The Suns Rise in Phoenix
"PHOENIX? YOU MUST BE CRAZY!" Crazy? Who's to say. But this was the year that the Suns rose in Phoenix bringing the city its first professional sports franchise.
|The first-ever Sun, Dick Van Arsdale, scored the first-ever basket.|
A Suns Original
The Red Zone
When Richard Bloch, who was the catalyst for the formation of the primary Suns ownership group, met with then-NBA commissioner Walter Kennedy, the commish quickly threw a wet blanket over Bloch's plans. "Phoenix? You must be crazy," Kennedy said. "Phoenix will never support pro basketball."
There were others in the NBA who shared Kennedy's view. They grumbled that Phoenix was too hot, too small and too far away for pro basketball. But Bloch recognized Phoenix as a growing market with tremendous potential and refused to take "No" for an answer. Kennedy, at the prodding of Bloch, talked to a few Phoenicians.
"I talked to half a dozen shoeshine boys, a couple of barbers and some taxi drivers," Kennedy said, "and I was surprised and gratified how aware they were of the NBA. I came away with strong feelings that Phoenix was ready."
Just before the beginning of the 1968 All-Star Game in New York, on January 22 to be exact, word was delivered to Bloch that the NBA Board of Governors had approved an expansion franchise for Phoenix. For a $2 million entry fee, Bloch had a yet-to-be-named team and 30 official Wilson basketballs autographed by Walter Kennedy. It was a start.
Just over three months later, on April 25, the name "Suns" was selected after more than 28,000 entries were submitted in a name-the-team contest sponsored by The Arizona Republic.
The Suns' logo took awhile to develop, however, but it was worth the wait. And it was worth the effort co-owners Don Pitt and Don Diamond put into having it designed. Originally, they contacted a commercial artist, who charged $5,000 for a logo the owners were dissatisfied with. Then, they called Stan Fabe of Tucson, who ran a successful commercial printing plant there.
It was Fabe who designed the sunburst logo, which originally had a full sunburst. In the latter stages of his design work, Fabe erased the fiery flames from the left side. A similar version of the logo was used for Phoenix's first 24 seasons in the NBA. And, the redesigned logo of 1992 still bears some resemblance. Fabe's charge for developing the team's everlasting image: $200.
Now, if the last few decades seem as timeless as the Suns' logo, consider the archaic nature of the first-ever Suns media guide, which listed several of the top reasons that Phoenix was an ideal home for NBA basketball. Among them: "the temperate weather which prevails year around in Arizona provides excellent driving conditions to and from contests."
The first home of the Suns wasn't nearly as archaic. In fact, the Veterans Memorial Coliseum at the Arizona State Fairgrounds was only 3 years old when the Suns moved in for the 1968-69 season. Built to accommodate the music attractions that annually came to the State Fair, the Coliseum featured 12,224 "theater-style" seats, which was a pretty big deal back in the '60s.
Jerry Colangelo, who had been the chief scout for the Chicago Bulls, was named Suns general manager at age 28, becoming the youngest GM in professional team sports at the time. The mandate from ownership was basic and direct - build a first-class organization and make it a winner. Colangelo's philosophy on how to build a winner was equally as clear-cut.
"We should go with young talent," he said. "Of course, the ideal blend is a mixture of youth and experience, but when it's a tossup, youth must prevail."
The Suns began building their team by naming Johnny "Red" Kerr as head coach. Kerr, who was the head man for the Bulls the previous two years, was named NBA Coach of the Year in 1967 after his first campaign at the helm. It was in Chicago that Kerr first met Colangelo.
During their first season together in the Windy City, Kerr and Colangelo were responsible for building a team that won 33 games and made the playoffs in its maiden season.
Late into the 1968 campaign, Colangelo headed west to become general manager of the Suns. By the end of that season, one in which the Bulls struggled, it was apparent that Kerr and the Bulls' management were ready to part ways. Colangelo received permission to talk to Kerr and signed his old friend to a three-year deal. "Change the plays," an aggravated Kerr said before leaving the Bulls, "I know 'em all."
Kerr would need a sense of humor in Phoenix. With the addition of expansion teams in Phoenix and Milwaukee in 1968, the NBA talent pool had shrunken further. Kerr approached his task with a mixture of wit and cautious optimism.
"As a player," he said, "you get to know all the tricks and you wish you could start over. In effect, this is what we're doing here."
The Suns acquired their first player on May 6, 1968 during the NBA Expansion Draft, selecting 6-5 guard Dick Van Arsdale from New York. Van Arsdale, now vice president of player personnel for Phoenix, is still affectionately known as "The Original Sun."
Several other players that were taken in the expansion draft saw court time with Van Arsdale, as well: Gail Goodrich (Los Angeles), Neil Johnson (New York), David Lattin (San Francisco), Stan McKenzie (Baltimore), McCoy McLemore (Chicago), Dick Snyder (Atlanta) and George Wilson (Seattle).
Van Arsdale, who would log nine seasons with the Suns before retiring, witnessed the continued growth of the club's roster on June 4, 1968, when Phoenix selected 6-7 forward Gary Gregor in the first round (eighth overall) of the college draft out of the University of South Carolina.
Goodrich, now in the NBA Hall of Fame, Snyder, McLemore and Wilson joined Van Arsdale on the court for the first-ever Suns home game on October 4, 1968 - an exhibition against San Diego. After the game, Suns co-owners and performers Andy Williams and Henry Mancini performed a special concert, complete with stage, symphony and grand piano.
The Suns won their regular-season opener against Seattle 116-107 and had a rather impressive 4-3 record seven games into their introductory season. Unfortunately for Kerr and his team, the rest of the schedule would prove much more difficult. The Suns managed only 12 more wins the rest of the way, finishing up year one with a 16-66 record.
Dick Van Arsdale
The first player chosen in the 1968 Expansion Draft.
Scored the franchise's first-ever basket in a win over Seattle on Oct. 18.
One of the team's first All-Stars, scored four points in 10 minutes of play during the event held in Baltimore.
Ranked second on the team in scoring, averaging 21 points a game.
Finished sixth in the league in scoring and led the Suns with 23.8 points per game.
Led the Suns in assists, handing out 6.4 per game.
Named to the 1969 All-Star squad and contributed five points.
Acquired in a December trade from Detroit for McCoy McLemore and started the remaining 51 games at center.
Led the Suns in rebounding, averaging 13.3 boards a game.
Dick Van Arsdale scored the first official basket in Suns history, a layup after a feed from Dick Snyder, moments into the Suns' regular-season opener, at the Coliseum. The Suns won their first game 116-107 over Seattle.
Gail Goodrich scored a team record 47 points in a 146-133 home win over San Diego. Only 2,384 people were at the Coliseum to watch the effort, which is still tied for the fifth-best scoring night in Suns history.
The Suns made their national television debut on Christmas day, 1968, as an ABC audience and a season-high Coliseum crowd of 10,355 witnessed the Los Angeles Lakers post a 119-99 victory.
Throughout the course of their initial campaign, the Suns played four regular-season games in Tucson, Ariz. During the preseason, they played games in Mesa, Globe, Flagstaff and Fort Huachuca, all in an effort to bring the NBA to the entire state of Arizona.