Welcome to the Playoffs
THESE DAYS, PLAYOFF EXPECTATIONS go hand-in-hand with Suns basketball. Phoenix fans have thrived on the intensity of the postseason for years. At the start, though, the playoffs were anything but a guarantee.
|Connie Hawkins was one of the original high flyers.|
The First Trip
34 and 20!
The accomplishments of the '69-70 season started with the addition of key veterans. General Manager Jerry Colangelo sent 1968 first-round draft pick Gary Gregor to Atlanta for power forward Paul Silas. While Gregor had distinguished himself as a strong outside shooter, Colangelo felt he needed to beef up the inside game. That's exactly what he did with Silas.
In June, the Suns took an even bigger step in solidifying the front line, winning the rights to American Basketball Association offensive superstar Connie Hawkins. The 6-8 forward, who spent two legendary seasons in the ABA and another with the Harlem Globetrotters, brought immediate credibility to a franchise which, two months earlier, lost a coin flip to Milwaukee for the top pick in the 1969 NBA Draft. That pick would have brought UCLA center Lew Alcindor, who later changed his name to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, to Phoenix.
The Suns might not have had Kareem, but the "Hawk" was dazzling in his own right. The reputation of Connie Hawkins had grown to legendary proportions as he dazzled on the school-yard courts in his native Manhattan. But for all his style and skill, he failed to live out his lifelong dream of playing in the NBA until he was in his prime.
In 1961, as a naive college freshman, he was linked to an investigation into a college basketball betting scandal and although proven innocent of any wrongdoing, the innuendo cost him his scholarship to the University of Iowa and "blacklisted" him in the NBA.
So, for seven years of his playing prime, the Hawk bounced around basketball's hinterlands until David and Roslyn Litman, two attorneys who had become friends with Hawkins during his ABA stay in Pittsburgh, filed a $6 million lawsuit against the league on his behalf.
The legal action caught the NBA's attention and plans were immediately set into motion to bring Hawkins into the league. The NBA focused on strengthening its newest teams: Seattle, Chicago, Milwaukee and Phoenix. The Bulls, because of their early success, and Bucks, because of Alcindor, were eliminated from consideration.
Who was actually present at the coin flip between Seattle and Phoenix, or even if the coin came up heads or tails was not known outside the inner sanctum of the NBA. The final result was that the rights to Hawkins belonged to the Suns.
Phoenix Gazette columnist Joe Gilmartin called the acquisition of Hawkins, who was elected to the NBA Hall of Fame in 1992, "the greatest comeback in coin-flipping history."
Continuing the search for additional frontcourt strength, the Suns drafted and signed second-overall pick Neal Walk out of Florida and fourth-round selection Lamar Green from Morehead State. The four newest Suns would work along with returning center Jim Fox and the backcourt tandem of Dick Van Arsdale and Gail Goodrich to make a 13-game improvement on the previous season's mark of 16-66.
But, with all the new ingredients, the recipe didn't come together quite as fast as Colangelo had hoped. A 134-121 loss to Seattle on Dec. 30 put the Suns at 15-23 on the season. Head coach Johnny Kerr resigned five hours before Phoenix's next game, a Jan. 2 meeting with San Diego.
Phoenix's midseason troubles on the court were magnified by off-court tragedy. Bob Vache, the first "Voice of the Suns" was killed in a car accident. Color commentator "Hot Rod" Hundley took over the play-by-play duties, with former coach Kerr taking Hundley's old role as game analyst.
Colangelo, meanwhile, decided he was the man to take over the coaching duties. A man with sizable coaching knowledge but absolutely no coaching experience, he began a successful first term as interim head coach. Knowing he had one of the league's most potent offensive weapons in Hawkins, Colangelo kept his game plans simple. He loaded up his weapon and pointed it straight at every opponent.
In Colangelo's first game, Hawkins hit a 16-foot jumper with four seconds left to beat the Rockets and the push to the postseason was on. On March 20, against the same San Diego squad, the Suns clinched their first playoff spot. Colangelo finished 24-20 as an interim coach that season, but once again, the Suns would fall victim to a coin flip.
This time, Phoenix and Chicago would flip for the third and fourth seeds in the Western Conference. Both teams had finished tied for third place with identical 39-43 records. The Suns lost the flip, putting them into a best-of-seven series with the mighty Lakers, who had managed 46 wins despite playing without center Wilt Chamberlain. But "Wilt the Stilt" would return in time for the second season, which made the Lakers huge favorites against the upstarts from the desert.
As expected, Game 1 went to the Lakers, 128-112. But in Game 2, Hawkins put on what Colangelo called "the greatest individual performance I've ever seen," scoring 34 points, collecting 20 rebounds and handing out seven assists in a 114-101 Suns triumph.
Phoenix fans who may have been on the fence were now on the Suns bandwagon, and for Game 3 at the Veterans Memorial Coliseum, there was a "Sold Out" sign at the ticket windows for the first time in franchise history. It was a great game to have one of those tickets, too, as the Suns again shocked the Lakers 112-98.
Game 4, played on a Saturday night, rocked the Coliseum to its foundation. The Suns jumped out to a 19-2 lead and held on for a 112-102 victory, gaining a 3-1 series edge.
The Lakers weren't about to surrender, however, and came back to win Game 5 at home and Game 6 in Phoenix; a game in which Chamberlain tore down 26 rebounds.
Still, there was hope. Although Game 7 was at the Forum, the Suns knew they had won Game 2 there. And, amazingly, the Suns still had a lot of fan support. Prior to gametime, telegrams poured into the locker room. It seemed as if Western Union was holding a special for Suns fans.
But for this Cinderella, the clock had struck midnight. The Lakers posted a convincing 129-94 victory and clinched the series. The Suns, however, had won a legion of fans. In fact, interest in the Suns and the NBA had skyrocketed in the Arizona desert.
The on-court improvement translated into a jump or over 3,000 fans per game in average attendance. But the 1970 playoff run had an even longer lasting effect: it helped Suns fans realize that their team could bring a community together, could help their city gain an identity and gain a spot in the professional sports world.
"The Suns have had the job," wrote Phoenix Gazette sports editor Bob Allison, "good nights and bad, of selling pro basketball to a city whose experience had been confined to a few exhibitions and a smattering of hardly-meaningful league games. And a city at that, with a reputation for being pretty hard to turn on.
"That they've convinced the dubious, I have no doubt."
Led Suns in scoring (24.6 ppg) and ranked second in rebounding (10.4 rpg).
Represented Phoenix in the NBA All-Star Game, tallying 10 points and four boards.
Named first-team All NBA.
On March 29, recorded 34 points and 20 rebounds in Suns first-ever playoff win.
Led Suns in rebounding (11.7 rpg).
Dick Van Arsdale
Made second All-Star appearance as a Sun and scored eight points in 16 minutes.
Ranked second on team in scoring (21.3 ppg).
The Suns won four games in a row and eight of 11 to close out the regular season and clinch their first-ever playoff berth.
It was during the 1970 playoffs that Lakers broadcaster Chick Hearn gave the Suns' home, Veterans Memorial Coliseum, the nickname "Madhouse on McDowell."
The franchise's first-ever playoff victory came on March 29, 1970, when the Suns upset the Lakers 114-101 in Los Angeles.