The phoenix suns, who have turned up in more police photos than highlight films in recent years, were back in the crime news a few weeks ago. They had landed at the Phoenix airport after a road game, and four of their number decided to take a shortcut between terminals to get to their cars. The players hurdled a fence into a restricted area, where they fell—almost literally—into the arms of the law. It wasn't the kind of thing that would get them on America's Most Wanted, but all of a sudden people saw criminal overtones in the offense.
This is an article from the Feb. 27, 1989 issue
Three nights later, after Phoenix had hammered the L.A. Lakers 114-97, Sun coach Cotton Fitzsimmons wrote the flight number for the team's next road trip on the locker room chalkboard. In large letters he added, "Don't jump over any fences." But for the Suns this hasn't been a season for respecting normal boundaries—or teams as powerful as the Lakers. Phoenix had a 32-17 record, No. 2 in the NBA's Western Conference at the end of last week, and the look of a club ready to jump over the moon.
What makes the Suns' play fairly astonishing is that at the start of the season the players barely knew one another. In a breathtakingly short span, Phoenix, which finished 34 games out of first place in the Pacific Division last season, has reinvented itself; the only player left from its roster of two seasons ago is guard Jeff Hornacek. "We thought if this team could play .500 and make the playoffs, it would be a tremendous comeback from adversity," says Sun president Jerry Colangelo.
Early in the season they were over .500, at 10-9, but Fitzsimmons thought they were a little too smug about that modest accomplishment. "He told us we were satisfied, and we were," says point guard Kevin Johnson. "Then he told us we could have been 15-4, which we couldn't even imagine at that time. He made us realize it doesn't take two years to be good, that we can win right now. He made us see a little further than we were willing to look."
Last week the Suns beat the Seattle SuperSonics, Boston Celtics and Sacramento Kings to give them four more wins than they had all of last season and 17 more than they had at this point in 1987-88.
"They've done a remarkable job of rebuilding," says Laker coach Pat Riley, for whom the Phoenix resurrection is especially troublesome. L.A., 1-2 against the Suns this season, with only a 1½-game lead over Phoenix at week's end, can no longer take the division championship for granted. "I gave a little quiz the other day and asked our guys what the records of the other Pacific Division teams were," said Riley after the Lakers' loss to Phoenix on Feb. 1. "Only one guy knew. I told them, 'You guys better take a look.' They know now."
But few teams had ever fallen as far as the Suns, who were a model of consistency from the 1975-76 season through '84-85. During those 10 years they made the playoffs nine times and over one six-year stretch averaged 52 wins a season. John MacLeod coached Phoenix from 1973-74 until midway through the '86-87 season, and many of the players who came to the Valley of the Sun simply never left. Retired Suns were always welcomed back and made to feel as if they were part of a family. "I had a Utopian concept of what I wanted to do with this franchise," says Colangelo, "and stability was a big part of that."
Phoenix's only flaw was that its consistency sometimes became boring. "If anything, we were considered too vanilla because there was never any controversy," says Colangelo. "But then all that ended."
That end came near the conclusion of the 1986-87 season, when center James Edwards, guard Jay Humphries and guard Grant Gondrezick, as well as former Suns Garfield Heard and Mike Bratz, were indicted by a Maricopa County grand jury on charges of possessing or trafficking in cocaine or marijuana. Walter Davis, the Phoenix guard who had entered a drug rehabilitation clinic once before, in 1985, agreed to testify against his present and former teammates to avoid prosecution. As the accusations grew seamier, Sun fans began derisively referring to the team as Phoenix House and the scandal itself as Waltergate.
That all the charges were either dropped or reduced did not begin to undo the damage. How had things ever gotten so out of control? "For a number of years we didn't have the personal contact with our players that we needed," says Colangelo. "I think the fans were hurt by the drug charges, and they were ready to point fingers. It hurt to find out that a lot of those fingers were pointed at me."
Colangelo decided that the players—as many as possible—had to go before he could remold his team. "It became clear that at some point we were going to have to back up the truck," says Colangelo. "It was like a black cloud that wouldn't go away. So we had to eliminate our ties with the past."
The Suns sent one third of their roster packing in just two days last February. Humphries went to the Milwaukee Bucks for guard Craig Hodges and a 1988 second-round pick; Edwards was sent to the Detroit Pistons for center Ron Moore and a second-rounder in 1991; and forwards Larry Nance and Mike Sanders were dealt to the Cleveland Cavaliers for Kevin Johnson, forward Tyrone Corbin and center Mark West. Then in July, Davis signed a contract with the Denver Nuggets as a free agent.
"I think most people in Phoenix thought the Suns had hit rock bottom when they traded Nance for three guys they'd never heard of," says Kevin Johnson, who, as a rookie out of Cal, was playing behind Mark Price in Cleveland. "Cotton and Jerry may have felt they had no choice, but they took an unbelievable risk." Columnist Joe Gilmartin of the Phoenix Gazette addressed Fitzsimmons on behalf of many Phoenix fans when he wrote, "There's a train leaving at midnight. Be under it."
Before last year's draft the Suns spent thousands of dollars on an investigation into players' backgrounds, and they considered six players to be potential troublemakers. Five of those players were taken in the first round by other teams. Phoenix, which had two first-round draft choices, chose forward Tim Perry of Temple with the seventh pick (he has averaged a meager 4.1 points per game) and Olympian Dan Majerle of Central Michigan, a guard, with the 14th (he was sidelined with mononucleosis on Dec. 17, and his playing status is day to day).
But when the Suns decided to go out and spend big money on a free agent for the first time in their history, they seemed oblivious to the troublemaking implications of their act: The player they came up with was Tom Chambers, who in his seven seasons with San Diego and Seattle had gotten the reputation of being a selfish malcontent and was despised in practically every arena he played in, including, at times, the Coliseum in Seattle. "I used to hate watching him play," says Kevin Johnson, and even Colangelo admits that he used to think Chambers was "a little whiny." Nonetheless, Phoenix gave Chambers a five-year, $9 million contract and set about building the team around him.
"I'm sure early in his career he was selfish," says Fitzsimmons. "But he's a hell of a guy now. You only have to talk to him for five minutes to know that he wants to win. Without Tom we'd be a team struggling under .500."
Chambers, who's 6'10", 230 pounds and quick, is averaging more than 25 points a game. He has often played out of position for the Suns—including at center—and has even thrown his body around diving to the floor for loose balls. "If I had been with this team the first five years of my career, maybe all those negative things would never have been said about me," says Chambers. "It was always one isolated incident here, one there, and they followed me around the league. It hurts to have people think I'm a jerk. I wish it would all be forgotten, but it never will be, and I understand that."
Until the recent signing of 34-year-old defensive specialist T.R. Dunn, Chambers and forward Eddie Johnson were, at 29, the two graybeards on a very young team. Before arriving in Phoenix, in June 1987, Eddie Johnson had played on only one winning club during his six seasons with the Kansas City and Sacramento Kings. Like Chambers, he has been rejuvenated by his baby-faced teammates. The NBA may have no deadlier jump shooter off a screen than Eddie, yet despite that and the fact that he's averaging more than 21 points a game coming off the bench, most people have either never heard of him or assume he's the former Atlanta Hawk guard who had a nasty habit of getting arrested.
"I've been pretty quiet about what I do," says Eddie. "If you're not spectacular in this league, you're not noticed. All I do is go out and get my 20 points a night—every night."
Even the addition of Eddie Johnson and Chambers would have counted for little had the Suns not gotten Kevin Johnson from the Cavaliers. That Johnson, who will turn 23 next month, is one of four Suns (the others are Chambers, Eddie Johnson and Armon Gilliam) who have scored 40 or more points in a game this season. He also ranks third in the league in assists and first in butt-kickings. "I made a big play in one game," says Chambers, still slightly mystified, "and he came and up and kicked me in the butt." On other occasions Kevin Johnson congratulates his teammates by delivering emphatic shoulder butts.
The real butt-kicker of the Suns is Fitzsimmons, the gravel-voiced Munch-kin who has taken over six losing teams during his NBA career. "I'm the Red Adair of the NBA," says Fitzsimmons. "Always trying to put out fires."
He has started at least one himself. While he was with the San Antonio Spurs, the team he coached before joining the Suns, he traded the most popular monument in town short of the Alamo—George Gervin. Fitzsimmons had tried to persuade Gervin to become the Spurs' sixth man, but after the Iceman thought about that one for a while, he told Cotton, "I ain't no John Havlicek."
Shortly thereafter, Fitzsimmons began receiving death threats. "He was so unpopular in San Antonio that I actually used to pray he'd get fired," says his wife, JoAnn. Her prayers were soon answered. Fitzsimmons says he then lived for six months as "a vagabond," traveling around the country before deciding to settle in Phoenix. He showed up periodically in the stands at Sun games, waiting, some thought, for MacLeod's head to roll.
When MacLeod was fired, Colangelo replaced him with Dick Van Arsdale, who coached the final 26 games. Assistant coach John Wetzel took over the following season, and Fitzsimmons was hired as Phoenix's player-personnel director. Wetzel suffered through a 28-54 season in 1987-88, so he, too, was canned. Colangelo wanted to replace Wetzel with Fitzsimmons but was worried that hiring a 56-year-old would only add to the franchise's instability, so on the day he announced that Fitzsimmons would be Phoenix's next coach, he took the unorthodox step of naming Paul Westphal "the heir apparent, a coach-in-waiting."
Westphal, who had been the Suns' leading scorer for five seasons, represented happier times. What's more, he had enjoyed coaching success in Phoenix, first at Southwestern College, a small Bible school, and then at Grand Canyon College, which he led to the NAIA championship in 1988. Westphal could take over next season, or he may have to wait several years.
Whoever the coach is, the Suns are headed for better times. "When you look at the standings and see yourself in second place, fighting the Lakers for the division lead, you know the dark days are over," says Colangelo. "The black cloud is gone. I don't see it anymore."