A few weeks ago Bob Ferry, the general manager of the Washington Bullets, was playing word-association games on an all-night radio talk show. Larry King, the host, would name an NBA team and Ferry would say the first word that popped into his mind. For instance, the host would say, "Washington," and Ferry would say, "Excellence." And so on. After some teams brought responses like "brutal," "undisciplined," "explosive" and "scrappy," the host said, "Phoenix."
"Pretty," said Ferry.
That stopped King, who said, "Pretty? That's a curious word to describe a pro basketball team."
Ah, but wasn't it the right word? Phoenix is a pretty team. From the coach, dapper and genteel John MacLeod in his three-piece suits and soft loafers; to the handsome, suntanned and superb starting guards, Paul Westphal and Don Buse; to the delicately talented high-post center, Alvan Adams; to the second-year small forward, Walter Davis, who plays with a grace and beauty equaled by few, the Suns are lovely to look at. They make the basketball fly smartly from hand to hand as though it were a Frisbee, and they shoot it exceedingly well, hitting more than 50% of their shots.
January 29, 1979
Their discipline and execution won them 49 games last year, and in 1976 they reached the NBA finals—a tribute to MacLeod, one of the best coaches in the league. But when push came to shove, as it always does in the NBA, the Suns turned out to be just another pretty face. The problem was that they were loaded with every important commodity save one, a strong forward.
Thus, when Phoenix pulled off a trade Jan. 12 for New Orleans' 6'7", 225-pound, 27-year-old Leonard (Truck) Robinson, last year's NBA rebounding champion, the whole league took notice. In return for two reserves, Guard Ron Lee and rookie Forward Marty Byrnes, two first-round draft picks and some $500,000, Phoenix got Robinson and began stirring the fog that has been hovering over the Pacific Division, where Seattle, Los Angeles and the Suns are within two games of each other.
"I'm real sorry to see Truck come into our division," says Los Angeles General Manager Bill Sharman. "Especially to Phoenix, because they were a good team already." Hubie Brown, who coached Robinson in Atlanta two seasons ago, says the Suns now possess the best starting five in the NBA, a feeling shared by others, since they are the only team whose starters have all played in NBA All-Star games.
Seattle's Lenny Wilkens refuses to speculate about what the Suns might do now that they have their rebounder, and with good reason. His SuperSonics and Ferry's Bullets are two of the league's more physical teams. They have regularly beat up on the Suns and are 5-0 against them this year. But that was pre-Truck. Says Ferry, who drafted Robinson and had him for 2½ seasons in Washington, "He gives Phoenix a new dimension. I think Truck can do anything he wants to do. If he wants to mesh his talents with the Suns, maybe give up some shots, it means they can still be a pretty team—and pretty great, too."
MacLeod and General Manager Jerry Colangelo clearly feel they've made a deal for the history books. "Jerry asked me in October what else we could do for this team," says MacLeod. "I said, 'The only thing we can do is get Leonard Robinson.' "
"On a scale of one to 10," says Colangelo, "our chances of going all the way before the trade were between two and four. Now I'd say they're seven or eight."
It has been proved that throwing a bunch of talented players together does not guarantee success in the NBA. And though Robinson's 13.1 rebounds a game obviously will help a team that was 17th in rebounding both this season and a year ago, his 23.9 scoring average could cause problems. Davis, Westphal and Adams are already over or near the 20-point mark. "We'll just score 136 points a game instead of 116," says Adams.
The truly amazing thing about the deal is that Phoenix did not lose a starter to gain a star. "I was determined not to break up the team we had painstakingly built," Colangelo says. The Suns will surely miss Lee, last year's league-leading ball thief, who defended like a junkyard dog and was characteristically depicted on the cover of the team's media guide diving flat-out for a loose ball. "With Ronnie gone, at least it's safe to practice," jokes Adams.
Robinson will hardly miss the Jazz, since he made it clear last summer that he wanted to go elsewhere. Much was made of his feud with Pete Maravich. That came about when Robinson's agent, Don Cronson, seeking to renegotiate Truck's contract, said, "The Jazz has two sets of rules. One for Pete and one for the rest of the players."
"All I did for the Jazz," says Robinson, "was play as hard as I could." Nevertheless, he became the heavy in a town where Maravich was king.
The trade could not have come at a better time for the Suns. Just before Robinson's arrival, they had lost to New Jersey and Seattle. Westphal had been in an eight-game slump, during which he was six points below his 24-point average and had shot only 43%. Adams was bothered by a hip injury, and Garfeld Heard, who had been the Suns' closest approximation of a strong forward, had missed 12 games with a back problem and was replaced by Alvin Scott.
"This time of year is just a boring, drab time in the NBA schedule," said Westphal. In fact, it was about this same time a year ago that the Suns started coming apart. They were 36-16 but won just 13 of their last 30 games. Then they were embarrassed in the first round of the playoffs, losing two straight to Milwaukee in that best-of-three series.
After beating Houston 116-97 at home Saturday night, the Suns were 28-19. More important, they were 13-13 on the road, one of only five teams—Washington, Seattle, Kansas City and Philadelphia are the others—that do not have losing road records.
When Robinson arrived in Phoenix on Jan. 13 for a game against Indiana, he was hailed as a savior. Although he knew little about MacLeod's relatively intricate series of plays and options—"In New Orleans," said Truck, "we had only one option. Then it was every man for himself"—he scored 20 points. Nevertheless, the Suns lost 102-99. Four nights later, in Milwaukee, Robinson had 25 points and 10 rebounds and Davis scored 24, but the Suns lost yet again, 123-118, because of another injury to Adams. This time it was a finger in his eye and an inadvertent fist in his face.
But in Detroit last Thursday night, the Suns got the ball moving and won, 97-87. Westphal hit nine of 18 and fired off 12 assists. Robinson had 20 points and 13 rebounds, Davis 26 points, 11 rebounds and nine assists. Half a dozen times the 6'6", 195-pound Davis grabbed rebounds and led the fast break, picking his way at full speed through bodies like a deer darting through a forest. Sometimes he pulled up to swish his balletic jumper, once he spun around Bob Lanier for a layup, and once he flipped the ball over his head to Robinson, trailing on the play. "Walter moves faster with the ball than most guys do without it," said Assistant Coach Al Bianchi. "For my money," says Westphal, "Walt is the best small forward in the game."
Phoenix beat Detroit without Adams, and his physical condition is the one problem facing the Suns if they intend to make a serious run at the championship. In Adams' one healthy season in four, Phoenix reached the playoff finals. "We're vulnerable at center," says MacLeod, "but not because Alvan's only 6'9". It's because of his proneness to injury." When healthy, Adams is in Dave Cowens' league as a runner, in Bill Walton's as a passer. Before his hip injury two weeks ago, he had a six-game stretch in which he averaged 25.5 points, 13 rebounds and 5.7 assists.
Milwaukee's assistant coach, John Killilea, who spent five years as a scout and an assistant in Boston, compares the Adams-Robinson connection to Cowens-Paul Silas. "When Cowens started shooting the 18-foot jumper from the high post and making passes to guards and forwards cutting the lane, we were winners. Adams does both of those things as well, and he's probably quicker than Dave. Now if Truck does his job down low the way Silas did, and with Davis in the corner, they'll be awesome."
Truck can't wait to get into gear with the Suns. Because of his publicized problems in New Orleans and the fact that he is now with his fourth team in three seasons, he has somehow gained a reputation as a troublemaker. "That's it," says Westphal. "You hear people say, 'Well, how come he can't stay with one team?' as though that means he's bad." In fact, Robinson has had legitimate reasons for each move. What's more, he is gentle, intelligent and well-liked by practically everyone he's been with. In Washington he was required to play in the small forward spot, opposite Elvin Hayes. "He's a big forward," says Ferry, "and the chemistry wasn't right. I liked Truck. I still like him." From there he was traded to Atlanta and in half a season he averaged 22.4 points and 12.8 rebounds as a big forward opposite John Drew. Hubie Brown believed in him, as he does now, and recently tried to bring him back to the Hawks.
"He had an excellent personality, fit in well and was a leader and an outstanding player for us," says Brown. "I'd like to coach Truck for the rest of my career." But when his contract ran out, Atlanta failed to re-sign him, and Robinson chose New Orleans.
"I came into a situation where Maravich was all the people knew. Pete, Pete, Pete. You couldn't name five players on the Jazz before I got there," Robinson says. "It was 'Pete and the rest of the Jazz.' All of a sudden I come in—a black player in the South—and it's Pete and Truck. A lot of people didn't care for that."
Nevertheless, Robinson gave his all last year, averaging 22.7 points and 15.7 rebounds, becoming only the third forward in history to lead the NBA in rebounding. His disaffection began after Maravich was hurt late in the season. "It was all frustration," he says. "I'd come in, put on my clothes, play 45 minutes, and we'd get our tails kicked, nobody'd give a damn. Then I'd go home and come back again for the same routine."
During the summer, Robinson wanted to renegotiate his contract, which still had five years to run. Management refused, citing its policy of not renegotiating contracts. That prompted Cronson, Robinson's agent, to make the statement about special rules for Maravich, since the club had renegotiated Maravich's contract the previous summer. Maravich resented being used as Robinson's lever and decided he wanted to be traded. Then management reversed its position on Robinson and offered to renegotiate, but could not reach agreement.
So Robinson pressed for the trade. He specifically chose Phoenix, a privilege he could exercise by virtue of his no-trade clause. "Me and Walter Davis?" he says. "A great high-post center like Adams? A shooter like Westphal? A quarterback like Buse? I could have gone to New York or Philadelphia for lots more money, but I could not find a team more perfect for me than Phoenix."