Right Man, Right Time
Posted: April 17, 2012
John MacLeod fondly recalls the basketball aspects of his Phoenix Suns teams: the up-and-down pace, the attention to detail his playbook provided, and the defensive intensity he enjoyed watching.
The widest smile that crosses his face, however, comes whenever discussing the relationships that were molded during his 14 years as the club’s head coach. Not just the ones he built with his players, assistant coaches and the Suns’ staff, but a connection that he, his family and the squad, as a whole, developed with the city of Phoenix.
That is why MacLeod has been so moved by the fact that he will be inducted in the Suns’ Ring of Honor Wednesday, while the Suns play against Oklahoma City.
“I think it’s a really well-deserved honor,” his wife, Carol, said. “I think he always loved the city, and he did a lot for the city. He was involved in the Special Olympics and he was very popular with the fans.
"When we talk about it, I think he’s grateful for the fans and the support throughout the years.”
Until his "Sunderella Suns" marched through the Western Conference on their way to the NBA Finals in 1975-76, the city hadn’t truly adopted the team. Considering it was only seven years old at the time, that’s not too surprising.
But it was surprising to MacLeod how quickly all that changed during one playoff stretch.
“I would walk out of my door and have to wave or stop for people during a run,” the former coach, and devout runner, said. “It became a very special time, not only because of the players and the success, but because of the city, too.”
John and his wife Carol believe that the unique aspect of the coach’s 14-season stay with the Suns was the connection made within a new home. It’s something the two still feel strongly, as part-time Phoenix residents.
It’s also one of the things the coach, now 74-years old, points to as a reason his induction into the team’s Ring of Honor will be so special to him.
His history with the “Valley of the Sun” runs deep, and the memories are plentiful.
MacLeod’s first townhouse was located only a block away from long-time Suns trainer, Joe Proski, and the two fast became running pals. Proski joked that MacLeod would make him run so much that he couldn’t walk.
The MacLeods regularly had players over for meals and to play with their two children, Kathleen and Matt. Silky-smooth scorer, Walter Davis, believes that family connection is what allowed him to overcome homesickness for North Carolina – where he grew up and played in college.
After games, nothing seemed more rewarding to the coach or to his wife than to walk into the old Marble Club on Lunt Avenue. A popular gathering spot for late-night dining, the crowd there would often give an ovation to MacLeod or pass along their well-wishes in person.
“I can’t really explain how nice everyone was,” MacLeod said. “It was a very special time.”
But there was more at work than just a feel-good story. Players describe a driven coach who would push the team and enforce strict rules – especially about punctuality. At the same time, they also believed him to be fair with the rules and a great communicator.
MacLeod went to the playoffs 11 times
during his time in Phoenix.
(Courtesy of the Carol MacLeod)
For Suns Ring of Honor member Alvan Adams, it’s not just the longevity of Coach MacLeod’s career that is most notable. It’s not about the 707 wins.
It’s not even about the stretch of 10 years in which the Suns made the playoffs nine times. More than all of that, Adams is glad the bulk of his career was spent alongside MacLeod because of the coach’s personality on and away from the court.
That was the reason why Adams committed to MacLeod – then the head coach at the University of Oklahoma – out of high school and then again when deciding which season to leave college and go pro.
“My family was impressed with him, and I was impressed with him,” Adams said, of the first time MacLeod recruited him. “That was back when the NCAA didn’t limit how many visits you could take, and I took way too many of them.
“I went from Duke to UCLA to Oregon to Rice to Notre Dame, and I always kept thinking, ‘John MacLeod – he just seems so professional, so gentlemanly, so intense, so focused.’”
Davis – a Ring of Honor member, himself – remembered a stickler of a coach.
The rules, he said, were numerous, but the players tried to abide by them because each player was held equally responsible. “Clear and fair” was MacLeod’s theory when it came to making and enforcing guidelines.
Yet, Davis thought the rules didn’t dominate MacLeod’s mindset for coaching the game.
"He was big on rules, and he had a lot of plays," Davis said. "But Coach MacLeod also let me go. He gave me a green light to play my game, but I tried not to take advantage of that because I respected him and the team.”
As “The Prosk” watched from the sideline as the team’s trainer, he saw a coach whose personality won over the players, thus allowing MacLeod to implement the style he wanted.
“He was a tough guy, but he was a good guy,” said Proski, another Ring of Honor member. “The way he handled the players, he not only made them players, he made them better people.”
When all of that came together – MacLeod’s player-management style, his tactical ability and his familiarity with that core group of players – the coach became Suns’ longest-tenured and winningest.
His 707 wins are good enough to be 16th on the all-time list for NBA coaches, and 579 of those came with the Suns. During his 14 years as the team’s coach, Phoenix went to the playoffs 11 times.
According to longtime Suns broadcaster and fellow Ring of Honor member, Al McCoy, those accomplishments make MacLeod deserving of more credit as an elite NBA coach.
“Even though he took the Suns to their first NBA Finals in 1976 and coached in that dramatic triple-overtime game in the Boston Garden,” McCoy said, “perhaps because of the small-market identity he might not have gotten the recognition he deserved.”
Maybe this Ring of Honor ceremony is a step toward rectifying that situation.