HOW APPROPRIATE. The Suns'
marketing slogan for the 1995-96 campaign, "Playing with Fire," was
a fitting one as any hopes of returning to their past glory went up
Michael Finley was the steal of the 1995 NBA Draft as
the Suns tabbed him with the 21st pick.
Who was that Masked Iron
season certainly started off with promise as the Suns acquired
center John "Hot Rod"
Williams from Cleveland in a trade midway through training
camp. Although the move was not a popular one with fans - longtime
Phoenix favorite "Thunder"
Dan Majerle was sent to the Cavs - the deal did strengthen the
Suns' middle, adding some desperately needed defense.
"Dan Majerle is a fine player and there isn't a harder worker in
this league, but Dan is not a center," Suns coach Paul Westphal
said of the trade.
"We were able to pick up a player that we think will make us
much more formidable up front," added Suns President and CEO Jerry
Colangelo. "He is a force inside, no question about it."
Phoenix took a dip in the fountain of youth during the summer
break, as well. When taking the court for the season opener on Nov.
3, the Suns featured five NBA rookies on their roster (although one
of them, Stefano Rusconi, was a 10-year veteran of Italian
Among the youngsters was Michael Finley, the 21st
pick in the '95 draft out of Wisconsin, who caught the fans'
attention after knocking down a game-winning buzzer beater against
the Lakers early in the season. His vicious jams, three-point bombs
and in-your-jock defense earned him the nickname "DynaMike" and
drew heapings of praise from his peers.
"Michael's a tough competitor," said Orlando's Penny Hardaway.
"That's one thing I respect about him. Even though he's a rookie,
he's gonna come at you."
"He's an exciting player man!" gushed Seattle's Shawn Kemp. "He's definitely
athletic and he's going to be awesome in a few years."
Finley was no doubt impressive, but the Suns, meanwhile, were
anything but. With injuries sidelining key players, Phoenix
struggled out of the gate. Not unexpected. But a 14-19 record in
mid-January, with losses to the lowly Clippers, T'Wolves, Nuggets
and Mavericks, was unexplainable. It was time for a change.
"Replacing Paul Westphal as the head coach of the Phoenix Suns
was a very difficult decision for me to make," Colangelo told
reporters on Jan. 16 as he named Cotton Fitzsimmons the team's head
coach, once again. "We got to the point where I believe it was time
to shuffle the cards - to make a change before the season was
"I really look forward to the challenge because I do see a light
at the end of the tunnel," said Fitzsimmons. "I do think this team
is capable of winning and we are going to go about it in a very
professional way and get it done as soon as possible."
Although the Suns continued to struggle, dropping three of four
games after the coaching change, it didn't take long before they
began to show signs of life.
Of course, things were made a little bit easier when playmaker
Kevin Johnson returned
to health and versatile forward Danny Manning returned to
action after nearly a year of rehabilitation on his left knee.
Manning, who tore his anterior cruciate ligament the season before,
played in 33 games down the stretch and averaged 13.4 points and
"I can't express how good it feels," Manning said of his
comeback. "I can't even try. No one knows what I've been through to
get back to play. I feel fortunate and I feel blessed. I'm excited
about the future and every day I just enjoy coming to the gym and
The rest of the Suns were enjoying basketball again, too, going
27-22 under Fitzsimmons guidance to wrap-up the season with a 41-41
record. It was the first time since 1987-88 that Phoenix failed to
reach the 50-win plateau, but they had managed to break even and
had qualified for the playoffs.
The postseason would be no picnic, however. Not only did the 7th
seeded Suns draw the Midwest Division champion San Antonio Spurs in
the opening round, but they entered the playoffs with another
important player on the shelf. After playing in all 82 regular
season games, Finley, who had averaged 15 points a night as a
rookie and was arguably the club's best defender, suffered a severe
ankle sprain in the final quarter of the final game of the season.
He would be forced to watch from the bench as the Suns were torched
in four games.
Became 10th player in NBA history to reach the 20,000
point-10,000 rebound plateau on Feb. 19 vs. Vancouver.
Led Suns in scoring (23.2 ppg) and rebounding (10.7
Named to the Western Conference All-Star team and
scored eight points in 16 minutes.
Named to NBA All-Rookie first-team.
Became first Suns rookie since Walter Davis to tally
1,000-plus points (1047).
Played more minutes (3,212) than any rookie in
Completed ninth-straight season without missing a
game and pushed his consecutive games played streak to 813, the
third longest streak in NBA history.
Stefano Rusconi, whose rights were originally acquired in 1990,
joined the Suns as a 27-year-old rookie and became the first
Italian player ever to play in the NBA. His Phoenix career would be
short lived as he was waived on Jan. 31, 1996.
Cotton Fitzsimmons replaced Paul Westphal as head coach on Jan.
16, 1996, beginning his third stint at the Suns' helm.
Despite their 41-41 record, the Suns qualified for the
postseason for the eighth-straight year.
The Suns endured 26 lineup changes and 296 games missed due to
injury or illness.