Suns News

'93 Finals: The Year the Circus Came To Town

Barkley and his 1992-93 Suns teammates had Beatles-like rock star status.
(Suns Photos)
'93 Finals
The Year the Circus Came To Town

By Mike Tulumello, Tribune
East Valley Tribune
May 25, 2003

Think of them as the Beatles in short pants.

Ten years ago at this time, the Suns were in the middle of a dramatic run to the NBA Finals, one that captured the hearts and minds of Arizona sports fans like no team before or since — even the Diamondbacks’ World Series team — even though they ultimately fell a play or two short.

So popular were the Suns that — in what might have been an unprecedented show of support in the sports world — an estimated 200,000 fans turned out to honor them at a parade after they’d lost in the Finals.

The team had been successful the previous four years but took a leap onto the national and even international stages in the summer of 1992. That’s when the Suns made the trade for Charles Barkley, the colorful, opinionated superstar.

Before Barkley arrived, the team had been led by All-Stars Kevin Johnson and Tom Chambers. But when Johnson went down early with an injury, Barkley’s role as the lead player was established immediately.

The club meshed, and by season’s end, they had run up the league’s best record.

The Suns of 10 years ago were characterized by "mature competitors who could roll with the punches," players who were able to "embrace the circus" that ringmaster Barkley tended to generate by his very presence, suggests Paul Westphal, the head coach at the time.

For example, at a game in Denver, the lights went out, forcing a delay. So Barkley and teammate Dan Majerle got hold of a football and started throwing touchdown passes.

The Nuggets’ Dikembe Mutombo deemed this undignified, Westphal recalls.

But when the lights came back on, "We were ready to play, and they weren’t," Westphal says.

As the playoffs approached, Westphal, wanting the team to escape some of the mania surrounding it, staged a pre-playoff camp in the hills of Prescott, 100 miles away.

Instead, players were mobbed by locals and people who had followed them there from the Valley.

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A similar near-hysteria had erupted when the Suns’ made a shocking run to the Finals in 1976 (after they’d gone a mere 42-40 in the regular season). But in those days, everything about the NBA — from the arenas to the paychecks — was much smaller.

If there was one difference between ’76 and ’93, Westphal should know. He was the only significant figure on both teams; he was the Suns’ best player in ’76.

"In 1976, I don’t think people really believed it could happen and then were swept along for the ride," Westphal says.

"People thought, ‘What are we doing here? We’re this outpost in the desert and we’re playing the Boston Celtics.’ ’’

But in 1993, in Westphal’s view the reaction was more like, "Yeah, we’re here! This is the way it’s supposed to be!"

"It wasn’t as big of a surprise," he said.

What they accomplished in that late spring run 10 years ago helped extend their sellout streak — already four years old — for another five straight years.

Suns guard Danny Ainge predicted that the tone of the Finals would be set in the opening quarter of Game 1. Would the Suns be ready for prime time? He was correct. The tone was set. But the Suns failed the test. They appeared to have the jitters, particularly Kevin Johnson, who didn’t play well as the Suns dropped the first two games.

Says Johnson today, "It took me two games to adjust to the type of defense the Bulls were playing, which was designed to cut off my penetration to the basket."

Barkley has a different idea, saying, "I think guys just got nervous. We’d never been that far before." After the Suns dropped the first game, Barkley vowed, "I’m not going to let us lose." And so he came through with 42 points.

But Jordan scored 42 as well, enough to lead the Bulls to a narrow win.

Says Barkley, "It’s the only time I’d ever played where someone’s will to win was stronger than mine." The series, the highest rated on TV to this point, has been well chronicled. But a couple of tidbits have not.

  • On the plane ride to Chicago ("The plane was over Kansas City," KJ recalls), Westphal approached Johnson’s seat with an idea: KJ would take more of the defensive assignment on Jordan instead of Majerle.

    "I promptly pulled the blanket over my head and went to sleep," Johnson said.

    The move worked. KJ offered a bit more resistance on defense than the Suns had been getting, a key to the Suns winning two of three games in Chicago (including a memorable triple-overtime win in Game 3).

    "I give coach Westphal all the credit for giving me that assignment because he knew I was dwelling on my play," Johnson said. "Now I had something else to think about."

  • Barkley said his decision in Game 6 to go for a steal from Scottie Pippen, which set up the Bulls’ game-winning play, was calculated, not an improvised decision.

    The Suns were up by two points in the closing seconds, with Suns’ fans roaring (Bulls coach Phil Jackson said later it was the loudest crowd he’d ever heard).

    Barkley says he figured that if he got the steal, the series would go to Game 7. If not, the worst that could happen was that the Bulls would score two points.

    "We’d either win or it would go to overtime," he says. "I didn’t think they would get a 3-pointer."

    When Barkley gambled and lost, "Everybody was trying to scramble and recover," says Suns center Mark West, who left his man (Horace Grant) to stop Pippen.

    Then Ainge figured he would try to stop, or at least foul Grant, who had been struggling. So he left his man, John Paxson, open for a 3-pointer. Grant spotted him and whipped him the ball.

    On the bench, Frank Johnson thought, "Oh (expletive)! Why is he open? The only thing that’s going to hurt us is a 3."

    Paxson then eyed a shot that probably would decide a world title. But that’s not what the Bulls guard was thinking, "Or I probably would have shot it over the basket," he said.

    Instead, the shot was perfect. The Bulls had won their third straight title and celebrated on the Suns’ court.

    "The interesting thing is that all five guys for us touched the ball," Paxson says. Jordan inbounded to B.J. Armstrong. The play was designed to get "Jordan in the open floor and get a head of steam going to the basket."

    But the Suns had Jordan well covered.

    "From our standpoint, it was a beautiful play," Paxson says. Just as Jackson had always preached, "Everyone read the situation the right way and made the correct play."

    Says Westphal, "It seemed like it happened in slow motion, like it took forever. And yet it was a blink of an eye. It was final and there was nothing you could do about it.

    "It’s a bad memory. And yet, as someone who loves basketball, it was beautiful. It’s every kid’s dream."

    Ainge, who has expressed regret about his decision on more than one occasion, says he remembers little about the series "except leaving Paxson for the 3."

    The final combined score of the six games illustrates the drama of the series: Bulls 640, Suns 640.

    "They just made one more play than we did," Westphal says.

    Says Jordan, pointing out that Barkley had deemed the Suns a team of destiny, "Things were meant to be a certain way . . . just not in their favor."

    The parade and other hoopla that followed for the Suns carried the unstated feeling that the best was yet to come; the expectations grew a few months later when Jordan "retired" for the first time.

    But, as things turned out, this was the best. For various reasons, including a few players’ personal problems and what many insiders viewed as Barkley’s inconsistent motivation level, the Suns never would return to the Finals.

    And no team in Arizona would create such a stir in quite the same way.

    COPYRIGHT 2003, EAST VALLEY TRIBUNE. Used with permission.