Saving the Day


THE PHOENIX TRANSACTION WIRE WAS TESTED OFTEN IN 1987-88. And the first big move was made by none other than Jerry Colangelo himself. He and a group of local investors bought the Suns from original owners Richard Bloch, Donald Diamond and Donald Pitt. Colangelo had raised over $44 million to take over controlling interest in the team.

Fans who had become disenchanted with the perception that the previous ownership group was unwilling to pull the trigger on major player acquisitions were getting what they wanted.

"I'm more willing to roll the dice," Colangelo said. "This group will spend a little more. When the opportunity is right, we will go after it."

Early in 1987, political decisions to rescind a state holiday for Dr. Martin Luther King had triggered a chain reaction of negative responses from social, political and business leaders. Though not a part of the decision, the Suns were caught in the crossfire, especially after the NBA canceled league meetings to be held in Phoenix. Bloch had earlier admitted he'd listen to offers from Anaheim and Toronto to buy the Suns.

"Voices in the middle of the night were telling me that I better put something together," said Colangelo, "or this thing might just go away. And I mean this franchise. It was not that a sale was imminent, but there was subtle pressure, knowing that the NBA looked at the political climate in Phoenix as undesirable. The only way to put all the fears to rest was to put together a group to save the franchise."

Colangelo announced that former guard Dick Van Arsdale, a member of the partnership, would return to the franchise as a vice president - a title he still holds today. With the aggressive Cotton Fitzsimmons remaining as director of player personnel, the Suns were well on their way to rebuilding a roster and overcoming the drug scandal that had happened just months earlier.

John Wetzel, a former Suns guard who had been an assistant under former coach John MacLeod, had been named head coach in April. Considered the number two candidate behind then-Providence College Head Coach Rick Pitino, Wetzel got the job after Pitino took the head coaching position for the New York Knicks instead. Most agreed Wetzel was ready for his day in the spotlight, but his first season would be a rough one.

By June of 1987, the changes had already begun. In Suns history, '87-88 will likely be referred to as "The Year of the Trade."

On Sunday, June 21, Fitzsimmons spiced up the weekend sports reports with the first blockbuster deal. He sent forward Ed Pinckney and a 1988 second-round draft pick to Sacramento for swingman Eddie Johnson. He then sent center William Bedford to Detroit for the Pistons' first-round selection in 1989. All this less than 24 hours before the 1987 NBA Draft.

The Suns drafted Armon Gilliam from UNLV with the second pick in the draft. Fitzsimmons wasn't done.

In late February, he orchestrated several trades that changed the face and the fortunes of the Suns. In the largest single transaction in Phoenix's 20-year NBA history, Fitzsimmons dealt Larry Nance and Mike Sanders, along with Detroit's first round pick in 1988 to Cleveland in exchange for the Cavs' first- and second-round draft picks in 1988, and players Kevin Johnson, Mark West and Tyrone Corbin.

James Edwards was sent to Detroit for center Ron Moore. The Suns finished off the trading flurry by sending Jay Humphries to Milwaukee for Craig Hodges.

History would later look to this wheeling and dealing as the start of one of the greatest turnarounds in NBA history. In 24 hours, Fitzsimmons brought in seven players who, along with free agent signee Tom Chambers, would form the nucleus of a team that would go from 54 losses one year to 55 wins and a berth in the Western Conference Finals the next.

The Suns finished the '87-88 season with a 28-54 record, their poorest mark since their 16-66 expansion season in '68-69. Shortly after the season, Wetzel was released and was replaced by Fitzsimmons, who was making his second appearance as Phoenix's head coach.

Record: 28-54

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