Steve Nash.

April 1997
Behind rookie coach Danny Ainge and new guard Jason Kidd, the retooled Suns go 19-6 over the final two months, slide into the playoffs.

December 1997
The defense-minded Suns leap out of the gate with a 17-9 record.

May 1998
 Danny Manning wins the NBA Sixth Man Award, and Kidd is an All-Star, but the Suns (56-26) get an early first-round playoff ouster.

January 1999
The lockout-shortened 50-game season begins; Phoenix adds All-Star forward Tom Gugliotta.

April 1999
Kidd leads league in assists (10.8 per game) and guides 27-23 Suns to playoffs.

Summer 1999
All-Star guard Anfernee “Penny” Hardaway joins Kidd to form “Backcourt 2000.”

March 22, 2000
Kidd breaks his ankle; KJ comes out of retirement to run the point for first-year coach Scott Skiles.

May 2000
Behind rookie forward Shawn Marion, the Suns hold opponents to a league-low 93.7 per game en route to 53-29 record.

April 2001
More of the same: 51 wins, killer defense, All-NBA selection for Kidd, early playoff exit.

Summer 2001
After Kidd’s domestic assault charge, team ships him to New Jersey for All-Star guard Stephon Marbury.

Summer 2001
New “flaming ball” logo.

February 17, 2002
The newly free-shooting Suns struggle to a 25-26 record, and Skiles is replaced by former Suns guard Frank Johnson.

Spring 2002
Re-signed Majerle finishes his NBA career with a three-pointer – his 800th as a Sun; team adds schoolboy draftee Amar’e Stoudemire.

January 2003
Marbury, Marion and future ROY Stoudemire (13.5 ppg, 8.8 rpg) meld nicely, propelling the Suns to a 24-14 record.

Summer 2003
The team’s first orange uniforms debut.

Winter 2003
Mike D’Antoni replaces Frank Johnson as head coach; club dumps Marbury and Hardaway to Knicks.

April 2004
Following dismal 29-53 transition year, Colangelo and former star Hawkins are admitted to the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.

June 2004
Arizona native Robert Sarver leads an investment group that acquires the club for a then-record $401 million; Nash returns via free agency

May 2005
62-20 Suns advance to the Western Conference Finals, where they lose to the Spurs 4-1.

Steve Nash MVP
Nash wins MVP

Summer 2005
Nash wins MVP; D’Antoni wins Coach of the Year; Suns ship disgruntled shooting guard Joe Johnson to Atlanta for Boris Diaw.

Fall 2005
Stoudemire’s knee explodes; makes “microfracture surgery” a household term.

January 2006
America West Arena is renamed US Airways Center.

April 2006
Career years from Nash (18.8 ppg, 10.5 apg) and Marion (21.8 ppg, 11.8 rpg) help Suns chip out 54-28 season.

May 2006
Down 1-3 to the hated Lakers, the No. 2 seed Suns rebound to win their first round playoff series; lose to Mavericks in the conference finals.

April 2007
D’Antoni’s “seven seconds or less,” high-pressure offense yields 61-21 record.

May 2007
Hip-check-gate  

Summer 2007
The Suns lure veteran Grant Hill to the Valley with a one-year contract.

Shaquille O'neal
Hello Big Cactus. Suns trade Marion to Miami for Shaquille O’Neal.

February 2008
Hello, Big Cactus. Goodbye, seven seconds or less. Suns trade Marion to Miami for Shaquille O’Neal.

April 2008
55-27 season completes winningest four-year stretch in team history.

Summer 2008
Following first-round playoff exit, D’Antoni exits. New coach: Terry Porter.

February 2009
Alvin Gentry replaces Porter after 28-23 first half.

Summer 2009
Shaq, hacked. The Suns dump the fading center on Cleveland.

May 2010
Suns unveil “Los Suns” jerseys in the 2010 playoffs during SB 1070 protests; finally beat Spurs in the playoffs.

Summer 2010
Major front-office shake-up; five-time All-Star Stoudemire opts out and joins the Knicks.

April 2011
Final record: 40-42. Bright spots: old-man-wonder Hill (13 ppg); Marcin Gortat (13 ppg).

December 2011
Lockout-shortened season starts on Christmas Day.

April 2012
Nash passes Oscar Robertson for fifth all-time in total assists; can’t quite will the 33-33 Suns into the playoffs.

Summer 2012
Shakedown! Nash, Hill and Lopez are shipped out in a full-blown rebuild.

February 2013
Marcus and Markieff Morris become the first on-court twin tandem since the Van Arsdales – modest bright spot in a 25-57 season behind new coach Lindsey Hunter.

Summer 2013
Former Sun Hornacek replaces Hunter, and the team pries talented point guard Eric Bledsoe from the Clippers.

Summer 2013
New super-sharp white home uniforms.

April 2014
Pegged to finish last in the Pacific Division, the fast-break-oriented Suns shock the league with a 48-34 record.

Summer 2014
PG Goran Dragic (20.3 ppg, 5.9 apg) wins the NBA’s Most Improved Player Award.

Fall/Winter 2014
Suns make six trades, acquiring both Brandon Knight and Brandon Wright. Confusion reigns.

April 2015
The Morris twins are charged with felony assault for allegedly beating a man who expressed admiration for their mother.

Summer 2015
Silky-smooth 18-year-old draft pick Devin Booker joins the team from Kentucky.

September 2015
Out: US Airways. In: Talking Stick Resort Arena.

February 2016
Earl Watson replaces Hornacek as head, instituting a defense- and rebound-oriented game plan.

April 2016
Capping an otherwise dismal 23-59 season, Booker averages 13.8 points and makes the NBA All-Rookie first team.

March 2017
Longtime voice of the Suns McCoy is admitted into the Suns Ring of Honor.

April 2017
Another rebuilding year: 24-58. But at least Michael Beasley’s heinous contract is off the books.

Summer 2017
The Suns take swoopy Kansas forward Josh Jackson with their first-round pick. Nowhere to go but up!

Fall 2017
50 and counting. Team commemorates its semicentennial with new logo and all-new, bold-font uniforms.

 

Suns All-Time Lineup
During its 50-year history, the Suns franchise has assembled a formidable pantheon of basketball talent. We solicited input from our own team of sports media all-stars to help us with the arduous task of selecting the Suns’ all-time team.

Panel
Paul Coro
Longtime Arizona Republic Suns beat reporter

Dave King
Managing editor, Bright Side of the Sun fan site

Vince Marotta
Co-host, Bickley & Marotta, Arizona Sports 98.7 FM

Kevin McCabe
Long-time Valley TV and radio sports broadcaster

 

Point Guard
1: Steve Nash
Seasons: 10 (1996-98, 2004-12)
Key accomplishments: Two-time NBA MVP; led NBA in assists five times; six-time All-Star
Suns stats: 14.4 ppg, 9.4 apg
The wily, ambidextrous Canadian is not only the best point guard in Suns history, but the best player in franchise history – and the catalyst for its most exciting, dominating teams. A unanimous choice by our panel. “His savant play changed the league’s style,” Coro says.

2: Kevin Johnson
Seasons: 11 (1988-1998, 2000)
The Berkeley product led the Suns to 11 playoff appearances. 3-time All-Star, 5-time All-NBA. Only injuries kept him from ranking among the game’s all-time great guards.

3: Jason Kidd
Seasons: 5 (1996-2001)
Spending his prime years in Phoenix, the gifted playmaker was named to the All-NBA and All-Defensive Teams every year. He was also a 3-time NBA All-Star and led the NBA in assists three times.

Bench: Dennis Johnson, Eric Bledsoe, Goran Dragic

Shooting Guard
1: Paul Westphal
Seasons: 6 (1975-80, 1983-84)
Key accomplishments: Four-time All-Star; four-time All-NBA; first All-Star weekend HORSE champion
Suns stats: 20.6 ppg, 5.2 apg
“Westy” immediately turned the Suns into a title contender following his arrival from the Celtics. A sharpshooter with deadly mid- and long-range jump shots, he was among the best guards of his era and led an improbable run to the 1976 NBA Finals. Later returned to coach the team.

2: Dick Van Arsdale
Seasons: 9 (1968-77)
Dubbed “The Original Sun,” the lanky perimeter player “gave instant credibility to a new franchise with his clever scoring,” Coro says.

3: Jeff Hornacek  
Seasons: 6 (1986-92)
Forming a potent backcourt with Kevin Johnson, the second-round draftee was an integral part (13.7 ppg) of the first dominant Suns. Did it all – great passing, three-point shooting, rebounding, defense.

Bench: Dan Majerle, Charlie Scott and Devin Booker, who “might one day surpass them all. He definitely has the talent and moxie,” King says.

Small Forward
1: Walter Davis
Seasons: 11 (1977-88)
Key accomplishments: 1977-1978 NBA Rookie of the Year; six-time All-Star; two-time All-NBA; leading scorer in franchise history (15,666)
Suns stats: 20.5 ppg, 3.2 rpg, 4.4 apg
Affectionately known as “The Greyhound” for his sleek rim-to-rim offense, the fifth overall pick in the 1977 NBA Draft made an immediate impact, and averaged more than 20 points a game during his Suns career. “He delivered with flawless shooting form,” says Coro. Only injuries and substance abuse prevented him from achieving Hall of Fame status.

2: Shawn Marion
Seasons: 9 (1999-2008)
“Probably the best defensive player in Suns history,” Marotta says – maybe the most well-rounded, with an 18.4/10.0/2.0 career Suns stat-line. “He should be in the Ring of Honor. His numbers warrant it,” McCabe says.

3: Connie Hawkins
Seasons: 5 (1969-74)
“He was Dr. J with a jump shot,” McCabe says of the lithe Hall of Fame forward, who averaged 20.5 ppg with the Suns. A tough call at No. 3 – blame his brief stay in Phoenix.

Bench: Cedric Ceballos, Grant Hill

Power Forward
1: Charles Barkley
Seasons: 4 (1992-96)
Key accomplishments: 1992-1993 NBA MVP; four-time All Star; four-time All-NBA
Suns stats: avg. 23.4 ppg, 11.5 rpg, 4.4 apg
Sir Charles played only four seasons with the Suns, but they were peak seasons – and he was the Suns’ first MVP. Challenges Nash as Suns’ all-time greatest player. “He revitalized Phoenix with his burly athleticism, MVP skill and larger-than-Arizona personality,” Coro says. “You can’t have a Suns all-time team without Barkley as your ringleader,” adds King.

2: Amar’e Stoudemire
Seasons: 8 (2002-10)
King chooses STAT as his first pick, reasoning “his talent was undeniable and his domination was quite dominant.” Splitting time between power forward and center, Stoudemire was a 5-time All-Star while averaging 18.9 points and 7.8 rebounds per game as a Sun.

3: Larry Nance
Seasons: 7 (1981-1988)
The athletic big man was a force at both ends of the floor and edges the high-scoring Chambers for the final spot. “The Suns’ all-time blocks leader gained fame for dunks, but was a classy All-Star with value for a vital (Barkley) trade,” says Coro.

Bench: Tom Chambers, Cliff Robinson, Paul Silas

Center
1: Alvan Adams
Seasons: 13 (1975-88)
Key accomplishments: Suns all-time leader in games, steals and rebounds; No. 2 in points and No. 3 in assists
Suns stats: 14.1 ppg, 7 rpg, 4.1 apg, 1.3 spg
The lifelong Sun had longevity, versatility and productivity while filling the Suns record book. “Alvan Adams did as much to carry the Suns to the 1976 Finals as Paul Westphal or Gar Heard. He was the original small-ball center,” King says.

2: Neal Walk
Seasons: 5 (1969-74)
“He was long considered the booby prize in the Lew Alcindor coin flip, but the furry center was a beast,” McCabe says. Averaged 14.7 ppg and 8.9 rpg with the Suns.

3: Mark West  
Seasons: 8 (1987-94, 1999-2000)
“A difference-maker on defense and fan favorite from the best era of Suns basketball,” Marotta says of the Old Dominion product, who averaged 6.9 ppg and 6 rpg.

Bench: James Edwards

 

Top 10 Phoenix Suns Moments 1968-2018

by Ron Matejko

Sports has a unique capacity to etch spontaneous, unscripted moments into our memories – a mental SportsCenter highlight reel, which you can replay at will. Here are the 10 greatest clips in the 50-year annals of the Phoenix Suns.

#1 Charles Barkley trade
June 17, 1992
A headline in The New York Times declared it “A Bright Day for the Suns.” One month after the Suns were eliminated from the NBA playoffs and assistant coach Lionel Hollins told owner Jerry Colangelo,“They need a Charles Barkley,” they had him. The trade changed the franchise forever as the Suns immediately catapulted into the NBA title picture after acquiring talented and charismatic all-star power forward Charles Barkley from the Philadelphia 76ers. During Barkley’s first season in the desert, the team posted its best 82-game stretch in franchise history, finishing 62-20 and taking home-court advantage into the 1993 NBA Finals.


#2 Post-finals parade
June 26, 1993
On a 113-degree day, the hottest day of the year to that point, more than 300,000 fans lined the 2.5-mile parade route along Central Avenue and packed America West Arena Plaza to celebrate the Suns’ run to the 1993 NBA Finals despite losing in six games to the mighty Chicago Bulls. Fans were so fired up, they mobbed Charles Barkley’s convertible, forcing police to remove him from the parade before he was able to go two blocks. Barkley acknowledged the passionate crowd from a balcony overlooking America West Arena Plaza during a post-parade ceremony.


#3 Steve Nash comes home
July 14, 2004
News that free agent Nash would be rejoining the team that drafted him back in 1996 garnered tepid reactions at the time – a “homecoming” headline here, a “solid signing” op-ed there. Ultimately, it became the greatest free agent signing in franchise history. During 10 seasons, Nash won two NBA MVP Awards, made six All-Star teams, was selected to the All-NBA First or Second Team five times and ranks first all-time in franchise history in numerous offensive categories.


#4 The shot Heard Around the World
June 4, 1976
The Phoenix Suns and Boston Celtics played what is widely considered the greatest game in NBA Finals history. Gar Heard’s high-arcing jumper as time expired in the second extra period sent the contest into triple OT – a first for professional basketball’s signature event. The upstart Suns lost Game 5, 128-126 in 3OT, but their place in NBA Finals lore is secure.


#5 Game One
October 18, 1968
Every story has a beginning. For the expansion Suns, it was the moment their sneakers first christened the hardwood at Arizona Veterans Memorial Coliseum – a metaphorical nose-snubbing at the critics who said the NBA didn’t belong in Phoenix. The Valley’s first pro franchise beat the Seattle SuperSonics, 116-107, in their debut in front of 7,112 at the “Madhouse on McDowell,” a rare victory during a 16-66 inaugural season.

 

Devin Booker’s 70-point game
Devin Booker’s 70-point game

#6 Devin Booker’s 70-point game
March 24, 2017
Guard Devin Booker put himself in the record books by dropping 70 points on the Boston Celtics, just the sixth player to eclipse that milestone in an NBA game, and the youngest in league history. The scoring outburst by the 20-year-old budding superstar provided an unforgettable performance, even if he couldn’t legally buy a celebratory beer afterward.

 


#7 Acquiring rights to Connie Hawkins
June 20, 1969
Not long after losing a coin flip and the rights to draft Lew Alcindor, the Suns won a lesser-known second coin flip for the rights to sign its first superstar, Connie Hawkins. The electrifying high flyer – blackballed for many years by the league after a college point-shaving scandal – made his NBA debut in Phoenix and put the team on the map by averaging 24.6 points, 10.4 rebounds and 4.8 assists while earning All-Star and First Team All-NBA honors.


#8 Dodging the “Goliath” label
May 9, 1993
Sixty seconds from being the first No. 1 seed ever eliminated by a No. 8 seed, the Suns rally to force overtime before pulling off the 112-104 win over the hated Los Angeles Lakers. Ultimately, the Suns achieved a far more auspicious “first” – being the first team to rally from an 0-2 deficit at home to win an NBA playoff series, fulfilling a comeback guarantee by head coach Paul Westphal.


#9 Trading for Paul Westphal
May 23, 1975
By trading Charlie Scott to Boston for Paul Westphal, the Suns gave up a talented scorer but acquired arguably the greatest shooting guard in franchise history. During his six seasons in Phoenix – including the NBA Finals team of 1976 – Westphal was a four-time All Star and four-time All-NBA selection, later returning to coach the team. Westy’s number 44 is retired, and he’s in the Ring of Honor.


#10 Reaching first NBA Finals
May 16, 1976
The underdog Suns reached their first NBA Finals after eliminating the defending NBA champion Golden State Warriors in seven games. The stunning upset led Sports Illustrated to dub the team the “Phoenix Sunderellas.” The victory also put Phoenix on the road to another historic game three weeks later (see #4).

 

And 50 More?
Q&A with Robert Sarver

 

Robert Sarver, photo by Steve Fischer
Robert Sarver, photo by Steve Fischer

“This team is your team – and this is your court!” Suns owner Robert Sarver tells several dozen assembled youngsters at a refurbished Downtown Phoenix basketball court on the last truly sweltering day of the year in September. The boss looks hot, and the Phoenix Suns Gorilla is taking oxygen in a nearby Escalade, but the scene is fitting – after all, it’s the Suns. Dedicating the court on an overcast day would seem like sacrilege.

 

This court will be one of 50 that the Suns will build or rehabilitate this season all over Arizona, part of the team’s effort both to honor its past and consecrate its future. Sarver, the Tucson native ace developer who led a group acquisition of the franchise in 2004, took a few moments to give us a preview of the celebratory season.

Where did the idea to refurbish 50 courts come from?
It was an idea we had early in the process, when we sat down to think of ideas to commemorate this great milestone. This will happen to courts all over the state, because we see the Suns as a statewide team – something that all Arizonans can love.

Do you think the Suns occupy a special place in the hearts and minds of phoenix sports fans?
We were the first major sports franchise in Arizona, so that’s something special and unique. But all the sports teams are beloved here in the Valley – the Cardinals, the D-backs, the Coyotes. All are great.

Looking forward to the next 50 years, do you see the suns as a family business – one that you’ll pass to your heirs?
I see the Suns as belonging to the city of Phoenix. They’ll stay here and remain an important part of the city’s culture.

What’s the latest word on the new arena? Would you consider a move to Tempe or elsewhere in the Valley?
Our first priority is to stay in Downtown Phoenix, and [the city] knows our thoughts on that. If [replacing Talking Stick Resort Arena] isn’t something they want to do, we’ll look at other options. But it’s one of the oldest [arenas] in the league right now. We need a modern NBA facility.