As he sat at his desk of the plush Phoenix Suns executive offices on the fourth floor of America West Arena, Dick Van Arsdale - the "Original Sun," the man who has worked for the franchise from its inception - talked about how much he did not want to come to Phoenix.
Dick Van Arsdale, the "Original Sun."
"I called my wife, who was teaching at the time, and her immediate reaction was to start crying on the phone. I thought, 'Oh my God.' In retrospect, I understand why it happened, but I was very disappointed initially." So much has changed since then.
The Suns are in the midst of their 30th season, and no one - with the possible exception of President and CEO Jerry Colangelo - is as closely associated with the team as Van Arsdale. A three-time All-Star during his nine seasons as a Sun (he was an all-rookie selection in the first of his three years in New York before coming to Phoenix), Van Arsdale averaged 17.6 points a game in Phoenix and had his number retired in 1977. But that was only the beginning for Van Arsdale with the Suns. Since stepping away from the court, he was been a television color commentator for the team, a head coach, and now is vice president in charge of player personnel.
"I never really worried about Van at all," says Cotton Fitzsimmons, who coached Van Arsdale from 1970-72 and now works alongside him in the Suns' front office. "I knew his drive for basketball, and I knew that would carry over in life."
In yellowing press releases from the time Van Arsdale was retiring, Colangelo is quoted as saying Van Arsdale was the number one choice in the Expansion Draft because he was the one Colangelo wanted to build the franchise around.
All Van Arsdale remembers is that coming to Phoenix was going to be a "great opportunity to establish myself." Known as a defensive stopper with the Knicks, the chance to become more of an all-around star was handed to him. He didn't mess it up. And he managed to learn to love the city in the process.
"My first memories were of the heat," Van says. "I first came out here in the summer time, and they were having some Shriners convention of some sort, and they had people passing out in the streets. I couldn't believe how hot it was. All I had ever thought about Phoenix was desert, rattlesnakes and cactus.
"It didn't take me long to fall in love with the place, though. I brought my wife out and we started looking for a place to live and we found a condominium complex where each unit had its own swimming pool. We thought we'd died and gone to heaven. We thought, 'This beats the heck out of New York.'"
That first team, featuring the high-scoring backcourt of Van Arsdale and Gail Goodrich, did win its first game, but not many after that in fashioning a 16-66 record - somewhat expected from an expansion team. "I don't remember that being a negative for me," he says. "I just loved to play."
Slowly, however, the Suns were transformed, adding players like Connie Hawkins and Paul Silas. Phoenix made the playoffs in its second year, and then won 48 and 49 games in 1970-71 and '71-72 in Fitzsimmons' first go-round coaching the team.
Van Arsdale averaged right around 20 points a game those seasons, and other than the Suns' magical run to the championship series in 1976, he called those seasons the ones he most enjoyed.
Fitzsimmons remembers those times just as fondly, noting that four of the five starters - Van Arsdale, Hawkins, Silas and Neal Walk - were working for the Suns recently (Silas now coaches with Charlotte), while the fifth - Clem Haskins - is a successful coach at the University of Minnesota.
"They were a unique group," Fitzsimmons said. As for Van Arsdale, Fitzsimmons recalled a fiery player who you didn't want to get riled up.
"I remember when we would play the Lakers," he says. "Well, Dick Van always worked hard on his game all the time, to make himself the player that he was. The big guy in the league then was Wilt Chamberlain. He got all the publicity, but I always got the feeling Dick didn't feel Wilt worked hard enough.
"So every time we played against Wilt and the Lakers, Dick would always challenge him. And this is a true story, Wilt Chamberlain would not block anyone's shot during the course of a game but Dick Van Arsdale's. Anyone else could come in and lay it in. I used to tell Dick, 'Leave him alone. Just leave Wilt alone.' But he couldn't do it. That shows the fiery side of Van."
Van Arsdale took pride in his matchups with Wilt Chamberlain
Against Boston in the NBA Finals, Phoenix rebounded from a 2-0 deficit to tie the series at two, setting up the historic triple-overtime Game 5 that many consider one of the greatest games in NBA history. The Celtics ended up winning the game and the series.
"I was always very emotional as a player, but I've watched tapes of that game and I'm walking around like nothing's happening," Van Arsdale says. "You don't recognize the historical significance when you're there. You're just trying to win game.
"It was not a real good game, but the phenomenal things that happened at the end made it seem like one of the greatest games of all time, from a dramatic standpoint. I'm glad I was a part of it. The only problem is when I watch the tapes, the ending never changes."
It didn't stop that spring from being the most exciting in Suns history at the time, though.
"All through the season and the playoffs, with the quiet leadership of Dick Van and Keith Erickson and Pat Riley - the three old guys - we thought we could win any day we had a game," says Alvan Adams, a rookie that season, whose number hangs alongside Van Arsdale's 5 in the rafters. "I remember thinking that I felt bad for those guys, because I didn't know if they would ever get back there."
It turned out Van Arsdale didn't. In fact, he played just one more season, but that did end up giving him a career highlight. Dick and his twin brother Tom had been named co-"Mr. Basketball" while starring in Indiana high school hoops, and then were heroes playing alongside each other at Indiana University. But the duo - despite being very close - wanted to separate going into the NBA because they assumed that as twins, they would likely be fighting for the same spot on a roster. They got their wish, but as their careers wound down, the Van Arsdales desperately wanted to play together once again. Finally, through some wheeling and dealing by the Suns - and the insistence by Tom Van Arsdale toward the Buffalo franchise that owned his rights that he wouldn't play for the Braves - the brothers were reunited in 1976-77.
"Tom had never been to the playoffs and I thought it would be a great chance for that to happen for him," explains Dick, who had high hopes, along with his teammates, that Phoenix could have a big year after the Finals trip the season before.
"It so happens we had a lot of injuries that year and we missed the playoffs. But we roomed together and traveled together, and it was fun from that stand point."
It also opened the door for some fun by other players.
"I always felt a kinship with the Van Arsdales, because I was kind of the third twin," Adams says. "There was Dick Van, Tom Van, and I was Al-van!"
That season was enough for Tom Van Arsdale, who decided to retire when the season ended. For Dick, whose scoring average had dwindled beneath 12 points a game for the first time in his career (down to 7.7), his time was numbered as well, although it took a little longer for him to decide than Tom.
"I would have liked to have played another one or two years, but that wasn't in the cards," he says. "John MacLeod thought it was time that I retire and I love John, but I wasn't real happy with that at the time. But once I knew I was going to retire, it wasn't that hard. I had the opportunity to stay on here."
The highest profile position Van Arsdale has had with the Suns since leaving the court was his stint as head coach in 1986-87, when he found himself excited to be back involved in the actual games even though he never had any desire to coach.
He took over for the final 26 games of the season, leading the Suns to 14 wins and 12 losses, including 12 wins in the last 15 games.
"We had had a little drug scandal at that point, (coach John) MacLeod was fired, and Jerry (Colangelo) asked me to take over for the remainder of the year," Van Arsdale says. "I was like, 'Holy cow!' I wasn't like (Danny) Ainge or (Paul) Westphal, guys who knew they wanted to go into coaching. I didn't. I told them I would take it strictly on an interim basis.
"Once I got into it, I found it very nerve-wracking, but I enjoyed it. You're right in the middle of everything."
But he quickly added that he never seriously considered continuing after that.
"Now that I've been away from that, sometimes I think - there's that little bit inside of you that says, 'I wished I had tried it.' At the same time, if you're going to be a coach, you have to be totally dedicated and I wasn't."
One thing Van Arsdale has come to understand in his long tenure with the Suns is that even with the huge crowds (the Suns averaged about 8,000 fans at home through most of his career) and the huge money of today's NBA, he wouldn't want to replay his career. Not that a million dollar contract wouldn't be nice, but the pressure and media glare of the '90s NBA would probably take away some the fun.
Having fun was the most important thing to Van Arsdale during his playing days.
Not that there aren't some things Van Arsdale sometimes wonders about, things he could have changed. Getting a ring, for one. But he's been with the Suns for 30 years and each new season brings brand new hope.
"There are always things you would have liked to go differently," he says. "To play in the NBA was a dream of mine. I wouldn't trade that for being head of major corporation of President of United States, because I wanted to be a ballplayer.
"As far as my regrets, the biggest is not being part of a championship. That's what everyone is shooting for. You always think back as a player and think there are things you could have done to help more, like know about nutrition and weight training. But the championship is my biggest thing. This is my 33rd year (in basketball)," he chuckles. "Maybe someday it will happen."
Reprinted from the December, 1997 issue of Fastbreak magazine. Darren Urban is a sportswriter for the Tribune Newspapers in Phoenix.