A Record Run


HAVING ACQUIRED TRUCK ROBINSON FROM NEW ORLEANS the previous season without giving up a starter, Phoenix was the only team in the NBA with five former All-Stars in its lineup at the start of the 1979-80 season. Guard Don Buse made his All-Star appearance in 1977 with the Indiana Pacers and Robinson played in the 1978 game for the Utah Jazz. Walter Davis, Paul Westphal and Alvan Adams had all represented the Suns in the midseason classic one season or another.

Often, grouping five outstanding talents might make it difficult to establish team chemistry. That was not the case here. Each player brought unique talents to the overall team picture and the team was intent on getting back to the Western Conference Finals, where it has lost a heart-breaking seven-game series to Seattle the year before.

The Suns opened the regular season on October 12 with expectations perhaps even higher than their talent level. Phoenix overcame some early struggles by embarking on a nine-game winning streak on Dec. 13. The run tied a franchise mark for consecutive wins and lifted the Suns to a record of 26-13. At the All-Star break, the Suns were 35-19 after winning 18 of 22 games.

On Feb. 15, the Suns obtained 7-0 center Rich Kelley from the New Jersey Nets in exchange for a second round draft pick in 1983, a first round pick in 1982 and cash. The Suns chased Seattle and the L.A. Lakers for the Pacific Division lead for virtually the entire 82-game schedule.

When the regular season came to an end, the Suns had compiled their best record in franchise history to that point at 55-27. A record good enough to win the Central or Midwest Division races was only good enough for third place in the Pacific and a best-of-three miniseries with the Kansas City Kings.

The two teams had met a year earlier in the second round of the playoffs and the Suns won 4-1. This time, wasn't much different as Phoenix won Games 1 and 3. The series wasn't a complete win, however, as the Suns lost Robinson to a knee injury in a 106-96 loss in Game 2.

The Lakers were up next in the second round. Los Angeles won 60 games that year with veteran Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and a rookie named Magic Johnson. The Suns dropped the first game 119-110, and watched their hopes for a win slip away in Game 2 when Westphal missed a 15-foot jumper with 15 seconds left in overtime. The final score: 131-128. With Robinson still out and Westphal suffering from flu symptoms, the Suns fell behind 3-0 in the series with a 108-105 loss in Phoenix. The Suns won Game 4 with ease at 127-101, but the Lakers took the series 48 hours later in Los Angeles, 126-101.

It was a bitter ending to a fabulous season.

"It seems strange to be nit-picking a fine season that included a franchise-high 55 victories," wrote Arizona Republic columnist Bob Hurt. "But, that's the nature of the playoffs. They are a short, inequitable and not-so-sweet ending for all but one team."

Among the individual honors that season: Buse, Adams, Davis and Westphal all finished with over 300 assists for the second season in a row, the only times in NBA history that four players on the same team had accomplished the feat. Davis and Westphal played in the NBA All-Star Game in Washington. Westphal was named first-team and Davis second-team on the postseason All-NBA squad. On Feb. 21 at Detroit, Westphal scored 49 points against the Pistons, still the third-highest total in franchise history.

The season was also a special one for another reason. In the winter of 1980, the Phoenix Suns Gorilla arrived on the scene in the form of an singing telegram messenger. History has it that the hairy singer began dancing out onto the court during a break in the action. He was invited back and has "hung" around ever since.

Record: 55-27

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