The Turnaround

1988-89

NO ONE KNEW WHAT TO EXPECT WHEN THE SUNS HEADED to training camp in Flagstaff. Most of the mystery was caused by all the new faces. Seven of the players who reported to the 1988 camp were not with the Suns one year earlier. Four of them weren't even in professional basketball. Then there was the man in charge, Cotton Fitzsimmons, who was serving two roles -- head coach and director player personnel. Months earlier, Fitzsimmons pulled off numerous trades - the most impressive of which brought Kevin Johnson to the Valley of the Sun.

Phoenix hadn't made the playoffs for three straight years heading into the season, and Fitzsimmons had the youngest roster in the NBA trying to break that string. What the experts, and everyone else, didn't count on was how quickly the rookies would learn, the veterans would lead and the starters would produce.

Bolstered by the acquisition of unrestricted free agent Tom Chambers, the Suns had a leader who provided scoring punch to go with second-year forward Armon Gilliam's rebounding. Third-year guard Jeff Hornacek added long-range shooting to complement KJ's playmaking. And Mark West solidified the middle. Rookies Dan Majerle, selected with the 14th overall choice of the draft, Tim Perry, Andrew Lang and Steve Kerr all made major contributions, as did veterans Eddie Johnson, Tyrone Corbin and Craig Hodges.

During the offseason, the perception was that Fitzsimmons had traded away Larry Nance for three unknowns before drafting a mediocre prospect in Majerle. But KJ, West and Corbin proved to be much more than unknowns. And Majerle's career speaks for itself.

By Jan. 11, Phoenix sported a 20-12 record and a nice season was shaping up. Two months later, as Phoenix played at Milwaukee, the Suns were 37-23. Dreams were starting to crystallize.

By April 22, the regular season was complete. The team that had 54 losses hanging over it a year earlier had more than doubled its win total of 27 the year before, producing the third-best single-season turnaround in NBA history. The Suns won 55 games, winning 18 of their last 22 and were the only team in the league to have three players average more than 20 points. Tom Chambers finished at 25.7, Eddie Johnson at 21.5 and KJ at 20.4. The Suns also led the league in scoring with an average of 118.6 points per game.

Of course, the Suns made the NBA Playoffs, but by the time Phoenix opened a best-of-five opening series with Denver, much more than a token appearance was expected. The Suns disposed of the Nuggets in three straight, putting themselves in a best-of-seven Western Conference Semifinal with Golden State.

It was in this series that the nation, through CBS telecasts, got to see what all the commotion in Phoenix was about. The most enduring memory of the series - and the season - occurred in Game 1 with the Warriors, when the 6-6 Majerle dunked over 7-7 Manute Bol. Majerle was called for an offensive foul and the basket was waived off, but fans across the country had experienced their first "Thunderstorm."

A 4-1 series win over the Warriors sent the Suns into the Western Conference Finals against the Lakers. The two-time defending World Champions swept the Suns in four straight, but it didn't diminish a sense of accomplishment among a group of players that seven months earlier barely knew each other.

The Suns were showered with postseason awards. Eddie Johnson won the NBA Sixth Man Award, Kevin Johnson was named the Most Improved Player, Fitzsimmons won NBA Coach of the Year and President/CEO Jerry Colangelo was named NBA Executive of the Year for the third time. It was the first time in NBA history that a single team won four postseason awards. Chambers and KJ were also selected to the All-NBA second team.

The Suns set a new Coliseum attendance record with 18 home sellouts and an average of 12,465 fans per game - also a franchise record. Critics often forget how a pro sports team can be a rallying point for a city. But it was hard to overlook how the Suns had caught the attention of Phoenix, and the nation, in 1988-89.

Record: 55-27

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