Suns Throwback: Mark West

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by Matt Petersen

With the present Suns’ players enjoying their offseason, decided the summer time is a great chance to catch up with former players and staff 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 big man Mark West, who talks about playing basketball in Alaska, being traded to the Suns the night he was set to play them, and why Kevin Johnson should be in the Hall of Fame.

On being military child in Virginia in the 1960s and 1970s…

The whole state is an old state with a lot of history. A lot of it starts with the founding of America. If you want to know American history, being born in Virginia it just comes with the territory. They’ll teach you that from day one in kindergarten.

I spent most of my life in Petersburg, but I also traveled a lot because my father was in the Army. There was an Army base down there. We ended up going down there, being stationed there quite a bit. At the end of the day, we ended up living there, going to elementary school and high school. Every once in a while we’d go out for a couple of years and go to another state, another place, but ended up always back in Virginia.

On how Alaska forced him into basketball…

It’s one of those towns, particularly when I was growing up, there was not a whole lot to do other than play sports recreationally, for kids. Me and my brother we chose to do sports. Baseball, football, whatever happened to be in season at the time. It was ironic, because we played a lot of baseball and football, but basketball was the last thing. That was my last sport.

I didn’t actually start playing basketball in Virginia. My father got stationed in Fort Rich in Alaska. You’re in Alaska, you’re not trying to play football in the winter outside. All of the sudden, basketball seems real practical!

On how Old Dominion trumped the University of Virginia…

Suns History: Mark West

I thought that I would go to the University of Virginia. When I was playing high school basketball, we had the state tournaments at UVA. It’s probably one of the more beautiful campuses you’ll ever see. I thought ‘yeah, this is where I’m going to school: UVA.’ Plus it was in the ACC. Growing up, that was big basketball. The dream was to play in the ACC.

My older brother ended up going to Old Dominion academically. When they started recruiting me, I was like, ‘eh, common’, man. ACC or whatever this conference these guys are in?’ But when I went to visit, it was just a fit. The players that were down there, I got along with them well. The coaching staff was great. One of the biggest things was the opportunity to play coming right in. Starting as a freshman, that was right there.

On college games against Ralph Sampson and Arvydas Sabonis…

We played Ralph [Sampson][1] but never beat him. That kind of stuck in my craw for a while. I got some wins against him once I got to the NBA. We played some other of the ACC schools. Never did get to go against [North] Carolina, but that’s okay.

We played the Russian national team and they had [Arvydas] Sabonis[2] on their team. Sabonis was, believe it or not, playing power forward. He was smaller than their center. We beat them and they were the No. 1 ranked amateur team in the world.

If he never would have gotten hurt, if you had seen him run, it was unbelievable. He was a monster.

On friends’ uninformed reaction to him getting drafted by Dallas in 1983…

It was weird, because I think Dallas had only been in the league four or five years. After I got drafted my Dallas, people who just knew basketball and its fringes were like, ‘who are you playing for in Dallas? The Cowboys?’ I said ‘no, they’ve got a basketball team.’ ‘Is it a pro team?’ People who didn’t know basketball didn’t realize it was a real team.

On how Kevin Johnson handled being a backup as a rookie in Cleveland…

I think that the thing with Kevin that was really noticeable was he was an exceptional athlete. Not just a good athlete, but an exceptional athlete.

He was exceptionally competitive. It got so bad that they were afraid he’d hurt Mark [Price]. They were afraid he’d hurt Mark. Mark had to sit out not because he was tired and because he was playing a lot of minutes, but because Kevin would hurt it. Not maliciously or whatever, but he just as a competitive guy he was going to hit him all day long. He was going to run him, get in his face, whatever.

Mark was skilled Mark was smart. He could shoot ht elights out. He was very crafty. But still, it’s like being a skill guy and having Westbrook on you the whole day, A) because he wants it and B) because he’s mad because he isn’t playing.

On being dealt to the Suns hours before playing them in Phoenix in 1988…

Trade for KJ, West and Corbin

We’re in Phoenix at the hotel. We got traded, maybe a couple of hours before the bus left for the game. Lenny Wilkins called and said “Mark, we’re talking about this deal and you’re involved, so you may be traded. Hang out, I’m just telling you it could be done. It’s not a done deal yet.’ Sure enough, by the time I walked to the bus, they said ‘come over here, let me talk to you. This deal has been made.’ I didn’t get on the bus. Tyrone didn’t. Then they sent town cars to pick us up. Jerry [Colangelo] had sent town cars and we sat with him up in the game.

On Eddie Johnson’s undervalued skill…

He was a guy who pretty much could transcend any factions. He was a skilled player who could shoot the living crap out of it, but to me his biggest strength as he was a great teammate. We’re coming from somewhere else, Tom’s coming from somewhere else, they had people who were already there, and he kept us all together playing as a unit. Everybody hung out with Eddie. He could transcend all the work cliques.

On Cotton Fitzsimmons never being satisfied…

He was one of those guys who, when we thought we were okay or pretty good, he thought we could be great. If we thought we could be great, he thought we could be the best. He never let you rest on whatever laurels that you had or thought you had.

I think in November [of 1988], we might have been 8-5 or 9-5 and we thought we were all that and a bowl of chips. He’s like, ‘that’s good, but you should be 12-3’ or something. Then [Jeff] Hornacek looks at the schedule and he’s like ‘yeah, this team sucked and that team sucked. We should be 12-3!’ Regardless of how good we were doing, he thought we should be better.

On why Kevin Johnson should be in the Hall of Fame…

Kevin Johnson Highlights

You look at that Utah team and they have guys who are Hall-of-Famers[3], and deservedly so. But look at how many times our teams were beating that team with those same guys who were Hall-of-Famers. To me…Kevin and those guys were lighting them up. We lit them up like a Christmas tree.

I think he’s a great enough player to deserve to be in the Hall of Fame. To me, after he didn’t get in this year, I’m not really happy with the Hall of Fame. That’s ridiculous. The guy put up ridiculous numbers against some of the guys who are already in the Hall of Fame…if you look at his numbers, they might have been better than Steve [Nash’s]. I wonder if playing here hurt him. If he was in L.A., there would be no question.

On Tom Chambers ribbing his fourth-best all-time field goal percentage…

It’s weird, because I’d shoot 60 percent, right? Tom would say, ‘that just means you’re missing 40 percent of your dunks.’

On how hard it was to see Jeff Hornacek traded in order to land Charles Barkley in 1992…

It’s hard, because you’ve had that family atmosphere. You’ve been with these guys. You’ve been through the struggles, the ups and downs, losing, getting to the Western Conference Finals when it wasn’t expected, losing, getting to the next year and beating the Lakers in a series and beating them handily. You’ve gone through these struggles with these guys and it brings out a closeness. When you have to lose one of those guys, it’s hard, but you understand it’s a business. That’s how I got here. That’s how Kevin got here. That’s how Tom got here. You were somewhere and then you left.

On the three guys he hated to play most…

Probably the older guys like Moses Malone. I didn’t like him. You’re too much in awe. I didn’t follow him so much in high school[4], but once I was in high school and college, he was getting it done in the league. he was like the man. Now I have to play against him.

Artis Gilmore, because he’s unhumanly strong. It’s unreal. There cannot be a human being this big and this strong playing this sport, and I’ve got to guard him.

Probably Hakeem [Olajuwon]. It was always hard for me to guard bigs who could shoot out on the floor. When he turend and could face, shoot that fadeaway going to the baseline, it was very hard to check. It was almost impossible.

On playing with a young Grant Hill in Detroit…

By that time I was a veteran. Joe Dumars was still there. We’d been through some of the NBA history. We’d seen that together as older guys. Grant was coming in as a young gun. He was a great player. He was the next coming, so to speak. He was as dynamic as advertised.

On who started the “Big Daddy” nickname…

Tim Perry. He was the one who pretty much started that one. It stuck.


[1] Sampson was a three-time college Player of the Year at the University of Virginia, where he averaged 16.9 points, 11.4 rebounds and 3.5 blocks over four years. He was drafted No. 1 overall by the Houston Rockets in 1983 and was eventually inducted into the Hall of Fame.

[2] Sabonis was drafted by Portland in 1986, but didn’t make his NBA debut until 1995 due to contractual complications overseas. By then, the former Soviet star had long since passed his highly renowned prime.

[3] John Stockton and Karl Malone. West is referring to the 1990 NBA Playoffs, when Johnson and the Suns beat Utah 3-2 in the first round.

[4] Moses Malone also grew up in Peterburg, Va., but was five years older than West