Another Wild Ride
"KEEP YOUR ARMS AND LEGS INSIDE the car at all times."
The roller coaster that was the 1994-95 NBA season was a ride of sharp turns, steep climbs, long falls and neck-breaking speed for the Phoenix Suns.
|Despite sustaining major injuries, the Suns captured the Pacific Division title in 1994-95 with a 59-23 record.|
What a Week!
While Cedric Ceballos, Mark West, Oliver Miller, Jerrod Mustaf and Malcolm Mackey all got off the Suns' coaster, Danny Manning, Wayman Tisdale, Dan Schayes, Trevor Ruffin, Ralph Sampson and Richard Dumas anxiously stood in line hoping to get a seat. Some did. Some didn't. Others, like '94 draft picks Wesley Person and Antonio Lang, were winners of free VIP passes to experience the fun.
And what fun it was.
Only a day before the Suns drafted Person out of Auburn and Lang from Duke, Sir Charles announced his desire to take another ride. The sickness and pain he felt after falling to the Rockets had dissipated, and with the gentle prodding of teammate Danny Ainge, No. 34 decided to go through an intense rehabilitation program on his injured back.
"If I had retired it would've been just because I was selfish and lazy and didn't want to put in the effort and work it would take after the rehab to come back," he said. "For me to let it all end because I just didn't want to work out, I didn't think that was right."
While the Chuckster was wearing weight belts and working out during the '94 offseason, teammates Kevin Johnson and Dan Majerle were wearing gold medals and knocking out teams from Australia, Puerto Rico, Spain and Russia as members of Dream Team II.
Meanwhile, Suns President and CEO Jerry Colangelo was having a pretty busy summer as well with one press conference after another. There was the re-signing of A.C. Green, KJ's contract extension and, of course, the shocking, spur-of-the moment presser held by Manning and his agent the late Ron Grinker to announce their desire to sign with Phoenix - no matter what the cost.
"It is not about money," Grinker said of his highly-recruited client. "It never has been and never will be with Danny. It is about winning."
The signing of Manning was followed up with the signing of Wayman Tisdale, another forward who turned down more money to join the Suns, and was also followed by a lot of attention from the rest of the league. Entering the season, the Suns looked like Dream Team III with six current or former All-Stars and five former Olympians on the roster.
Although the new collection of stars went undefeated in the preseason, two incidents foreshadowed what was ahead for the Suns. During an exhibition game against the Pistons, Barkley strained an abdominal muscle - an injury which would sideline the revitalized superstar for the first 11 games of the regular season. Days later, in what was billed as "a preseason preview of the NBA Finals," the Suns and Magic clashed in Orlando.
Unfortunately, so did KJ and the Shaq. After crashing the boards, the 300-plus pound Shaquille O'Neal collided with and fell on top of the 190-pound Johnson causing a chain reaction of leg injuries that would haunt the Suns' guard throughout the season, forcing him to miss 35 games.
While the injuries to the two stars hurt the team, it may have been beneficial in the long run as Person and Perry, a little-used backup guard the season before, both gained significant minutes and experience. Perry, known as "Socks" for his trademark knee-highs, started 51 games and averaged 9.7 points and 4.8 assists. Person, who started 56 games, hit 116 of 266 three-points attempts.
"Wes had an outstanding rookie year," then-Suns coach Paul Westphal said. "He's a very mature player. He didn't make a whole lot of mistakes and played a big role in our success."
It was while the Suns were enjoying their most successful run that the worst injury struck. Like an old-style wooden coaster, the Suns climbed a steep hill through the first half of the season. Clank, clank, clank, clank. While KJ and CB battled through their pain, the Suns, led by Manning and Perry, continued to climb. Clank, clank, clank, clank. With each clank came a win, until after 45 games, the Suns were on top, overlooking the rest of the NBA amusement park with a record of 36-9.
Then came Game 46, a crushing 124-100 loss to the Rockets at home and on national television. The roller coaster was now on its way down and by the following morning, the Suns' season was falling faster and faster. During a morning practice, Manning tore his anterior cruciate ligament after landing on the foot of center Joe Kleine. As he dropped to the ground with a scream, so did the coaster and the hopes of many a Phoenix fan.
Only a week later, instead of playing in the All-Star Game, Manning could be found hobbling through the hundreds of thousands of fans who filled the Phoenix Civic Plaza for the NBA's Jam Session during All-Star Weekend.
But Manning wasn't the only Phoenix star attracting attention that warm February weekend. The 45 annual midseason classic saw Westphal coach the Western Conference All Stars, which featured hometown favorites Barkley and Majerle in the starting lineup, to a 139-112 pasting of the East. Retired Suns coach Cotton Fitzsimmons also got into the fun, coaching the "White" squad, which included Person, to a win in the first-ever Schick Rookie Game.
After the break, the Suns season continued with more ups and more downs. Big wins over Seattle, Houston and San Antonio brought cheers, while losses to the Clippers, Celtics and Hawks brought jeers.
Despite the adversity, the Suns rallied together to win seven of their final eight games and finished with an impressive 59-23 record - the second-best in franchise history - and clinched their third Pacific Division Championship.
The ride was picking up speed as it entered the playoffs and got even faster as the Suns rolled over the Trail Blazers 3-0 in the first round. The Suns' offensive depth overwhelmed the Blazers as Majerle bombed 7-of-10 treys in Game 1, KJ tallied 28 points and seven boards in Game 2 and Sir Charles was on fired in the third and final game, lighting up Portland with 47 points.
Just like the year before, the Suns came off an opening-round sweep to meet up with the Rockets in the Conference Semis. And just like the year before, the Suns had momentum and jumped out to a two-game lead. But the defending world champions refused to give up and won four of the last five contests despite a 46-point effort from KJ in Phoenix during Game 7.
With their hands in the air and their bodies thrust back against their seats, the hearts of the Suns' players dropped into their stomachs as they were caught unprepared for the sharp turn of Sam Cassell, the upside loop of Clyde Drexler, the big dip of Mario Ellie and the sudden, jerking halt of Hakeem Olajuwon.
The Rockets won the heartbreaker by one point and would go on to win their second-consecutive NBA Championship. Meanwhile, slowly pulling back into the station, the Suns disembarked from their '94-95 ride right where they started - with an eye toward next season.
Led the team in scoring (23.0 ppg) and rebounding (11.1 rpg) for the third straight season.
Set a franchise record with 17 defensive rebounds vs. the Lakers on Dec. 30, 1994.
Scored 15 points and grabbed nine rebounds during the 1995 All-Star Game in Phoenix.
Averaged 15.6 points, 4.6 boards and 4.1 assists in his final season as a Sun.
Registered 10 points and five boards as a starter for the Western Conference All-Star team.
Averaged 17.9 ppg (second best) before tearing ACL mid-way through the season.
Started 51 games, filling in for an injured Kevin Johnson.
Averaged 9.7 points and 4.8 assists per game.
Was the runner-up in voting for the NBA's Most Improved Player.
Shot a team-high 44 percent from three-point range, connecting on 116-of-266 attempts.
Named to the NBA's All-Rookie second team.
Prior to the 1994-95 season, Kevin Johnson and Dan Majerle represented the Suns and their country as members of Dream Team II, which captured the gold medal during the World Championship of Basketball.
Despite numerous injuries, the Suns won the Pacific Division title and finished with their second best record in franchise history at 59-23.
Phoenix played host to the 1995 All-Star Weekend in which Suns coach Paul Westphal guided the Western Conference All-Stars to a victory.