The Phoenix Suns – The Early Years
The Phoenix Suns are a professional basketball team, based in Phoenix, Arizona. They play in the National Basketball Association (NBA).
On January 22, 1968, the NBA awarded expansion franchises to an ownership group from Phoenix and one from Milwaukee.
The primary investors in the Phoenix franchise at its inception had close ties to Tucson, Arizona’s second largest city. They were:
• Richard Bloch, a Southern California investment broker/real estate developer and former Tucson resident (no relation to the Richard Bloch who was the co-founder of tax preparation provider H&R Block).
• Karl Eller, owner of a major outdoor advertising company and one of the Phoenix area’s most influential business leaders at that time. He was a former football player for The University of Arizona;
• Donald Pitt, a Tucson-based attorney;
• Don Diamond, Tucson-based real estate investor who eventually replaced Eller on the ownership managing team.
All four men were alumni of The University of Arizona. According to the history section of the Suns website, other investors in the Suns included prominent entertainers such as Andy Williams and Henry Mancini.
According to the Suns website, the original logo was designed by Stanley Fabe, owner of a Tucson printing company, for $200.
The new Suns ownership group hired former Chicago Bulls executive Jerry Colangelo to be general manager (he was 28 years of age when he took the position). Colangelo in turn hired Johnny “Red” Kerr (as of this writing a broadcaster with the Bulls) to be the first head coach of the Suns. Kerr was forced to resign midway through the 1969-70 season, and Colangelo himself coached a few games. Cotton Fitzsimmons replaced Colangelo as Suns coach for the 1970-71 season. He took the team to their first winning season, with a final record of 48-34.
Fitzsimmons would return to the head coaching job in the late 1980s; he would go on to be greatly loved by Suns fans, wildly popular (and successful) as a coach, broadcaster and executive with the Suns organization.
In the 1970s the Suns experienced mild success, combining the talents of such players as Dick Van Arsdale (The Original Sun), his twin brother Tom Van Arsdale, Hall of Famer Connie Hawkins, Len “Truck” Robinson, Alvan Adams, and center Neal Walk. In 1976, the year the movie Rocky was released, the Suns proved to be a real-life basketball version of Rocky. They finished the season with 42 wins and 40 losses, but shockingly they beat the defending NBA champion Golden State Warriors in the playoffs and went on to play the Boston Celtics in the NBA Finals, giving the Celtics a tough battle before falling in 6 games. Game 5 was a triple-overtime classic that is considered by many to be the greatest game in NBA history, with Suns forward Gar Heard hitting a buzzer beating rainbow jump shot (“The Shot”) to send the contest into the third overtime at Boston Garden.
In the late ’70s and early ’80s, the Suns enjoyed several successful seasons, making the playoffs for 8 seasons in a row. Problems arose however, on and off court, in the mid ’80s. In 1987 the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office indicted 13 people on drug-related charges, three of whom were active Suns players (James Edwards, Jay Humphries and Grant Gondrezick). These indictments were partially based on testimony from star player Walter Davis, who was given immunity. No defendants ever went to trial: two of the players went into a prosecution diversion program, while another received probation. Nevertheless, the scandal, although now perceived in many respects to be a witchhunt, tarnished the reputation of the franchise both nationally and within the community. The scandal did provide an opening for general manager Colangelo to lead a group that bought the team from its owners for $44 million, a record at that time.
With a drug scandal and the loss of promising young center Nick Vanos, who was killed in the crash of Northwest Airlines Flight 255 after taking off from Detroit Metropolitan Airport, the franchise was in turmoil on and off the court. The Suns’ luck began to turn around in 1987, however, with the acquisition from the Cleveland Cavaliers of Kevin Johnson, Mark West, and Tyrone Corbin for popular power forward Larry Nance. In 1988, Tom Chambers came over from Seattle as the first unrestricted free agent in NBA history, Jeff Hornacek a 1986 second round pick continued to develop, “Thunder” Dan Majerle was drafted with the 14th pick in the draft, which they obtained from Cleveland in the Kevin Johnson trade, and the team began a 13-year playoff streak. Kurt Rambis was added from the Charlotte Hornets in 1989, and the team (coached by Fitzsimmons), in a shocking upset, beat the Los Angeles Lakers in 5 games that season before falling to the Portland Trail Blazers in the Western Conference Finals. In 1991, The Suns stormed to a 55-27 record, however they lost in the first round to the Utah Jazz 3-1. In 1992, the Suns cruised to a 53-29 record during the regular season. While having sent four players to the all-star game in the last two years (Chambers, Johnson, Hornacek and Majerle), the Suns were poised to make a serious run at the NBA Finals. They showed their poise by sweeping the San Antonio Spurs in 3 games. But once again the Suns fell in five games to the Trail Blazers in the conference semifinals, however the series was punctuated by an electrifying game 4, in which the Suns lost in double overtime 153-151. The Suns were yet again denied a shot at a title, but in subsequent seasons enjoyed even greater success than ever before.