The Good Ol' Days
By Joe Gilmartin
A LITTLE THEME MUSIC IF YOU PLEASE, MAESTRO. The William Tell Overture, I think. Perfect.
Hi Ho Silver (anniversary)! Away! The Lone Chuckster rides again!
Return with us now to those nearly golden days of yesteryear (a.k.a. the Suns' silver anniversary season) when the Chuckster and his loyal sidekicks, KJ, Thunder Dan, the Really Big O, Danny the Kid, Trusty Tom, Fourth Quarter Frank, Mark the Worker, CC, Doom Boom, et al, rode the NBA range gunning down bad guys left and right before being done in themselves by a dastardly single shot.
Relive the excitement and glory, not to mention the agony and ecstasy (alas not in that order of finish), of the stirring 1993 playoff run that stirred the Valley as has no other sports event before or since.
Thrill once again to the near-death experience of the first-round series against the Lakers, the last-second shot by the Chuckster that closed out the Spurs in the second round, and the wild and crazy seven-game series against the Sonics that won the West. And, last but most, the marquee match-up against Michael Jordan and the Bulls in one of the most memorable (and most watched) championship series ever.
Hi Ho Silver (anniversary)! Away!
Although it was crammed with more spectacular plays, high drama, and low comedy (with Charles Barkley as the second lead you were expecting totally serious?) than you could shake a highlight reel at, what people remember most about the great series against the Bulls is "The Shot." Kevin Johnson certainly remembers it. "Like it was yesterday ," says the veteran Suns' star. "I can still see myself watching the ball floating in the air for what seemed like forever and having the eerie feeling it was going in."
The Shot, by Chicago's John Paxson with 0:03.9 left in the fourth period in Game 6 in America West Arena DID go in, of course. And it produced one of the eeriest, and certainly loudest, instant silences in the history of noise. The kind you hear when a great dream dies unexpectedly.
Losing to the Bulls hadn't been that unexpected back at the beginning, to be sure. Indeed, even though the Suns had posted a club record and league-best 62 regular-season victories, it had been confidently predicted by a majority of national pundits (This is what happens when one team has a Michael Jordan and the other doesn't, and one team is in the East and the other isn't.) And after the Bulls won the first two games in Phoenix, the unanimous verdict was Chicago in four. Five at the very most! But the Suns had made an amazing recovery in Chicago and won two out of three, including a dramatic/historic triple-overtime decision (which made them 1-1 lifetime in historic/dramatic triple-overtime Finals decisions ) to bring the series back to Phoenix. And in the fourth period of Game 6 it was the champs who were suddenly on the ropes as the Suns shut them out the first six minutes, hammered them half to death on the boards and turned an eight-point deficit into a four-point lead with less than two minutes to play.
At this point what fans were expecting was Game 7 and the confidence level in AWA was so deafening Bulls' coach Phil Jackson would later describe it as the "the loudest noise I've ever heard in a building."
Even with the lead down to two with 14 seconds left and the Bulls getting ready to inbound the ball there was no feeling of impending doom. Quite the contrary. The WORST that could happen was overtime, right? And the way the Suns were dominating defensively and on the boards you had to like their chances a whole bunch if it came to an extra five minutes.
But suddenly, disastrously, amazingly, there was Paxson wide open beyond the arc. And just like that Michael and Believabulls had their threepeat. Okay, technically they didn't quite have it yet. The Suns still had one last gasp, but Horace Grant blocked Kevin Johnson's desperation jumper. But who remembers "The Block?" The autopsy report on the Suns officially lists the cause of death as The Shot, and it was The Shot which turned the almost constant celebration that had begun 12 months ago with the acquisition of Charles Barkley into an instant wake.
But not a long one. Less than a week after title hopes had been laid to rest some 300,000 fans braved scorching heat (105 in the shade at parade time) to jam downtown Phoenix for a joyous celebration of a great season. While records in this category are understandably sketchy, it's doubtful any other team in the history of sports that didn't win it all ever received such a stirring and massive post-"failure" salute.
"To this day that's still one of the most moving moments in our history," says Suns' President and CEO Jerry Colangelo. "It was really amazing and showed just how much our team had brought the community together."
"It really hurt at the time to see an opportunity slip away that you may never get again," says KJ. "But as I look back now, I have very positive thoughts about that whole experience. There we were driving around in motorcades and the entire community was with us. If somebody wanted to know if you were going to watch the game they didn't have to say which game. There was only ONE game and it was ours. And that was a great feeling."
Danny Ainge, now the Suns' coach, but then a key player, has no trouble recalling his reaction to The Shot either. "I distinctly remember watching the ball leave Paxson's hand and saying, 'No, no, no," he says ruefully. But fatal though The Shot was, Ainge says that to him it wasn't the most disheartening aspect of the loss. "I was even more disappointed in our inability to score in the last five minutes," he says.
But enough about The Shot! That was the end. Let us go back to the beginning of the playoffs, which, as it happens, was very nearly the end. The deal that brought Barkley to Phoenix had been expensive, costing three starters, including Jeff Hornacek, but darn well worth it. And the Suns followed that up by swiping Ainge from right under Portland's very nose one minute after the midnight opening of the free agent market.
And of course there was Dan Majerle, who had first gained favor as a gritty defender-scrapper, but would be asked to become an outside threat to make room for Charles down low, and eventually establish himself as a great clutch shooter. Veteran power forward Tom Chambers was still on hand, as were workhorse center/steadying influence Mark West and young scoring specialist Cedric Ceballos.
The draft had brought talented but troubled (weight) center Oliver Miller. And early in the season, talented but even more troubled (drugs) forward Richard Dumas, who had been drafted the previous year, came off the suspended list, and clutch-shooter deluxe Frank Johnson (they didn't call him Fourth Quarter Frank for nothing) was signed as a free agent.
That was pretty much the cast for the 1992-93 smash hit. And with The Chuckster as the new centerpiece, and old centerpiece KJ in his prime, the Suns proceeded to lead the league in wins scoring and quotes, and Barkley was named MVP.
Still, the critics were not entirely convinced. Sure the Suns won a lot of games, they carped. And yes, maybe they were the best REGULAR SEASON team. But while long on talent, they were woefully short on fundamentals and defense. And that would catch up with them in the playoffs, they warned grimly. It appeared early on they were correct.
The first-round foe was their old nemesis, the Lakers, who had knocked them out of the playoffs no fewer than six times down through the years. But by now Wilt and West were a distant memory, and gone were Kareem and Magic. James Worthy and Byron Scott were still around, but what we had here was the winningest team in the playoffs against the only losing one in a best-of-five series everybody saw as a nice tune-up for tougher tasks ahead.
Everybody but the Lakers that is.
L.A. stunned the Suns and shocked the basketball world by winning Games 1 and 2 at America West Arena. They would head home with a 2-0 lead, needing only one more to seal the deal.
"I'll tell you what's going to happen," said Suns coach Paul Westphal following the Game 2 collapse. "We're going to go over to L.A. and win two games, and then we'll come back home and win Game 5, and everybody will say what a great series it was."
"That's still one of the great moments for me," says KJ. "We believed Westy, and so did the Lakers."
Still, despite faith in the great prophecy, the Suns needed a little bit of luck and a lot of Miller, or maybe it was vice versa, to survive. Miller was instrumental in helping the Suns build a 15-point lead in a Game 3 win and tallied 16 points and eight rebounds in the Game 4 victory.
"We had everybody accounted for in getting ready for this series," sighed Lakers' coach Randy Pfund, "except Oliver Miller."
But Game 5, in which the two teams battled into overtime, should have been called Miller time. The Big O tied a Suns playoff record with seven blocks in that deciding game and scored nine points and grabbed five rebounds in the extra stanza alone. The Suns won 112-104.
The Spurs, with super center David Robinson, posed a different kind of threat in the next round, but this time the Suns protected the home court advantage, which made things a lot easier. Not easy, but easier.
With the Suns leading 3-2, Game 6 in San Antonio came down to a classic mano-a-mano between Barkley and Robinson, which Barkley won by hitting a jumper over the Admiral with 1.8 seconds left to give the Suns a 102-100 victory and the series. Next up was the Western Conference Finals and the Seattle SuperSonics. And the Suns still weren't getting the respect they felt their record and their Barkley entitled them to. Although the Suns had finished seven games ahead of the Sonics in the Pacific Division, NBC's Peter Vescey and Bill Walton agreed that the Suns had no chance in the series.
The truth was, the Suns did have a good chance of winning the series, led by Barkley, who was named the NBA's Most Valuable Player prior to Game 1. But it was certainly no gimme.
The two teams traded wins like punches with the final round coming in Game 7 in Phoenix.
Barkley, whose running banter/trash exchanges with Sonics fans had been an entertaining subplot in the series, was all business in Game 7. At least almost all business. He put up 44 points and pulled down 24 rebounds in a 123-110 romp and pointed out his climbing stats each time he passed George Karl's bench.
"Call us whatever else you want," Sir Charles would say after the win, "but call us Western Conference Champions, too."
The stage was set for the Finals America had wanted all along. Michael Jordan against Charles Barkley. The threepeat-seeking Bulls against the high scoring, peat-seeking Suns.
Eighteen minutes into the second NBA Finals in their history, the Suns were down 20 points at home. The Bulls went on to win 100-92 as Jordan scored 31 points and Pippen chipped in 27. But the big surprise/disappointment was that journeyman B.J. Armstrong outplayed KJ. In fact, KJ was to have such dismal performances in Games 1 and 2 that the national press and even Suns fans booed him (and were in turn booed even louder by Barkley). The Bulls also won Game 2 with Jordan scoring 42 points. Barkley matched that, but KJ scored only four points.
As far as the national press (and quite a bit of the local too) was concerned, the series was finished. And so was KJ. But both made dramatic comebacks in Chicago. With KJ playing a playoff-record 62 minutes, scoring 25 points, handing out nine assists and playing some strong defense against Jordan, the Suns, who had lost in triple-overtime at Boston in "The Greatest Game Ever Played" in the 1976 Finals, beat the Bulls 129-121 in three overtimes. And as far as Westphal, who played in that '76 game was concerned, it was now "The Second Greatest Game."
"This one was even better because the good guys one," he laughed. Actually, it was also better played wire to wire. In that '76 game the Suns were awful early and the Celtics were awful late before the game became a classic in three OTs. This one didn't have a bad minute in it. Jordan scored 44 points, but thanks to KJ's dogged defense, needed 43 shots to get it done.
On the other side, Majerle had 28 points, Barkley 24 (and 19 rebounds), and Dumas 17. Majerle's 20-footer with 3.2 seconds left saved the Suns in the second overtime, and he scored five of the Suns' 15 points in the third extra period, including a Finals record-tying sixth three.
Game 4 belonged to Jordan, who scored 55 points. And the Bulls needed all 55 as the Suns came from 13 back in the fourth for a chance to tie with a minute left. Barkley led the Suns with 32 points in the loss.
With the Bulls poised to clinch and Chicago police and National guard officials braced for a celebratory riot, the Suns rode to the rescue with a 108-98 victory in Game 5. Jordan had 41 points, but KJ and Dumas had 25 each and Barkley had 24. The stage was set for The Shot!