Crawling Towards Respectability
POWER AND INSTABILITY. An NBA coach's life is filled with both. Just ask the four head coaches who sat on the Suns' bench during the team's first five years in the NBA.
|John MacLeod was instrumental in turning the Suns into a successful franchise.|
As the '72-73 season wound down, the Suns appeared to be in need of an overhaul. The veterans Phoenix was depending on for a strong run failed to produce the desired results. Colangelo, who flatly stated he could not and would not handle the roles of GM and head coach heading into the next season, wanted a coach who was willing to build the Suns with youth.
Any wonder that most of the candidates for the job were from the college ranks? The big names were there. Indiana's Bobby Knight, Marquette's Al McGuire, Oklahoma's John MacLeod.
Wait a minute. John who? From where?
Indeed, Suns fans wanted to find out about the man who attended two of the final three regular-season games at the Coliseum. And in a short matter of time, they'd be filled in. MacLeod had been the head coach at the University of Oklahoma the past six seasons, posting a 90-69 record, with two trips to the National Invitational Tournament.
Finding a way to win basketball games in football-crazy Oklahoma impressed Colangelo. Suns players would also be impressed by MacLeod upon their first encounter.
Before a March 23 home game with Golden State, MacLeod was invited into the Suns locker room to diagram a few plays. Colangelo used them during the game, which the Suns won 125-124. As Phoenix prepared to head out for their final road trip of the season, Colangelo asked MacLeod if he would be interested in taking his job. MacLeod said he'd think about it and get back to the Suns' head man in a few days.
While Colangelo was in Seattle for the season finale, MacLeod called to relay what amounted to a polite, "Thanks, but no thanks." At that point, Colangelo was set back on the trail for another candidate. But the night after the Sonics game, he was having a late dinner when he was paged to come to the phone. It was MacLeod.
In an attempt to escape pressure from Oklahoma alumni to stay with the Sooners, MacLeod left the state overnight to rethink his options. And, he had changed his mind.
"Originally, John turned down a job he hadn't been offered," Colangelo said. "But, then I made him an offer he couldn't refuse."
Around 2 a.m. on March 30, 1973, MacLeod became the fifth head coach of the Suns.
"This is a young man's game," Colangelo said. "John brings us youth, ability and enthusiasm. I look to the future with great optimism."
That optimism would be mixed with a good helping of patience. It would take time for MacLeod to get the players he needed to run his newly-designed system. Before he could hit the high road, there would be some bumpy roads ahead.
After a 2-2 start, Phoenix went on a 10-game skid early in the season as they faced one of the toughest portions of their schedule and struggled to adapt to a new style of play.
A month into the season, MacLeod approved the trade of future Hall of Famer Connie Hawkins to the Los Angeles Lakers for 6-5 forward Keith Erickson and a second-round draft pick. The Suns battled to a 22-32 mark at the beginning of February, but proceeded to lose 20 of their final 28 games, finishing fourth in the Pacific Division at 30-52. It may have been hard to notice in the standings, but the young Suns were taking steps toward respectability with every game.
MacLeod's youth movement, which mandated better rebounding and defense, continued after the season, as both Neal Walk and Charlie Scott were traded. Despite public criticism for dealing away the team's name players, Colangelo and MacLeod built a foundation for one of the NBA's most admired and imitated franchises.
Not bad for a guy that first elicited a response, "John who?" Not bad for a guy who has coached more games (1,213) and more seasons (13-plus) than any other coach in Suns history.
The eighth overall pick in the 1973 draft out of St. Joseph's.
Was named to the All-Rookie team after averaging 10.1 points and 6.8 rebounds a game.
Acquired in an early-season trade with the Lakers for Connie Hawkins.
Averaged 14.6 points and 6.3 boards a game.
Was voted Most Outstanding Player by Phoenix fans.
Made his second-straight appearance at the NBA All-Star Game in 1974 after leading the Western Conference in scoring.
Led Suns in scoring (25.4 ppg), but missed the season's final 29 games with a broken arm.
Dick Van Arsdale
Averaged 17.8 points a game and led the Suns in field goal percentage (.500).
Named to the NBA's All-Defensive second team.
In late December, the Suns defeated the eventual Western Conference Champion Milwaukee Bucks by nine points, the defending Conference Champion Los Angeles Lakers by 35 (on Christmas Day) and the Seattle SuperSonics by 12 in consecutive home games. Earlier in the month, the Suns edged the eventual NBA Champion Boston Celtics by one.
The '73-74 campaign marked a first, as Dennis Price, MacLeod's top aide at Oklahoma, became the franchise's first-ever assistant coach. Interestingly, Price's two sons, Mark and Brent, both went on to play in the NBA.
In December of 1993, Stan Richards took over as public address announcer at the Veterans Memorial Coliseum. The late-Richards' voice was a familiar and welcome one at Suns games for 17 years.