Richard Bloch, co-founder of Phoenix Suns, passes away at 89

Richard Bloch, who was the driving force behind bringing an NBA franchise to the city of Phoenix, passed away at the age of 89, it was announced on Tuesday.

When Bloch first met with then-NBA Commissioner Walter Kennedy about the prospect of an expansion franchise in Arizona, Kennedy’s first reaction was not promising. “Phoenix? You must be crazy. Phoenix will never support pro basketball.”

While others also doubted Phoenix’s viability as an NBA city, Bloch would not take “No” for an answer. He saw Phoenix as a growing market and knew the potential that it had to support an NBA team and urged Kennedy to take a serious look at the city.

On Jan. 22, 1968, it was announced that the NBA approved expansion franchises in Phoenix and Milwaukee. Bloch, and the rest of the Phoenix ownership group, successfully brought the first professional sports franchise to the state of Arizona. They maintained ownership until 1987, when they sold the franchise to a group led by Jerry Colangelo, who had been hired as the team’s first general manager back in 1968.

“Richard was a key person in the development of the NBA,” said NBA Commissioner Emeritus David J. Stern upon hearing of Bloch’s death on Tuesday. Not just because he brought basketball to Phoenix and opened up the NBA’s southern strategy, but because he was designated by Larry O’Brien to lead the way to solving very difficult issues.

“When Larry wanted to solve the [Oscar] Robertson litigation, he appointed Dick, among others, to a committee to do that. When he wanted to be involved in collective bargaining, he would use Dick. Dick became a point man on every issue for the NBA’s growth leading to his being the chairman of the Board [of Governors] from 1983 to 1986. He was a vital, vital catalyst for the growth of the NBA.”

Stern, who was appointed as NBA commissioner in 1984, said having Bloch as chairman of the Board of Governors was invaluable to him during his transition to the new role.

“Somebody was there when I was appointed commissioner who had been through all of the issues that I was going to be tasked with,” he said. “He was a source of knowledge and sometimes comfort and sometimes just plain laughter because he had a wonderful sense of humor. He was very much a mentor to me when I became commissioner. I can’t say how much he meant to me as a businessman and as a friend and how I mourn his death.”

During Bloch’s tenure as owner of the Suns, the team went from an expansion franchise with no identity, to a playoff team (in their second season), to a Western Conference champion and earning their first Finals appearance in 1976, which they lost to Boston in six games.

Of course, the Suns’ trajectory may have been different had Bloch made a different call back in 1969. Prior to the NBA Draft, a coin flip between Phoenix and Milwaukee was held to determine which team would earn the No. 1 overall pick. The Suns earned the right to make the call and Bloch called “heads” — following the voting by fans in a poll by the Arizona Republic. The coin came up “tails,” which allowed the Bucks to draft Lew Alcindor, who would go on to become the NBA’s all-time leading scorer as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.

But Bloch’s impact on the game goes well beyond the city of Phoenix and the Suns franchise. As Stern emphasized, he was imperative to the league’s growth during the 1960s, 70s and 80s and helped lay the foundation that the game stands on today.

“He was there when we decided lets not fight with the players; let’s make a settlement. And that paved the way — in the settlement of Robertson v. NBA — for the literally unimpeded growth of the NBA from 1976 on. Richard was a key ingredient in that. He was a key ingredient in future expansion discussions. He was a key ingredient in encouraging us to go international. So he was absolutely involved in the growth of the NBA and you might say he was a catalyst for it.”