A State of Decline


OVER THE FIRST 13 SEASONS OF JOHN MacCLOUD'S COACHING CAREER, with the Suns, he enjoyed unrivaled security. His 14th season would be different. By the end of February 1987, he had become accustomed to being blamed for his team's problems.

Circumstances were not good for the Suns, and the team was in a state of decline. Beset by injuries and poor draft positions, Phoenix had gone from Western Conference finalist in 1984 to only 32 wins in 1986.

MacLeod had five rookies on his club during the '86-87 season, including William Bedford, the team's first round pick (sixth overall), Jeff Hornacek, Rafael Addison, Grant Gondrezick and Kenny Gattison. But the youth wasn't paying dividends, as the Suns juggled starting lineups and rested at .500 for the last time on Dec. 17.

During a pre-game interview with Al McCoy before a Feb. 25 game against the Lakers in Los Angeles, MacLeod seemed irritated and edgy. The constant frustration of losing, injuries and lack of depth was taking its toll.

Several hours later, following a 99-91 loss to the Lakers, MacLeod received a phone call from General Manager Jerry Colangelo. The two met that afternoon.

"It was a very painful decision," Colangelo told reporters, "but the team needs a change in attitude. John got a great opportunity here in Phoenix and he did an outstanding job overall."

Colangelo wanted a man who personified hard-nosed play as MacLeod's predecessor. He didn't have to look any further than down his hall for a candidate.

Colangelo appointed former Phoenix guard and the "Original Sun" Dick Van Arsdale as interim head coach. Van Arsdale's brief stint as a coach was successful, even though he inherited a team that managed only 22 wins in 53 games.

A former color analyst for the Suns, "Van" had no coaching experience and decided to leave the strategy work to assistant coach John Wetzel. Somehow, the duo seemed to improve all facets of their team's game and the Suns rolled off a seven-game winning streak.

Van Arsdale handed over the reigns of the team to Wetzel after compiling a 14-12 record to finish the season. Walter Davis led the team in scoring with a 23.6 average and appeared in his sixth NBA All-Star Game. Larry Nance chipped in 22.5 points-per-game.

But before the final stats were tabulated, controversy swept through the organization. One day before the season was over, Maricopa County Attorney Tom Collins and Phoenix police chief Ruben Ortega called a news conference to announce that a grand jury had indicted five current or former Suns players on drug charges. Six other current or former players were linked to the case as well.

Immediately after the indictments were announced, Davis returned to the NBA's treatment program. Condemnation of the Suns by the news media was immediate and devastating, but much of the case was found to be based on rumors, gossip and hearsay. Drug tests administered to the Suns proved negative. No drugs were confiscated. No trials were held, and no jail time was served.

"We will not let this setback prevent this franchise from achieving, once again, the respect of its fans and followers here and throughout the country," Colangelo said. "This is my commitment."

Although the Suns would eventually regain the support of their fans, the summer of tragedy was not over. On Aug. 16, Phoenix-bound Northwest Airlines Flight 255 crashed on takeoff in Detroit, killing 157 passengers. Among the victims was a young, promising center named Nick Vanos. Drafted by the Suns out of Santa Clara in 1985, Vanos was a 7-2, 260-pound performer with great potential. Sadly, the crash took his life and career before he reached his peak.

Record: 36-46

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