After seven months of turmoil and tragedy, the Suns stood in front of their bench in Veterans Memorial Coliseum in Phoenix on Nov. 10, their heads down, sharing in a moment of silence. Center James Edwards wiped his eyes. Guard Walter Davis swayed gently from side to side, as if keeping time with his own private hymn. New coach John Wetzel bit his lower lip to fight off tears.
Each player wore a small black patch on the front of his jersey with the number 30 on it. That was the number worn by Nick Vanos. The Suns have dedicated this season to Vanos, their 24-year-old backup center who was one of 154 persons killed in the crash on Aug. 16 of a Northwest Airlines jetliner soon after it took off from Detroit's Metropolitan Airport. "I've thought about Nick before every game," said veteran Alvan Adams last week. "He was my roommate and friend. He was young and just gelling started."
It seemed fitting that the Suns would start their home season with a moment of silence. They're trying, after months of pain and public censure, to begin a new life. And there are indications that things could brighten in the Valley of the Sun. Phoenix beat Golden State 123-109 on opening night and beat San Antonio 124-113 Saturday night for a 2-4 record. In a few weeks, when some key Suns players, notably rookie forward Armon Gilliam, the second player chosen in last June's NBA draft, and 6'10" veteran Larry Nance, come off the injured list, the Suns should improve. "We have to look ahead," says Wetzel.
That's not easy. Since April 17, the Suns organization has been bogged down in an unhappy present. On that day, a shopping cart piled high with indictments was wheeled into a packed, televised news conference at Phoenix police headquarters. Among the 10 men indicted were three Suns, Edwards and guards Jay Humphries and Grant Gondrezick, as well as team photographer Joseph Beninato and former players Garfield Heard and Mike Bratz. All faced felony drug charges. Six other former or current Suns were linked to the case but not indicted. It was the biggest drug scandal ever to hit a pro sports franchise.
November 23, 1987
The press quickly dubbed the case Waltergate, after Davis, a six-time All-Star and possibly the best player to perform for Phoenix in its 20-year history. His testimony, under a grant of immunity from prosecution, had contributed to many of the indictments. Among other things, he identified present and former teammates with whom he said he had used drugs. Davis, 33, perhaps Phoenix's most popular and respected athlete, claims he was forced by prosecutors to turn against his friends. "I had no choice. I had to answer their questions," he told SI's Armen Keteyian last week. "The last thing I wanted to do was get my teammates and friends indicted. If I'd known I was going to do that, I'd have probably gone to jail instead."
Yet even as Maricopa County deputy attorney James Keppel was declaring that "the wave [of indictments] is not going to stop," legal observers sensed that there was more flash than substance in his charges. Not only did some of the indictments deal with drug use that was alleged to have occurred nearly a decade ago, but much of the information was based on Davis's testimony alone. Eventually, in court, it would be Davis's word against that of the defendant. And how credible was Davis? On the day of the press conference he was checking into a drug and alcohol rehabilitation center for the second time in 16 months. He had relapsed into an old habit of using cocaine.
So began the Suns' spring and summer of confusion and bitterness. Over the ensuing weeks, Waltergate fell apart, the franchise was sold, Wetzel was hired and four Phoenix players from last season—including two who were involved with the drug charges—were released or traded. Vanos died, and so did former Suns guard Johnny High, another key prosecution witness. High drove his Mazda straight into a light pole one night in June, leaving no skid marks or other evidence of having tried to save himself. "The whole summer was in turmoil," says Edwards. "You couldn't sleep at night, wondering what was going to happen next."
The events occurred as if in a chain reaction. A local gambling probe eventually led to the Suns investigation with its allegations of drug use—and possible point-shaving—by NBA players (SI, April 27). Davis was subpoenaed in March and appeared before the grand jury that same month. His secret testimony, obtained by SI last spring, was sensational: He told of first using cocaine during the 1978-79 season with Heard. Asked if anyone else had been present on that occasion, Davis answered, "Pretty much the whole team." He also told of his twice-weekly cocaine buys through 1985 and of using the drug with High, Humphries, Bratz, Gondrezick, Edwards and other players. When Davis finished testifying, the grand jurors actually applauded him. One juror even tried to get his autograph.
William Bedford, then a Suns rookie center, was subpoenaed and testified that he started using cocaine when he was a sophomore at Memphis State. Bedford, now with Detroit, said he had used cocaine with Gondrezick and had smoked marijuana with Edwards. Other testimony seemed to confirm a pattern of casual drug use among some Suns and by other NBA players.
With the NBA season winding down and newspapers playing up rumors of an incipient drug scandal, Maricopa County prosecutor Tom Collins and Phoenix police chief Ruben Ortega hurried to wrap up the indictments. In retrospect, they might have been too hasty; they didn't seem to have enough firm evidence to support felony charges. "We were led to believe it was World War III," says Suns president and chief executive officer Jerry Colangelo, still furious over the fanfare with which the indictments were announced on the day before the season's final game.
Media reaction to the indictments was swift. "We got crucified. We were tried, convicted and hung in 72 hours," says Colangelo. Edwards, Humphries and Gondrezick were immediately subjected to drug tests by the NBA; all tested negative. Davis, who had spent 30 days in a rehabilitation center in Van Nuys, Calif. in December 1985 and January '86, entered the same facility for another stay. The Suns, meanwhile, won their last game to finish the season 36-46 and out of the playoffs.
Soon the wheels started coming off the case. Defense lawyers contended that Phoenix police detective Gary Ball had inaccurately summarized the sworn statements of High and former Suns Alvin Scott and Don Buse for the grand jury. Scott then recanted part of his testimony. On June 13, High, who had told a local TV station that he had been receiving threatening notes and phone calls because of his involvement in the case, died in the car crash near downtown Phoenix. According to the medical examiner's report, High was legally drunk at the time of his death. The police said there was no indication of foul play. There was some suspicion that High committed suicide.
In late June, the Mesa (Ariz.) Tribune obtained a copy of the police report on the investigations into drugs and gambling that authorities had refused to release. It showed that no NBA players had been solidly linked to any gambling activity and confirmed that investigators had almost no meaningful physical evidence to support the drug indictments.
Davis delivered another blow to the prosecution's case in July. Prosecutors had done an inadequate job of questioning Davis before the grand jury, failing to pin him down on dates, places and other details. When asked for some specifics by defense lawyers for some non-players involved in the case, Davis—in an unsworn statement—could not provide them. When asked by SI last week to explain what seemed to be inconsistencies in his story, Davis seemed puzzled. "I never changed anything," he insisted. He emphasized that he had not retracted any of his accounts about using drugs with teammates. "I went in and told the truth [to the grand jury]."
By last week 12 of the final total of 13 Waltergate defendants had either plea-bargained to reduce their sentences or had received suspended sentences, dismissals or deferred prosecutions. Edwards and Humphries admitted having once tried marijuana. Their sentences: participation in a drug counseling program for a year. Charges against Heard were dropped, and he's now an assistant coach with the Dallas Mavericks. Bratz, who lives in Sacramento, was never extradited to Arizona for trial. Charges against him were pending at the end of last week. Gondrezick pleaded guilty to tampering with a witness and received three years' probation. Terrence Patrick Kelly, a waiter at a restaurant frequented by the players, who was accused of supplying drugs to Davis and two other Suns, pleaded guilty to a conspiracy charge and will be sentenced Dec. 2. Wynn Lesure, another reputed supplier, pleaded no contest on another conspiracy charge and will be sentenced Dec. 9.
Both Collins and Ortega have drawn criticism in the past for the way they've run their departments. Now they stand accused of having conducted a witch-hunt designed to further their own political ambitions. Humphries, who says he voluntarily took 23 drug tests this summer to try to clear his name, says, "Our reputations have been ruined."
None of the prosecutors will discuss specifics of the indictments until every case is settled, but Collins did address some broad questions last week. "If we'd had the information we had and not done anything—that's when we justifiably should've been roasted," he said.
Then Collins added: "I think if you were politically ambitious you might have been a lot more conservative than [to bring] the wide-open offense that was executed in this case."
Collins acknowledged that the investigation had "sort of bobbled along" and that "I would not try and tell anybody, as far as the prosecution aspect of this thing goes, that it's some work of beauty." Yet Collins defended his office, insisting that "given the information we had, we felt we made pretty good decisions. Circumstances change. People died. People changed their testimony.
"I guess our lesson in this is: We probably wouldn't in the future rely on somebody like [Davis] to that extent, without independent corroboration. Clearly, we made some mistakes in assessing witnesses' credibility and character in staying with what they had said."
Collins was adamant on one point. "Nobody has ever come forward in all the dismissals and all the things that have happened and said that the basic premise of the case didn't exist," he said. "Nobody has ever said that. The general premise that there were a number of basketball players who for years had been using marijuana and cocaine in social settings, restaurants, [with] groups of other people, [and] dealing small amounts among themselves and with people employed [by the Suns]—that scenario remains intact."
That scenario had begun to trouble the partnership that owned the Suns. Colangelo sensed this—and worried that the team might soon be bought from under him and perhaps moved to another city. "I felt pressure, subtle or whatever, that there were some people in this league not so anxious to see this thing resolved so that Phoenix lived happily ever after," he says. "Maybe they felt it was best if this franchise wasn't even here." When asked who gave him this feeling, Colangelo shrugs. A moment later he blurts, "Might have been the league office."
Asked about Colangelo's remarks, NBA commissioner David Stern says, "I think the league office worked hand in glove with the Suns through this very difficult time, and was supportive of them and was supportive of their efforts to put together a sale."
The NBA did move its September owners meetings, scheduled for the Phoenix suburb of Scottsdale, to the Los Angeles area. But Stern insists this was done only in response to Arizona Governor Evan Mecham's obstruction of efforts to have Martin Luther King's birthday declared a state holiday.
Nevertheless, Colangelo, encouraged by his friend John Teets, chairman of the board of the Greyhound Corp., decided to put a local group of investors together to buy the Suns and make sure they stayed in Phoenix. The sale went through for $44.5 million in October. The selling price, while well below that of a Van Gogh, was the highest in NBA history.
And so the Suns began to come out from behind the clouds. Their marketing and p.r. departments tried to stem the loss of fan support by sending videotapes explaining the franchise's view of the drug situation to every season-ticket holder. Wetzel, 43, a former Suns player and assistant coach, installed a livelier, fast-breaking offense. Gondrezick was placed on waivers, and both Bedford and Ed Pinckney—the Suns' last two No. 1 draft choices—were traded. (Pinckney was never under suspicion in the investigation.) But one major question remained: Could Davis, Humphries and Edwards put their differences aside and play together?
Here Davis took the initiative. He, too, had had a cruel summer. His father died of a stroke in August, and his mother died of a heart attack a week later. "That really may have focused Walter," says Wetzel. "It's a double tragedy, but maybe he stopped and took stock of where he was going and what his life was all about."
Davis showed up at camp seeming more at ease, more open. He said he had started attending special support group meetings every day, a practice he vows to continue even while on road trips this season. "I've accepted what I am," he says. "I believe the best years of my life are still ahead of me. My family [his wife, Susan, their two daughters and Davis's siblings] loves me. I love myself."
During the summer Davis wrote letters to his teammates explaining his reasons for testifying. Just before camp opened, he met with Edwards and Humphries, though the relationships remain strained. "We sat down and talked, but there's only so much that can be said," says Humphries.
By last week the Suns' most pressing trouble was of a more typical NBA variety: injuries. In addition to Gilliam and Nance being out, at least three other players were nursing aches and strains. "After all these injuries, I've finally started feeling sorry for us," said Adams, who has been troubled by a bad neck. Yet the Suns beat the Warriors to give Wetzel his first win. "The first of many, I'd like to say," said Wetzel.
The crowd of 9,470 in Veterans Memorial Coliseum applauded the win politely but didn't seem to have much spirit. After all that has happened to the Suns, the people of Phoenix really aren't sure how to treat them. "It was a mixed-up affair," said Dave Heckman, a longtime season-ticket holder. "Everybody was guilty, and then nobody was guilty."
Convictions or not, the charges and countercharges have left one of the key questions in the grand jury testimony unanswered: Have the Suns been plagued by a long-standing pattern of drug use? The NBA and the Phoenix franchise have to face up to the damaging speculation. Prosecutors, too, will soon have to face up to some tough questions. As for the Suns players, they will have to pull together in the coming months—perhaps in memory of a young center named Nick Vanos.