By Eric Hodgson
Posted: February 2001
The 50-point game.
Is it a rare aberration of the NBA tenet of teamwork or the unilateral skill of an incomparable athlete? Is it the era of the game at the time of the feat or the style of the team that dictates?
Tony Delk just thinks it's The Zone.
"You're out there and it seems like the bucket is an ocean," Delk mused after scoring 53 points at Sacramento on January 2.
The reserve guard, who had stepped into the starting lineup that night to fill in for an injured Mario Elie, became just the fourth Phoenix Sun in 33 years to break the 50-point barrier.
It took 22 seasons for the Suns faithful to read about one of their own hitting the magical plateau, but some came close early on. Gail Goodrich hit for 47 in the Suns' inaugural campaign. Dick Van Arsdale went for 46 in 1975, Alvan Adams dropped in 47 in '77 and Paul Westphal poured in 48 points in a '77 game against Denver, and then 49 against Detroit in '80.
But it would take another decade before Suns fans got to call a 50-point performer their own. Cotton Fitzsimmon's high-powered offense of the late '80s and early '90s produced some big numbers for a lot of players and in particular, Tom Chambers.
"I was the guy that was getting all the shots," recalls the 6-10 Chambers. "But more importantly, the style of game we played was an up-tempo, offensive oriented game. The coaches and my teammates, when they saw somebody who was hot, whether it was me, Eddie Johnson, Kevin Johnson or whoever it was, got them the ball and got it to them often."
After waiting more than 20 years, Suns fans watched in awe as Chambers sauntered into Oakland on Feb. 18, 1990 for a Suns-Warriors matchup.
"I always had good games against Golden State back then," Chambers says. "I was looking forward to it. For some reason, the Don Nelson teams, when they doubled-teamed and stuff, it just seemed to leave me open a lot and I always had mismatches."
Those mismatches helped Chambers to 19-29 from the field and 16-of-19 from the charity stripe, en route to a historic Suns record 56-point performance.
"When he got 56, I took him out of the game," says Fitszimmons, now the Suns' senior executive vice president. "We were beating the Warriors pretty good and I'm not the kind of coach that's interested in a player getting stats when we're beating the team pretty good. I didn't want to embarrass the Warriors and I told him that when I took him out."
Cotton then smiles.
"Three weeks later, he gets 60!"
With Chambers averaging 27 points per game, he went into Veterans Memorial Coliseum for a showdown with his former team, the Seattle SuperSonics. Just 34 days after putting the Suns on the 50-point map, he let loose with a new Suns record 60-point night that still stands today as the franchise's all-time best.
Chambers scored the first 18 points of the Suns' second quarter, tallied 35 in the first half and hit 22-of-32 field goals. Oh yes, we almost forgot, he also hit 16-of-18 at the line that night.
"They started off having Derrick McKey guard me, who is known as a great defensive player," Chambers says. "Then they tried Xavier McDaniel who wanted to come in and beat me up. They had all kinds of people come at me that day. When you're in that kind of a zone, everything just seems to go your way."
So how is it that one player breaks 50 points twice in a matter of weeks when it wasn't done in the 22 seasons prior? Luck perhaps? Not according to Chambers and Fitzsimmons, who say the Suns teams of the early '90s had great role players.
"I always had a standard rule," Cotton says. "I didn't want to ever read in the paper or hear that you didn't understand what your role was on the team. I made it very clear who was supposed to take shots and who was supposed to set the screens and do the different things to get the job done. Tom understood that."
Chambers thinks that 50-point scorers would be more prevalent if more teams took that approach.
"Larry Brown has had a lot of stars in Philadelphia and pretty much gets rid of all of them," he says. "He gets rid of Larry Hughes to Golden State. He gets rid of Jerry Stackhouse to Detroit. He gets rid of these other competitors of Allen Iverson's and says 'Allen, this is your team, your show, go do it.' And he's got a bunch of role players around him, and from top to bottom, I mean role players. And they have the best record in the East!"
Iverson, it might be noted, has collected two 50-point games so far this season and already has four in a very young career.
While Fitzsimmons touts his teams' roles and virtues, he's quick to point out the obvious, "Great scorers don't have to have a conscience. If they do, they'll never score 50."
You would be hard pressed to find many that would say former Suns forward Charles Barkley had much of a conscience on the hardwood floors of the NBA. He proved that in Game 3 of the Suns' first-round series with Golden State during the 1994 playoffs. Although, he did have a little added incentive that game.
"Everybody was talking about the rookie, Chris Webber, that year," recounts Suns assistant coach Frank Johnson, then a teammate of Barkley's. "I think he got the best of Charles (earlier in the year) and Charles remembered that. Charles has the memory of an elephant. He hates to be embarrassed. The Golden State coaches said they were going to play him one on one and I think Charles was insulted by that."
Insults led to huge results as Barkley unloaded on Webber and the rest of the Warriors. While Golden State double-teamed KJ, Barkley lit up Oakland for a Suns playoff record 56 points, on 21-of-31 shooting, 3-of-4 coming from behind the arc. Toss in 14 rebounds and the Suns were on their way to the second round, and fans and critics alike were stunned. It was the third-highest point total in NBA Playoff history.
"When you do it in a playoff game, you are really a monster," Cotton says, defining Chuck's performance. "You're totally dominating and you are doing everything you possibly can to get your team a victory."
Suns color analyst Eddie Johnson says Barkley did what a lot of great players do, "Great scorers always try to find a reason to pump themselves up."
But can 50 pointers just "happen"?
The zone. It is the mythical environment that players play their whole careers for. EJ has been there and back several times and says it's almost a bending of time.
"Everything is going your way that night," he says. "Everything is in slow motion. The game is slowed down for you. That's the level that superstars get in more than the average guys. The game slows down and that's why people say they make the game look easy. They seem to be a step ahead of everyone and everything seems to go your way. It's almost like your hypnotized."
Just last season, Suns forward Cliff Robinson landed feet first in the zone. Although he was fighting off a cold and had missed the morning shoot-around, Robinson found himself matched up against a rookie in James Posey when the Denver Nuggets came to town on Jan. 16, '00. Cliff started off with six quick points, but midway through the first quarter, he exploded. He had 23 when the second quarter opened.
"I think I was using everything to my advantage that night," he says. "I didn't force anything. I was able to hit 17-of-25. When they double-teamed, I passed the ball, and when they double-teamed my teammates, I got open for jump shots. So it was a good game in the sense that I was able to read and exploit the defense for whatever I wanted to that night."
Robinson had 32 at the half and the crowd at AWA felt this could be the first night a 50-point game was seen in the new Arena. Although unaware of the plateau as he stepped to the free throw line late in the game, Robinson didn't disappoint.
"You know I didn't realize it at first, but I did realize it after I missed the first free throw and the crowd went 'OHHHHHHH!'" he laughs. "They were waiting to explode for the 50 points and I knocked down the second one."
Nearly one year later, Delk, a Suns role player and bench stalwart went into his old digs at ARCO Arena in Sacramento and had the game of his life. His oceanic vision of the rim was even more amazing considering he got his points on his own.
"We really didn't run any plays for him," Frank Johnson says, his face incredulous. "He was just coming down and the guys were finding him. He just kind of got on a roll and kept going, and guys kept looking for him more or less."
Delk seems as amazed as Suns fans that he had what it takes to crack the elite ceiling of 50 points.
"I think once a guy gets into the rhythm and the other guys see that they feed him the ball," he explains. "That's what they did. A lot of times I didn't get enough room to shoot, but I got enough shots to get to 50."
Delk's 20-for-27 night was even more strange considering he was brought into Phoenix as a three-point weapon, yet missed the only three he took for the game. He did, however, sink 13 of his 15 free throws in the Suns 2,850th franchise game. "It was just one of those nights!"
"I appreciate it now more than ever," Chambers says of his two of those nights. "At the time, you look to the next game and how your team is doing. Obviously Tony's career is still going on and Cliffs' career is still going on, and they can't reflect on it so much as you can when you're retired. You appreciate things, accomplishments, honors and great games much more when your career is over, and you can sit down with your family and kids and reflect."
Very few sports moments involve the mystical, the systematic and the lucky. But to score 50 in a NBA game takes a certain roll of the cosmic tumblers to get things perfectly aligned. The correct mix of shot attempts, defensive mismatches and a penchant for the fabled zone make it both an extraordinary and atypical event, but a once-in-a-lifetime event that could happen with every opening jump ball.
And one that NBA and Suns fans eagerly wait for each and every night.
Reprinted from the February 2001 issue of Fastbreak magazine.