Nick Vanos Remembered: 1963-1987

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By Stefan Swiat,

Originally published: Aug. 16, 2007

When you look back at all of the memorable Suns that have hailed from Santa Clara University, you think of Dennis Awtrey, Kurt Rambis and, of course, Steve Nash.

Tragically, one player who might have been near the top of the list, had his career ended before it ever really started.

Nick Vanos graduated from Santa Clara, second in scoring and the school's all-time leading shot blocker. The 7-foot-2, 260 lbs. center was Phoenix's 32nd pick out of the second round of the 1985 Draft, drafted as a backup to an aging Alvan Adams.

Adams remembered him fondly as a rookie that was just thrilled to be a professional.

"In his first year, he was like, 'Wow, I'm in the NBA,'" Adams said. "He was 7-2, and we were hoping this would be our 'big guy.'"

"Nick showed some real promise in his second year. He made some real strides to where I thought to myself, 'This guy might be a real force for us.' A real good player for us in the league."

Unfortunately, we'll never know.

Tragically, Vanos' life was cut short on August 16, 1987 when his Phoenix-bound Northwest Airlines Flight 255 crashed on takeoff, killing 154 passengers. Among the victims was the 24-year old center and his girlfriend, Carolyn P. Cohen.

The crash occurred during takeoff and left only one survivor. Thursday is the 20th anniversary of the air disaster and the Suns commemorated the day with Adams delivering flowers on behalf of the organization.

Legendary Suns radio announcer Al McCoy recalled Vanos as a player just beginning to show his promise. "Early in his second year, our people and our coaches thought that he had really improved and were looking at him perhaps becoming the starting center of the future," he said. "They started seeing him as a player who could make a difference."

“Nick showed some real promise in his second year. He made some real strides to where I thought to myself, 'This guy might be a real force for us.' A real good player for us in the league.”

— Alvan Adams

Adams saw some similarities in his game to former NBA great Bob Lanier. Like Lanier, Vanos was a left-handed big man with a real nice touch around the basket. Armed with those two weapons, Adams believed Vanos was destined to prosper.

"People would say, 'Don't let him go left,'" Adams said. "But it was easier said than done when guarding a guy like that... I know. He caught me by surprise a few times in practice."

But more than anything, his teammates and those within the organization remember a soft-spoken, hard-working young man that was very giving.

"As a person he was just a great guy," McCoy said. "He was very unassuming and was always looking to be a benefit to the team. In his two years here, he was really well liked by his teammates and coaches."

Assistant coach Jay Humphries, who was a teammate of Vanos, remembers breaking into the league with him as a young player.

"He worked very hard and learned how to create his own niche with the Suns," Humphries said. "If that occurrence didn't happen, he would have had a long, successful NBA career."

Ironically, Humphries recently uncovered some memorabilia from that 1986-87 team, including Vanos' trading card.

"I was just thinking about him yesterday," Humphries noted. "I didn't even realize that the anniversary was this week."

One of the legacies that Vanos' passing left were two scholarships in his name that assist high school and college students in the greater Phoenix area. The scholarships salute people that address issues facing the disabled community and are made possible by Phoenix Suns Charities and the United Way.

While his legacy lives on now through the scholarships, his continuous development and potential 20 years ago served as a beacon of hope for a 1986-87 team that had its share of off-the-court problems.

"It was a bit of a weird time back then for us," Adams said. "But he was a real bright light in the midst of all of that."


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