FOLLOWING TWO CONSECUTIVE TRIPS to the Western Conference Finals and two-straight seasons with 50 or more wins, expectations for the Suns were high. They did not disappoint during the regular season.
At the invitation, and at the expense, of the Japanese, the Suns and Utah Jazz took off for Tokyo, to begin the season. It marked the first time that professional sports teams from the United States played regular-season games outside of North America.
The Suns, Jazz and the NBA were all welcomed as visiting royalty by their Japanese hosts. The teams were also surprised by how well-known NBA players already were in the Far East.
Suns forward Kurt Rambis, for example, saw several young Japanese fans wearing the black-framed "Rambo" glasses that had become his trademark. Another Japanese fan told Commissioner David Stern that she had once seen "the Los Angeles team play the team of the red oxen." American fans might better recognize the team of the red oxen as the Chicago Bulls.
The concept of the "NBA Official Opening Day Games in Japan" was a wonderful concept (the NBA sold more than $1 million worth of NBA merchandise in one week) but it offered the Suns and Jazz some special challenges. The Jazz, for instance, played their final pre-season game in Providence, Rhode Island, flew to New York City, and boarded another plane for a 15-hour flight to Tokyo that skirted the Arctic Circle.
Suns coach Cotton Fitzsimmons began adjusting the Suns to Tokyo time by holding two practices at 3 a.m. in Phoenix before his team's departure. As much as the jet-lag bothered the Suns, the bus-lag on a two-hour, traffic-laden trip from the airport to the Keio Plaze Hotel was even worse.
After many news conferences and sight-seeing tours, Phoenix and Utah finally played basketball on Nov. 3. A capacity crowd of 10,111 watched the Suns race past the Jazz 119-96 behind 38 points and 10 rebounds from Tom Chambers and 29 points and 10 assists from Kevin Johnson. The Jazz won the second game, 102-101, as Karl Malone scored 29 and pulled down 14 points.
Immediately following the game, the Suns and Jazz boarded separate planes for their return flight home. Awaiting were the final 80 games of the regular season. Many of them were quite memorable, as was a significant midseason trade... * Nov. 10 vs. Denver: the Suns set several records. In that game, Fitzsimmons won his 700th career game, becoming only the seventh coach in NBA history to achieve that mark. As a team, the Suns set a new NBA record for points in a half, scoring 107 first-half points, and tied the record for total number of points in a non-overtime game with 173. Rookie Cedric Ceballos came off the bench to score 20 points - in a seven-minute span of the second quarter!
"Every time we shot a jumper," Chambers said afterward, "Cotton yelled at us. We decided right away to take the ball to the basket and keep him happy."
* Nov. 27 at Portland: the Suns defeated the Trail Blazers 123-109, ending a 20-game losing streak in Portland.
* Dec. 7: the Suns sent Eddie Johnson and two first-round draft picks to the Seattle SuperSonics for Xavier McDaniel. Johnson averaged 18.4 points over more than three seasons for the Suns. McDaniel, who averaged 15.8 points in 1990-91, departed in the following offseason, to New York for Trent Tucker, Jerrod Mustaf and two second-round picks.
* March 28: the Suns won their 13th game of the month, 102-88 in Milwaukee. The total is still the second-highest for any month in franchise history.
The Suns finished 55-27, including a 32-9 record at home. And ironically, six months after opening the season in Japan, Phoenix and Utah met in the first round of the playoffs. Utah, which finished the season 54-28, prevailed 3-1.