The Hard Luck Suns
ON THE HEELS OF A PLAYOFF APPEARANCE in only its second year of existence, the 1970-71 edition of the Phoenix Suns approached the new season with great anticipation and even greater expectations.
|Paul Silas set the single-game mark for rebounds with 27 -- a record that still stands.|
The Suns' roster wasn't the only thing to change. In spite of the success the Suns enjoyed at the end of the '69-70 season, Jerry Colangelo no longer felt compelled to juggle his responsibilities as both general manager and coach.
Saying he felt the Suns needed a "career" coach, Colangelo set out to find a teacher and a motivator who could mold the club's young players and get the most out of the veterans.
Colangelo met Cotton Fitzsimmons at the NCAA Tournament in Louisville in 1968 and Cotton impressed him as a very upbeat, positive young coach. At the time, Fitzsimmons was coaching Kansas State and Colangelo continued to follow his career there. When the Phoenix general manager relinquished his coaching duties, Fitzsimmons was among the several candidates who received an interview. Indiana's Bobby Knight was also among them.
Cotton was a coach who not only had the enthusiasm and vigor for which Colangelo was looking, he also appeared to be someone who could readily adjust to the NBA - someone who had some flexibility.
On June 5, 1970, Lowell "Cotton" Fitzsimmons was hired for his first of three stints at the Suns' helm.
Fitzsimmons had led his Wildcats to the Big Eight title the previous year and brought a sense of passion to the Valley. It was a good fit, in the sense that Fitzsimmons already had "Purple Pride" because Kansas State's school colors include purple.
On the other hand, Cotton's wardrobe wasn't always a perfect fit. When he first arrived in Phoenix, he had a collegiate wardrobe that was sprinkled with purple, including purple cowboy boots. The best thing that ever happened to Cotton when he got the job in Phoenix was that the Suns set up a deal for him with a local clothing store for a new wardrobe.
"Not too many coaches are fortunate enough to start their NBA careers with the talent I had," Fitzsimmons once said looking back on his pro beginnings. "They were a great group of guys. And the best thing about them was they didn't need a lot of coaching. All you had to do was guide them, give them direction and they did the rest."
Under Cotton's guidance and direction, the Suns won 48 games - nine more than the previous year. Yet Phoenix failed to qualify for the playoffs as they had the year before - a year, by the way, in which they almost upset the mighty L.A. Lakers in the opening round.
The key factor in the Suns' playoff frustration of 1971 (and 1972 for that matter) was the set-up of the NBA as a whole. You see, in 1970, the Suns made the playoffs as one of the top four teams in the seven-team Western Division. The league's expansion into Portland, Cleveland and Buffalo, however, not only increased the number of teams in the league to 17, but it also created a restructuring of the league map. Gone were the Western and Eastern Divisions and in their place were the Western and Eastern Conferences. Within each conference, two divisions, the Atlantic and Central Divisions in the East, the Pacific and Midwest in the West.
League officials wanted the Pacific Division to be just that, a division made up of teams strictly on the Pacific Coast. So, Seattle, Portland, San Francisco (Golden State), Los Angeles and the San Diego Rockets made up the Pacific lineup. That left Phoenix to battle in the Midwest, and battle was the only way to describe life with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's Milwaukee Bucks, coach Dick Motta's Chicago Bulls and Bob Lanier's Detroit Pistons.
"At the time, I didn't give much thought to the fact that we were in the same division as the Bucks and the Bulls," recalled Van Arsdale. "There were only 17 teams in the league at that time, so you didn't get a breather against anybody. You played against great players every night."
Not only was life in the Midwest Division demanding, but the real punch line of this cruel joke on the Suns came in the playoff set-up: just like the year before, four teams would qualify from the West and four from the East, only this time, the berths would go to the top two teams in each division. No regard for records, just finish first or second and you're in, no questions asked.
The Suns spent most of the '70-71 season in dogged pursuit of the Bulls, who reveled in a reputation as the NBA's most physical team. Playing against the likes of Jerry Sloan, Norm Van Lier and Tom Boerwinkle left most teams feeling like the Bulls, not the Bears, were the Monsters of the Midway. It made Suns/Bulls games, especially their showdowns in Chicago Stadium, seem more like wars of survival than basketball games.
"I've still got marks on my hands from where Bulls players scratched me with their fingernails," said Walk decades later. "Every game with them was like a street fight and the referees figured 'Hey, that's the way they play,' so they let it go."
"The thing I remember about the Bulls," Van Arsdale said, "is they were very good at executing their offense. It was an offense designed to get the ball to their forwards, Bob Love and Chet Walker. They ran it well, and that's why they were so successful."
Try as they might, the Suns stayed close but were never able to overtake the Bulls. The frustration grew to a boiling point when the Suns dropped back-to-back games in Chicago late in the season, effectively ending their hopes of making the 1971 NBA Playoffs. The frustration grew out of the fact that, a week earlier, the Suns had pounded the Bulls, 115-90, before a raucous sellout crowd at Veterans Memorial Coliseum.
"I don't want to use the word 'hatred,'" said Walk, "but it got to the point where we had a rivalry with the Bulls that was based on a dislike for them.
"The funny thing was, we pounded them pretty good a couple of times at home. We just couldn't do it in Chicago."
Wrapping up the season at 48-34, Phoenix posted the fourth-best record in the NBA in '70-71, but finished third in the Midwest Division. To make things even more frustrating, five of the eight teams that did reach the playoffs that year had either the same or fewer wins than the Suns.
Led Phoenix in assists (4.7) per game and ranked third in scoring (17.8 ppg).
In second NBA season, averaged 20.9 points and 4.8 boards per game.
Set record for shortest appearance in an All-Star Game. Although recorded as one minute, Hawk saw about two seconds of action as he was removed during a timeout called following the opening tip. A prior ankle sprain limited his playing time.
On Jan. 18, pulled down 27 rebounds in a win over Cleveland, a single-game total which still stands as the most ever by a Suns player.
Led the Suns in rebounds (12.5 rgp) and became the first player in team history to collect more than 1,000 boards in a single season (1,005).
Named to the NBA's All-Defensive second team.
Dick Van Arsdale
Led the Suns in scoring (21.9 ppg).
Made his third and final All-Star appearance as a member of the Suns, scoring four points in 12 minutes
In a remarkable 116-112 comeback win, the Suns overcame a 20-point second-half deficit to defeat the Boston Celtics in front of 12,256 fans at the Coliseum on Feb. 19. The win capped off Phoenix's 12th win in 16 games, dating back to Jan. 10.
In that game vs. Boston, Phoenix connected on 48 free throws, a franchise record which stood for nearly 20 years before being broken on April 9, 1990, when the Suns made 61 attempts in an overtime win vs. Utah.
When the Suns defeated the Buffalo Braves 114-82 on Jan. 26, the Braves' road uniforms never made it to Phoenix. Buffalo did have their home uniforms with them, and consequently, the game became the only one in Suns history in which Phoenix wore its road uniforms at home.
The new broadcast team of Joe McConnell and Hot Rod Hundley, who returned to his role as analyst, called the shots from courtside. McConnell became the third "Voice of the Suns" and would later go on to become the "Voice of NBA Radio" for four seasons.