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Former Suns great Walter Davis still holds Phoenix close to his heart
The Sweetest
By Joel Horn

Walter Davis finished his career as the NBA's 17th all-time leading scorer.

WALTER DAVIS WAS SOMEWHAT UPSET when he found out the Phoenix Suns had made him their first pick in the 1977 NBA Draft.

"Phoenix was the only team I didn't know someone on," says Davis, then a 6-6, 195-pound forward from North Carolina. "If I had my choice, I would've preferred to stay on the East Coast so I could've been near my family, but you can't have that situation all the time. I came out West and it turned out to be a blessing in disguise."

A blessing for Davis AND the Suns.

The fifth selection overall that year, "Sweet D" went on to play 11 seasons for the Suns. He scored 15,666 points - first on the Suns' all-time list - and thrilled fans with his phenomenal shooting ability, particularly at crunch time. A six-time All-Star with Phoenix, Davis played four more NBA seasons, three-and-a-half of them with the Denver Nuggets, before retiring in 1992 as the NBA's 17th all-time leading scorer.

On April 3, 1994, Davis became only the fifth player in Suns history to have his number retired. That number, 6, has since taken its rightful place in the America West Arena rafters, alongside those of Dick Van Arsdale, Connie Hawkins, Paul Westphal and Alvan Adams.

"I think it's absolutely appropriate that his number be up there," said Westphal, at the time of the retirement ceremony. "He's one of the greatest players ever to play for the Suns, and one of the greatest players in the NBA.

"He definitely adds class to our group."

Class. That's a word that comes up often when discussing Davis. His silky-smooth jump shot (he was dubbed "The Man with the Velvet Touch" by Suns broadcaster Al McCoy)... the graceful manner with which he moved on the floor... the way he handled himself in adversity... he has always exuded pride and dignity and a competitive spirit few individuals are lucky enough to have.

Learning as a Tar Heel
Davis credits his college coach, the legendary Dean Smith, for much of his success - both on and off the court.

"Every situation that comes up in basketball, we'd go over it. If a situation came up that never happened before, the very first thing we'd do in practice is go over that situation, no matter what it was," says Davis, a Pineville, N.C., native who was a baseball and basketball star at South Mecklenburg High, the same school that produced former Tar Heel and NBA star Bobby Jones. "Coach Smith teaches to play unselfish. He thinks collectively a group would be better than one guy standing out. He doesn't like any prima donnas. Nobody gets preferential treatment."

Davis cracked the North Carolina starting lineup as a freshman. During his four years in Chapel Hill, he averaged 15.7 points per game and never shot below .500 (he even shot .578 as a senior).

"There are just two or three players that are still popular in North Carolina," Smith says. "Walter Davis is one of them."

Davis made the All-Tournament teams in the 1977 NCAA Eastern Regional and NCAA Finals (the Tar Heels lost the championship game to Marquette), and was a member of the gold-medal winning 1976 U.S. Olympic basketball team in Montreal.

Despite having such an impressive list of credentials, Davis said his only goals for his first NBA season were "to make the team and contribute."

"Those were honestly my only goals, because I didn't know if I could compete on this next level," he recalls. "I tried to keep it simple - just by making the team, helping. I didn't think I'd be a starter or anything like that."

Off to a Quick Start
Davis realized he belonged in the NBA after the Suns' first exhibition game, against the Los Angeles Lakers in Bakersfield, Calif.

"It was my first time seeing Kareem and Jamaal Wilkes and all those guys, and we played well," he says. "I don't know how many points I scored or what, but I really felt like I could play then."

Davis was inserted into the starting lineup when Ira Terrell, the Suns' small forward, injured his knee early in the season. He played well - so well t hat he was the only rookie named to the All-Star Game that season. He scored 10 points in 15 minutes and led all front-court players with six assists for the Western Conference squad.

The honors kept coming. After scoring in double figures in all 81 regular-season games in which he played, and setting a team record for rookies with a .526 field goal percentage, Davis was named Rookie of the Year over Marques Johnson of the Milwaukee Bucks, Bernard King of the New Jersey Nets, the Seattle Supersonics' Jack Sikma and the Lakers' Norm Nixon. He received 49 1/4 votes from a group of 66 media representatives who covered the NBA that season - a virtual landslide.

"All four of those guys had excellent rookie seasons also, but because I made the All-Star team, I think that gave me a little notch on them," says Davis, who became the second Phoenix player to be named the NBA's top rookie (Adams won the award in 1976).

Davis helped the Suns to a 49-33 regular-season record. He averaged 24.2 points per game - the highest scoring average by a rookie since Portland forward Sidney Wicks averaged 24.5 points per game in 1971-72 - and led the team with a .830 free-throw percentage.

The following season, Phoenix acquired power forward Leonard "Truck" Robinson in a January trade with the New Orleans Jazz. The Suns' starting lineup then had Robinson and Davis at forwards, Westphal and Don Buse at guards and Adams at center - five NBA All-Stars. The team won 50 regular-season games and advanced to the Western Conference Finals against Seattle.

Phoenix led that series 3-2, with the sixth game scheduled for Mother's Day in Phoenix. Westphal's mother, Ruth, sang the national anthem. The Suns trailed 106-105 with 18 seconds left. They worked a play designed to get the ball to Davis, but his off-balance 20-footer bounced off the rim. Phoenix ended up losing the series, and the Sonics went on to capture their first (and only) NBA title.

"I thought we had it," Davis says. "I thought we were going to be in the Finals. We had a great team and it was a great season. It was fun, and it just came down to a couple plays right there at the end.

"I think of one play, especially. I penetrated and went in. If I had it to do over again I'd lay it up, but I saw Truck Robinson... Lonnie Shelton was coming at me, so I was going to hand it off to Truck. He's looking for me to shoot. The ball rolls out of bounds, so that was partly my fault."

The Suns were expected to contend for the Pacific Division championship in 1979-80 again, but they finished in third place behind Los Angeles and Seattle, and lost a second-round playoff series to the Lakers. Westphal and Davis, who averaged 21.9 and 21.5 points per game, respectively, represented Phoenix at that season's All-Star Game in Landover, Md. Davis loved playing with Westphal.

"He knew the game," Davis says. "I learned a lot of little tricks from Paul - a lot of moves, taking the ball to the hole and shooting the outside shot, keeping the play simple. Paul always let me know that if he's on the fastbreak, you've got to get the ball to the shooter. You've got to go to the guys that can finish for you."

On June 30, 1980, Westphal was traded to the Sonics for Dennis Johnson. Davis was moved to guard and Robinson came off the bench. Despite all those changes, Phoenix won 57 regular-season games, the most in franchise history, and captured its first-ever Pacific Division championship. A 35-10 record at the All-Star break gave Suns coach John MacLeod the job of coaching the Western Conference All-Stars in Cleveland.

"Coach MacLeod was a lot like Dean Smith," Davis says. "He was very organized, had a lot of rules you had to follow. A lot of guys didn't like it, but that's the way I was always coached. He was very disciplined- you had to execute in the offense - but he let us run, too. So I had no problem with Coach MacLeod at all. I loved playing for him.

"He was just like an extension of Coach Smith - someone that I could talk to about things other than basketball. I always went over his house for breakfast (and to) hang out with the kids."

The Elbow
On Oct. 26, 1981, Phoenix played the most infamous preseason game in its history. The Suns were playing the Clippers in San Diego in their final exhibition contest. There were nine minutes left in the game. Davis was battling three Clippers for a rebound when he leaped, was knocked off-balance and fell to the floor on his elbow. The elbow was fractured, as were Phoenix's hopes for the new season. Coming off of a Pacific Division championship and with the addition of first-round draft pick Larry Nance, the Suns were projected to make a run at a second-straight division flag.

"I knew something was wrong as soon as I hit," Davis says. "It was a loose ball and I went up to try to tip it. I think 'Jellybean' Joe Bryant (father of Lakers' star Kobe Bryant) just nicked me right on the side and it kind of scared me a little bit. I threw my legs from under me and I came down right on my elbow. And immediately when I hit, I looked at it and I saw my arm just looking like a sway-back mule. (Suns trainer) Joe Proski ran out and I said, 'Joe, I think it's broken.' And he looked at it and made a terrible-looking face, and I said, 'Oh, no.'"

Fortunately, the break was on Davis' left - non shooting - arm. He was expected to miss six to eight weeks.

With Davis out of the lineup, Phoenix struggled out of the gate. The Suns were 13-10 when he returned on Dec. 19 for a five-minute appearance against Kansas City. Davis was introduced to the crowd at Veterans Memorial Coliseum before tipoff and received a two-minute standing ovation from the 11,257 in attendance, even though he didn't start.

"I had a good rapport with the fans at Veterans, and that was probably one of the reasons why I came back early," Davis says. "Everything was so ideal. I loved playing at the Coliseum. I loved playing in front of our fans. I wanted to do anything to help our team win."

Davis never rounded into midseason form. Even in the postseason, he came off the bench (second-year performer Kyle Macy filled his starting spot). He appeared in 55 games that season and averaged 14.4 points per game.

"My left are was really weak," Davis says. "They repaired it surgically, but (the team physician) said if I had a bad fall again it would break again. I played a little too tentatively. I remember lots of times I'd get tripped, and guys would tease me the next day, showing me the way I fell."

Phoenix finished with a 46-36 regular-season record, won a three-game miniseries with Denver, but was swept by Los Angeles in four games in the second round.

"Good coach, good players, good team," said then-Portland Trail Blazers Head Coach Jack Ramsay. "A bit puzzling their record wasn't better, but not having a 100 percent Walter Davis probably had something to do with it."

On July 7, 1982 - two weeks after the NBA Draft - Robinson was traded to New York for power forward Maurice Lucas. Nance moved into the starting lineup at small forward, and a healthy Davis returned at guard. The Suns finished with a 53-29 regular-season record, but were eliminated by the Nuggets in a first-round playoff series, 2-1.

It was that season that Davis staged the greatest shooting exhibition in NBA history when he hit 15 field goals and six free throws without a miss, in a February win over Seattle.

"I didn't know anything about the record at the time," says Davis, who was guarded that night by David Thompson, Phil Smith and John Johnson. "I was happy we won the game. We were down like 16 points and we came back and won the game. I was more thrilled about that and winning on the opposing team's court. You don't get a lot of victories like that.

"At the time, I didn't think much about it, and I still don't. That night could've been like any other night. I've been hotter, I think, but it's never been where I was making those type of shots when the game was tight like that."

The next season, 1983-84, Davis led the club for the second straight year with a 20.0 scoring average as the surprising Suns made it all the way to the Western Conference Finals. After a 41-41 regular-season mark, Phoenix battled through the playoffs before finally being eliminated by the Lakers in six games.

The Knee
On Oct. 9, 1984, Phoenix returned to the Forum for a preseason game. Several months earlier, the Forum had hosted the basketball competition in the 1984 Summer Olympic Games. With international rules, which include a wider key under the basket, a special court was installed for the two-week event. The regular Forum court was stored through the summer - packed in wax.

On Oct. 7, the floor was unpacked and placed on top of the Forum ice surface, already in place for a Los Angeles Kings hockey game. That combination left the basketball floor slippery and downright dangerous when the Suns came to town.

Midway through the second quarter of the Lakers-Suns game, an oily film began to appear on the floor surface. Magic Johnson slipped and fell just before halftime. Still, no attempt was made to stop the game, or do something about the floor. Early in the fourth quarter, Davis, "The Greyhound," ran alone on a fastbreak. A long pass was made to him, he turned to catch the pass and went down.

"I walked off the court," Davis says. "I didn't think it was serious until I got in the locker room and the first thing the Lakers' trainer asked me was, 'Did you hear anything pop like a rubber band?' I said I did and he said, 'Well, I think you've got torn ligaments.' When they drained it and got blood out of it, they were sure.

"After I fell, they still didn't stop the game. I think (Bob) McAdoo slipped next, a couple minutes later. He pulled a groin muscle. Coach MacLeod had had enough after that. He just started walking off the court. And then (referee) Eddie Rush called the game. But seven guys fell before he called that game."

Still, Davis says he harbors no ill feelings toward Rush or the Forum officials.

"I came back healthy and I was able to still play and contribute, and I got back to the level that I wanted. I think if I had never been able to come back to play again, then I probably would have. But I have no ill feelings against the refs, the Forum or anybody at all.

On April 3, 1994, Davis became the fifth player in Suns history to have his number retired. Suns President and CEO Jerry Colangelo honors the legendary guard.

" I played for 15 years. I hurt my knee when I was 30, and I played until I was 37, so why should I have bad feelings? I don't think it held me back."

Davis did not return to the Phoenix lineup until Feb. 3. As was the case three years earlier, when he came back from the broken elbow, he made his return before the Coliseum faithful who, in return, gave him a thunderous ovation.

One month later, Davis suffered a sprained ankle in a loss to Milwaukee. Later examination showed Davis had bone spurs in the ankle, and required surgery. Davis said the surgery could wait, but the doctors said it shouldn't. By March 28, the decision was made to go ahead with the surgery, mostly out of fear that delaying it further would jeopardize Davis' playing ability in the future.

"That was probably stupid on my part, even trying to come back, but that's the macho cockiness, thinking I could do anything I want," Davis says.

"When you're young like that, you feel you can do that. I should've stayed out the whole year. I wasn't forced to come back to play, it was just that the knee started feeling good. I thought I could compete again, and I was wrong.

"I got out there and (opposing teams) taught me another valuable lesson. They would clear the side. I was playing two (shooting) guard, and they'd let the guy take me one-on-one. I didn't have my lateral quickness and it made me look bad. It was something I stored in the back of my mind that let me know that I had to do my rehab even more that summer and to take care of the bone spurs in my foot. God, I had to get healthy again."

With Davis, Nance and center James Edwards out of action due to injury, the Suns lost to the Lakers in a best-of-five first-round playoff series. Davis appeared in just 23 games.

In 1985-86, Davis again led the team in scoring with 21.8 points per game as the Suns struggled to a 32-50 mark, missing the playoffs for the first time in eight years. Then came the season that Davis and the Suns organization would like to forget.

Fighting Through Adversity
First, MacLeod was fired on Feb. 26, 1987. "I remember I was at home early in the morning, and I got this call, 'Come down to the office. Coach MacLeod has been fired. Dick Van Arsdale is the new coach.' I met with Dick, and it was the first time in 10 years I had a different coach. Pretty much all the plays and everything stayed the same, but you're looking at a different guy."

Then, on Friday, April 17, the day before the end of the regular season, Maricopa County Attorney Tom Collins and Phoenix Police Chief Ruben Ortega called a news conference to announce that, as a result of their investigations and testimony before a grand jury, five current or former Suns players had been indicted for drug-related offenses and that six other present or former Suns players were linked to the case. At the eye of this storm of controversy was Davis.

In December, 1985, Davis had shocked the basketball world in general, and Phoenix in particular, with his admission of drug and alcohol problems. He entered the NBA's assistance program and returned to the team a month later to finish the season. The following season, he was leading the team in scoring with 23.6 points per game, but by mid-year the drug investigation was underway and Davis was called to testify before a grand jury. Immediately after the indictments were announced, Davis returned to the NBA's treatment program.

"It was a mess, and I was a big part of it," Davis says. "I think I got what I deserved. I never blamed anyone or tried to shift the blame. My dad always told me if you do something and it's wrong, you've got to take your whipping like a man, and I felt like that's what I had to do. I tried to apologize to everyone that I hurt directly and indirectly, tried to make amends, tried to change. That's not the person my parents wanted me to be, not the person I wanted to be. I made a mistake and I paid for it.

"Every now and then it still reaches up and bites me sometimes. It was a hard lesson I had to learn. They say you go through things for a reason, and I'm sure I did. I think it's made me a stronger person, a better person. It's definitely made me more sympathetic to other people's problems. And in a way, everybody had me up on this pedestal and all I wanted to be was just a human being - a regular guy like everybody else - and I couldn't be because of basketball.

"And then when this happened it goes the opposite way, everybody thinks bad about you. So I've got to try to build my way up again to let everybody know, and myself know, that I did do something wrong. I'm not a bad person. I'm still a good person, and hopefully my friends and everyone that knows me knows that. And I think they did. Eventually the cream will always come to the top."

The 1987-88 season was Davis' last in Phoenix. He says trying to rebuild, both personally and professionally, was a "terrible" experience.

"That was the first time in my career that I've been booed at home," he says. "You get booed on the road. You expect that. But to hear boos at home really hurt a lot, but I still had to go out and play because I was getting paid very well to play basketball and to win.

"That was the final year of my contract, and I knew things would be different. I just tried to stay in the now, not try to look far ahead because I thought I would get in more trouble by looking too far ahead and trying to predict what was going to happen. What could I control? I could control how I played and how I felt, and I tried to keep it simple and take my whipping like a man again, and just tried to keep my head up. I think I did a good job of it."

After the season, the time for Sweet D and the Suns to part ways had apparently arrived. Negotiations on a new contract between the club and their star guard did not go as well as Davis would have liked.

"I had an idea they wouldn't, but I wanted to wait and see how they actually went. I thought for the first time about maybe moving on to a different team. I figured that it would help heal some wounds and it wouldn't be a constant reminder for me and my family. I didn't want to be hit over the head every single day about the past. It's a past I wanted to let go of and keep moving on. I didn't think I could do it here anymore."

Life After the Suns
That fresh start was with the Nuggets, who signed him as an unrestricted free agent in July of 1988. In 1988-89, Davis played in 81 games and averaged 15.6 points per game. The following season, he played in 69 games and averaged 17.5 points per game.

Before the 1990-91 season, before the Chicago Bulls had won a championship, Michael Jordan encouraged Davis to come to Chicago. Davis declined, opting instead to stick with Denver. Walter's wife, Susan, and daughters Hillary and Jordan had everything to do with that decision.

After 11 fantastic seasons in Phoenix, Davis exuded class and epitomized what it meant to be a member of the Suns' organization.

" My family loved Denver," says Davis, who serves as a community relations representative for the Nuggets now. "If I had been single, or just my wife and I, I would have thought about going to the Bulls. But I felt some loyalty to the Denver Nuggets because of the things I had gone through here in Phoenix, and I was grateful to the Nuggets for giving me a chance."

Davis was averaging 13.0 points per game for Denver before he was traded to Portland on Jan. 23, 1991, in a three-team deal involving Terry Mills and Greg Anderson. The Blazers obtained him as playoff scoring insurance, but released him after the season.

Davis returned to Denver for his final NBA season. The Nuggets signed him as a restricted free agent in time for the second game of the 1991-92 season. He played in 46 games and averaged 9.9 points per game.

"I played four years for them, I work for them now, and it turned out to be a great decision," he says. "If I could plan my whole life, of course I'd like to have spent my whole 15 years in Phoenix. But this second choice isn't bad."

Reprinted with permission of Fastbreak magazine.

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