Suns Throwback: Jim Fox

Jim Fox was the starting center in the Suns' first year in the league and for their first-ever playoff appearance in 1970.
Suns.com

With the present Suns’ players enjoying their offseason, Suns.com decided the summer time is a great chance to catch up with former players for a weekly #SunsThrowback edition of Phoenix basketball history. How does it work? Basically we get their memories going just enough to do what they do best: tell us their most memorable stories from their playing days.

This week's guest is former Suns center Jim Fox, who talks about growing up with a too-tall rim, playing with Oscar Robertson, Bill Russell in the playoffs, and the Suns' first two years of existence.

On his unusual first basketball court as a kid in the 1940s and 1950s…

My dad put up a hoop for me in the backyard. It was just a dirt backyard. We found out later that the rim was set at 10-foot-6. Nobody knew how high the thing was supposed to be. I played on that for years. It was definitely a no-dribble court ‘cause the ball would go all over. It was a shooter’s court.

On his late-blooming basketball career…

I went out for the high school teams and I was cut at just about every level: eighth grade, ninth grade, 10th grade. Finally made the team int eh 11th grade. I didn’t really start playing until I was a senior in high school.

It was fortunate, because halfway through my junior year in high school I went to a military school. It ws a high school and junior college combined. My senior year in high school, I was terrible, but good enough for them to give me a partial scholarship at junior college. I started scoring a lot. I think my freshman year I was averaging 21 [points] a game and then my sophomore season I averaged over 30 a game. That’s when colleges started paying attention.

On how a track coach helped secure his basketball scholarship…

The track coach from South Carolina was down at Gordon Military College. He was looking at a track guy and it was raining. Just to get out of the rain, he and his buddies ran into the gym. That’s where we were practicing. He went back to South Carolina and told the coach ‘there’s a big guy down there that’s pretty decent.’

On playing European basketball in the 1960s before coming to the NBA…

Real Madrid was the champions of Europe when I was there. They attracted big crowds. Their soccer stadium, which they’re famous for, held over 100,000 people. Real Madrid was a wonderful club to play for. They had all the amenities and traveled all over Europe. It was popular. There were better teams that I played on and we played first division teams. It was certainly not as popular as it is now, but quite popular for the day.

It was a little rougher than it is now. Now I think the Americans are copying their style instead of the other way around. It was a little rougher style of ball.

On how the lack of NBA exposure unintentionally hurt his preparation for one-on-one matchups…

It’s kind of funny. The first pro game I ever saw was the one I played in. I didn’t know [Bill] Russell was left-handed. [I figured that out] probably three trips down the court.

On his first playoff encounter and words exchanged with Celtics legend Bill Russell…

When I was with Detroit, I was a rookie and we got into the playoffs. We were playing against Boston. I played a lot during that time. Playing against [Bill] Russell, he was such a curmudgeon. I’d shake his hand and I would always try to make him feel old. “Hello Mister Russell, good to see you.” He would just sort of snarl at me. Give me the look. The look was something else.

I think we took them six games. His compliment to me was “he seems to have good hands” during an interview. They were asking him about “the Fox kid.”

On why Reed and Cowens were harder to guard than Chamberlain or Abdul Jabbar…

The guys that gave me fits were the smaller centers that would come out and play me. I was a good shooter and the tactic at that time was for me to draw the big guy away from the hoop, allow more stuff to happen underneath for the forwards.

People like Willis Reed, Dave Cowens, guys like that would just give me fits. They would play me outside and they were strong as an ox. They were the guys who I probably hated to play against more than Wilt or Abdul Jabbar or people like that, who were reluctant to come out on me.

On former Cincinnati teammate Oscar Robertson’s style of play…

Oscar was sort of a man among boys. He was very bright and talented. He would always try to get his teammates off before he tried to take over…and he was capable of taking over just about any time he wanted to.

His game relied a lot on fakes. They accused him of having eye fakes, just little stuff like that. He was quick. His shot wasn’t real quick. It wasn’t a picture-perfect shot, but he was strong, loved to pass, clutch and he was tough-minded.

He was one of those Dobermans. We talk about the Dobermans of the league, like Jordan and Westbrook, guys like that who are so competitive they can’t help themselves. Oscar was like that.

On his first reaction to Phoenix after being traded from Detroit in 1968…

I was traded out here toward the end of December. Guys were going to practice in flip flops, t-shirts and Bermuda shorts. We were slogging around in Detroit in slush, rain, hail, sleet and snow. I thought I’d died and gone to heaven. It was wonderful. That first practice over at Brophy was just awesome.

On how the Suns’ expansion year (1968-69) set the foundation for the following season’s success…

There were a lot of guys in the same shape that were in the expansion draft. A lot of these guys had a lot to prove. We weren’t very good. We only won 16 games and that wasn’t very much fun. But the guys that played got a lot of playing time and a lot of the experience.

It helped me tremendously. [Then-Head Coach] Johnny Kerr started me from the first day I got here. The next year, we actually were pretty good. I was surrounded by All-Stars. They all made me look good; Paul Silas, Connie Hwkins, Dick Van Arsdale and Gail Goodrich. That was a lot of fun.

On his first impression of incoming ABA superstar Connie Hawkins in 1969…

I remember [Suns rookie] Neal [Walk] and I went down to see him. Joe Proski, the trainer, was working on him. He’d come off a knee operation, I believe. We went down to see him and Connie was on the table getting treated.

We made our introductions and talked with him for a while. He was a scrawny guy. Long and scrawny. Neal and I both looked at each other and said “This is going to be our savior? This long, scrawny guy who’s hurt, beat up?”

On Connie Hawkins’ play changing that first impression…

He’s one of the few guys that could pick the ball up off the dribble instead of having to stop and hold it. He could pick it up off the dribble and do something with it. He had played with the Globetrotters, so he had a little extra juice to his game from those days.

Connie won some games for us, particularly going down the stretch. He was really clutch and talented. He was a good guy. He could do everything. He was the precursor of Dr. J. Big hands and he was taller. He was Dr. J with a jump shot.

On the Suns’ first-ever playoff appearance, a 4-3 loss to the Lakers...

One of the things I remember about it most was when we came out on the floor for the first game here. It was sold out and the people were just absolutely crazy. You couldn’t hear the ball bounce, it was so loud in here. It made your hair stand on end, it was so electric and exciting.

We surprised them (The Suns jumped out to a 3-1 series lead). We were playing well. We were pretty good and we could rise to the occasion.

We had just squeaked into the playoffs bya  game or two, so we were really primed up. We were hitting our stride. I think the Lakers thought it was going to be a cakewalk, to roll over a one-year team. They couldn’t do it. They sort of fell apart when they got down, but the last two games weren’t pretty [for us].

Chamberlain had been hurt. They didn’t expect him back for that series, but he got back a good bit earlier than they expected. He got a little bit better every game.

On exhibition games against ABA teams in the 1970s…

When we would play exhibition games, all the [NBA] guys wanted to do was shoot three-pointers ‘cause we didn’t have it in the NBA, then. We were always testing the three-pointer. You’d go out there to see what if felt like. We used our ball, not the red-white-and-blue ball.

On the personal and league-wide impact of the NBA-ABA merger in 1976…

It was one of the reasons that I went from Milwaukee to the Nets, was because of the merger. Swen Nater, he was one of the [ABA] guys that was picked up by Milwaukee. They had Elmore Smith and Swen Nater, two seven-footers. That made me expendable.

From that aspect, it made a big impact on a lot of players. A lot of players were literally out of the league because of all this influx of talent that came in.

On the perks of having played for seven different NBA teams…

One of the benefits of being traded as much as I was is I got to live in different cities and make friends on different teams. There was a lot of players that passed under the bridge.

Really enjoyed Chicago. That’s where I met [my wife]. Not only that, but we were a good team. [Head Coach] Dick Motta, Jerry Sloan, Chet Walker, Bob Love, Tom Boerwinkle…a good team.

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