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Jerry Colangelo toasts the 1976 season with coaches John MacLeod and Al Bianchi.
(Suns Photos)
This season reminiscent of another scrappy Phoenix team
Play It Again, Suns

By Mike Tulumello
East Valley Tribune
May 24, 2006

The overachieving basketball team was offensiveoriented, a high-scoring unit with an undersized “point center” who started much of the offense with his sharp passing. . . . . . . A team that featured a tough-guy defender on the perimeter, a team that overcame a key injury — one that allowed a young player to blossom — to have the sort of storybook season that captivated fans in the Valley of the Sun. A master-of-the-obvious summary of this year’s Suns?

No, a master-of-the-obvious summary of the Suns of 30 years ago.

The two teams aren’t mirror images of each other. For example, the 1976 Suns didn’t set records for shooting 3-pointers; the 3-point line didn’t exist.

Yet the teams have a remarkable set of shared traits.

“We really valued playing together,” said Paul Westphal, the ’76 team’s star guard, who has followed this year’s team as a broadcast analyst.

“I think that’s something this year’s team has, too. They don’t care who shoots.”

Looking back, “We didn’t particularly care who shot, either,” Westphal said.

“Well,” he said on second thought, “Maybe I did.”

The teams both featured coaches who demonstrated out-of-the-box thinking, said Joe Gilmartin, a former sports editor and columnist for the Phoenix Gazette.

In 1976, coach John MacLeod “staked his coaching future on the premise he could win with a skinny center” named Alvan Adams, said Gilmartin, who wrote a book on the ’76 team called, “The Little Team That Could.”

“The conventional wisdom at the time was that you had to have a moose in the middle,” Gilmartin said.

As for today’s team, coach Mike D’Antoni “staked his future on a style that people said couldn’t win.”

That style, of course, is to run, run, and run some more, firing up record attempts for 3-point shots along the way, until the opponents wilt.

“They’re both unconventional teams that people said were too pretty and that their style wasn’t suited for the playoffs,” Gilmartin said.

The most obvious comparison might be the centers.

“Boris Diaw is a passing, point center, and that’s really what Alvan Adams was,” said Jerry Colangelo, then the team’s general manager and now the club’s chairman.

Diaw, said Westphal, “probably dribbles the ball better than Alvan did.”

But the overall effect is the same.

“To have somebody besides a guard who can pass the ball and is creative is such an advantage,” Westphal said.

The teams also had a tough guy up front.

In 1976, his name was Dennis Awtrey, the team’s backup center who was best known for getting into a fight with superstar Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.

This year, it’s Kurt Thomas, who’s out injured, as is the Suns’ rising star, Amaré Stoudemire. The loss of Stoudemire, in particular, has allowed for the quick development of Boris Diaw up front.

In 1976, the Suns lost Dick Van Arsdale, the team’s captain and leader, to a wrist injury. His loss allowed for rookie Ricky Sobers to develop quickly into a dependable player.

Sobers was a tough perimeter defender; in the Suns’ stunning upset of Golden State in the conference finals, he got into a skirmish with superstar Rick Barry.

This year’s Suns feature Raja Bell, the nemesis of the Lakers’ superstar, Kobe Bryant.

Both teams were considered small, though Westphal argues that the book title “The Little Team That Could” was a bit of a misnomer.

The Suns had a trio of big guards, Van Arsdale, Sobers and himself, plus a couple of forwards, Curtis Perry and Garfield Heard, who — though not particularly tall — were considered power forwards.

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“But they had enough agility that they could guard a lot of people,” Westphal said.

The Suns could post up, but this was done by the guards and forwards, not the center.

All in all, “We weren’t that small all across,” Westphal said. “We just had a skinny center.”

In addition to the dependence on 3-point shooting by this year’s team, there were a couple of other notable differences between 1976 and 2006.

  • The 1976 Suns didn’t have a point guard the quality of Steve Nash.

    In fact, they really didn’t have a point guard. Either Westphal or Sobers could bring the ball up the court. Either could initiate the offense, as could Adams.

  • The expectations were much different.

    In the fall of ’75, the Suns were a consensus last-place pick. They squeaked into the playoffs in the spring and then were underdogs in each of their three playoff series.

    In particular, nobody gave them a chance in the Western Conference finals, when they took on defending champ Golden State.

    This season’s Suns were facing mediocre public expectations (though not necessarily internally) when Stoudemire had to undergo knee surgery in October.

    But, as Al McCoy, the team’s radio broadcaster then and now, points out, “When you have a player as talented as Steve Nash, the expectations for this year’s team certainly expanded.”

    The consensus was that this year’s team might finish a bit over .500 and maybe make the playoffs. But after a shaky start, the team zoomed to the top of the Pacific Division.

    And once they earned a No. 2 playoff seed, they were regarded as solid favorites to reach the conference finals. The surprise was that they struggled in the postseason, particularly against the Lakers in Round 1.

    The ’76 Suns seemed a lost cause almost from start to finish, especially when they lost Van Arsdale in a game at New Orleans.

    “The next day, leaving on the bus, the club was pretty down,” McCoy said.

    What happened next was unforgettable, McCoy said.

    MacLeod asked the bus driver to get off the freeway and stop.

    “Then John got up and said, ‘I know everybody is feeling sorry for himself this morning.

    ‘We’ve lost Dick Van. He’ll probably be out for the season. And we’re struggling.’ ”

    So the coach went to each player and asked, “What are we here for?”

    By the time he was finished, the players had a rousing response: They were there to compete and win, McCoy said.

    “The feeling was that, ‘We’re going to make the playoffs.’ ”

    So, the Suns took off on a little winning streak and they finished 42-40 to eke into the postseason.

    They also were helped by a trade for Heard, who seemed “the glue, the missing piece,” said Colangelo.

    “He was a 6-6 forward who played much bigger than that. He could rebound, block shots and hit the open shot. And he added veteran leadership.”

    Then the team started to come together in ways nobody expected as the Suns upset the Seattle SuperSonics, then the Warriors.

    Recalled McCoy, “I had the opportunity to say something on the radio that I didn’t think I’d ever be able to say: ‘The Suns are going to play for the NBA championship!’ ”

    The series, particularly the triple-overtime loss to the Celtics in Game 5 (Boston went on to win the series 4-2), put the Suns on the map, where they’ve more or less stayed ever since.

    This year’s Suns will have to do the same to really be compared to the ’76 Suns, a team that still lives as unique.

    COPYRIGHT 2006, EAST VALLEY TRIBUNE. Used with permission.

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