THE 1996-97 SEASON WAS DEPRESSING
for Phoenix fans. But it was also encouraging, surprising and even
thrilling. One of the more memorable seasons in Suns history took
so many twists and turns, had so many highs and lows, that now,
looking back, it seems as if it was three seasons rolled into one.
acquired a franchise player in All-Star guard Jason
Calling the Shots
Suns unofficially opened the new season six weeks before the start
of training camp. It was on Aug. 19, 1996 that the Charles Barkley era in
Phoenix came to a close as the Suns sent Sir Charles to Houston for
forwards Mark Bryant, Chucky Brown and Robert Horry, along with
guard Sam Cassell.
Although Barkley remained one of the NBA's top attractions, the
Suns were determined to become a younger, more athletic team.
"I had become disturbed with our style of play," said Suns
President and CEO Jerry Colangelo the day of the trade. "We had
become a slow team, which is not characteristic of how we play
basketball. The Phoenix Suns have had their greatest success as an
up-tempo team. We want to return to that form and this trade will
help us do that."
While Horry, Brown and Cassell all possessed championship rings,
the key to the deal was the 6-9 Bryant, a low-post banger who would
provide the Suns with needed size and strength.
"Without Bryant, the trade doesn't happen," said Colangelo
matter of factly.
With Bryant, Brown, Horry and Cassell joining a core that
featured guards Kevin
Johnson and Wesley
Person, center Hod Rod
Michael Finley, Danny
Manning and A.C.
Green, not to mention rookie Steve Nash, the Suns
appeared to have reloaded their guns with an unlimited ammunition.
But they weren't done yet.
Several days into camp, word leaked that the Suns were pursuing
Chapman, who had been released by Miami in an effort to clear
salary cap room. Unfortunately, the Suns were burdened with cap
limitations themselves and were only able to offer the league
minimum salary. Fortunately, however, Chapman's priorities weren't
"I feel like I could have called any team in the league and told
them I would come and play for the minimum and would have had a
job, but that's not what I wanted," he said. "I wanted someplace
where I felt like the team wanted me and Phoenix really made an
effort to bring me here."
On paper, the Suns' edited and revised roster looked like it
would grab some headlines. Little did anyone suspect how things
would actually come together. Or should we say, fall apart.
First the Suns lost the services of KJ and Hot Rod to injuries
before the season even started, then they lost the season opener in
L.A. to the Lakers. And then came home losses to Houston, Minnesota
and Seattle. Those forgettable outings were followed up by a
four-game road trip that brought four more disappointments and a
Rumors that Head Coach Cotton Fitzsimmons was thinking of
stepping down became fact hours before the trip's final game, in
Vancouver. Cotton announced he would coach his last game before
turning the reins over to assistant coach Danny Ainge, who had been
hired during the summer with the intent of grooming him to be the
head coach. Of course, the plan was for Ainge to be groomed over a
period of seasons, not days.
The coaching change didn't end the drought, though. And either
did the return of Johnson and Williams to the lineup. When the Suns
fell again on November 26, the losing streak had reached a very
unlucky 13, the worst start in franchise history. But the next
night had the Suns at home against New Jersey, and FINALLY,
they slipped into the win column.
But their problems were not yet behind them.
On Christmas Day, the Suns were embarrassed at home by the
Lakers in front of a national television audience. A 108-87 loss
exposed the Suns' deficiencies - a lack of shooting caused by an
inability to move the ball. A team that had become younger still
hadn't figured out how to get out and run.
The next day, Suns GM Bryan Colangelo pulled the trigger on a
blockbuster trade that would shock the basketball world. Phoenix
dealt Finley, Green and Cassell to Dallas in exchange for
youngsters Tony Dumas, Loren Meyer and the deal's
focal point - Jason
"I had a lot of support from the coaching staff and Jerry and
Cotton in making this deal work," Bryan said. "Jason Kidd brings a
new identity to this franchise as we move through this transition
year. Things have improved since our 0-13 start, but now there is
an even brighter horizon as a result of this trade."
The trade was highly praised, but as had been the Suns' luck
this season, Kidd wouldn't be around for long. Shortly before
halftime of his first game in purple, the All-Star playmaker
suffered a fractured collarbone. No sooner had he arrived, he was
gone for six weeks.
Without Kidd, and now without the players the Suns dealt to get
him, Phoenix continued to struggle, particularly on the road. A
five-game eastern swing to start January brought more problems -
problems that came to a head in Boston. During a loss to the
Celtics, Horry, frustrated over the losses and his lack of playing
time, exploded after being benched midway through the game and
threw a towel in the face of Ainge. It would be his last play as a
Sun as he was traded to the Lakers days later in a deal that
brought former Suns forward Cedric Ceballos back to Phoenix.
Kidd returned to the lineup on Valentine's Day and led the Suns
in a win over the Clippers. But that was followed by three more
road losses. Considering there were so many new players and that
one of them had missed six weeks due to injury, it was no surprise
that there were still nights that this talented group of players
would perform as if they'd never seen each other before.
On March 2, everything would change. The Suns found themselves
in Dallas, where Kidd's first game in Big D since his trade was
expected to be a noteworthy affair. Midway through the third
quarter, however, it seemed as if the Suns had lost their notes.
Down by 27, and having lost Ainge to ejection, the Suns were about
to be counted out, not only of the game, but the season.
Then something happened. Assistant coach Paul Silas rallied the
troops. Gradually, three-pointers, steals, rebounds and
second-chance shots not only reduced the deficit, but wiped it out.
Phoenix managed to tie the game, send it into overtime and in the
final seconds, pull out a 109-108 victory as Kidd dished to Wayman
Tisdale for a running layup at the horn. Those who think a single
game among 82 means nothing weren't paying attention.
"I think that was the turning point," said Hot Rod. "Coach Silas
took over that game and I think what he did is take the guys and
said, 'Look, you're going to play defense and if you don't, you're
coming out of this game.'" For the remainder of the season, the
opponents fell like dominoes. Houston, Seattle, Portland and
Minnesota - all playoff teams - would drop as Phoenix reeled off
11-straight wins becoming the first team in league history to tally
double-digit winning and losing streaks in the same season.
Had this amazing turnaround been accomplished simply through
improved play, the story would have been a good one. How it was
actually done makes the '96-97 Suns a great story.
Bryant, who had been a starter, was sidelined in mid-March with
a stress reaction in his right foot. Already undermanned at the
power forward position, coach Ainge decided the best thing to do
was play without a power forward - or, for that matter, a small
forward. Looking at his roster, the rookie coach saw an
overabundance of hot guards and decided to play them - all at once.
And so "Small Ball" was born.
With a rejuvenated Kidd manning the point and a healthy KJ
playing some of the best basketball of his career as he moved to
shooting guard, the Suns had, arguably, the game's best backcourt.
But what made Phoenix so deadly was that its backcourt extended
into the frontcourt. While both KJ and JK could penetrate, Chapman
and/or Person could spot up and knock down three pointers. And they
all could run.
Although critics said the Suns would never be able to get away
with a small lineup in the postseason, when teams have time to
adjust and physical play is more evident, they almost did. Despite
their final 40-42 record and seventh seed in the playoffs, the mini
Suns would take the defending conference champion Sonics to the
brink of elimination.
It all started in Game 1 when the Suns shocked Seattle in
Seattle stealing a win behind Chapman's heroic 42-point outburst,
which included a playoff record nine three-pointers.
The Suns were crushed in Game 2, losing to an angry Sonics club
by 44, but headed home with the best-of-five series tied at a game
Before a raucous crowd at America West Arena, the Suns played a
game that saw them shed their image of a basketball carnival and
turn into a team worthy of sharing the postseason stage. Whatever
adjustments the Sonics had made in Game 2 were out of focus by Game
3 as the Suns lit it up from long range and held their own on the
"They play wild," said Sonics' forward Detlef Schrempf.
"Instead of grinding it out slow and playing down low all night,
they play playground, run-and-gun basketball." If the day ever
comes that the excitement value of the NBA Playoffs goes on trial,
the defense should use Game 4 as Exhibit A. Players usually come
away from a high-intensity game exhausted, but Game 4 left players,
fans, mascots and anyone else at the Purple Palace wiped out.
Trailing 100-88 with just two minutes left, the Suns' hopes of
closing out the series appeared to have faded. But a technical
called on the Sonics' Shawn
Kemp changed everything. The Suns staged a furious rally and
closed the gap to three with three seconds left.
For the record, the game's play-by-play sheet simply read
"Chapman 3-PT FG, :01.9 remaining." But ask the 19,023 who were
there, which has surely grown to over 100,000 since, and the
descriptions of Chapman's miracle shot would be countless. His
off-balance, desperation, running, fall-away three-pointer from 26
feet was one of the most memorable in team history. Hitting nothing
but net, the game was tied and it was off to overtime.
If momentum means anything, Kidd's triple to open the extra
period ends the game and sends the Suns to the second round.
However, like they did over and over en route to the NBA Finals the
year before, the Sonics responded. They posted a seven-point win
and would settle the issue two days later in Seattle, putting to
rest a remarkable season in the storied history of the Phoenix
Set an NBA Playoff record by hitting nine
three-pointers at Seattle on April 25.
Led Suns in scoring during 1997 playoffs, averaging
24.2 points per game.
Became sixth player in NBA history to record 11,500
points, 6,000 assists, 2,000 rebounds and 1,000 steals for his
Moved past Dick Van Arsdale into third place on the
Suns' all-time scoring list.
Ranked third among league leaders in assists (9.3
apg) and three-point percentage (.441).
Led Suns in scoring (20.1 ppg) and assists.
Recorded his 14th career triple double in the first
half vs. Boston on Feb. 12.
In Phoenix debut at Vancouver, totaled six points,
nine assists, seven boards and three steals in the first
Ranked fourth among league leaders in assists (9.0
With their 0-13 start and their 11 consecutive wins late in the
season, the Suns became the first team in NBA history to record
double digit winning and losing streaks in the same season. They
also became the first team in league history to start out 0-13 and
still qualify for postseason play.
On Nov. 15, Cotton Fitzsimmons stepped down and passed the Suns'
head coaching reins over to assistant Danny Ainge, who became the
ninth head coach in team history.
Twenty three players wore the purple and orange at one point or
another during the 1996-97 season.
Suns rookie Horacio
Llamas, signed as a free agent on Feb. 20, became the first
Mexican-born player in history to appear in an NBA game.