Happy 25th, Sunderellas
By Jeff Munn
Posted: March 14, 2001
For the record, the Phoenix Suns came into existence in 1968. They have played in the NBA for 32 seasons.
Ask any longtime Suns fan, however, and you'll come to realize that, while they may have been born in 1968, they arrived 25 years ago.
It's staggering, especially to those who were here at the time, that a quarter of a century has passed since the term "Sunderella" burst across the Valley, leaving a lasting mark on the sports landscape, turning a half-million residents into Suns worshippers.
The magnitude of the Suns' meteoric rise to the 1976 Western Conference Championship and the epic Finals battle with the Boston Celtics is large, in part, because of the ashes Phoenix was laying in prior to the start of the 1975-76 campaign. Prior to the season, the Suns had gone through two seasons under Head Coach John MacLeod in which the Suns won 62 games and lost 102. It had been five years since the Suns had made the NBA Playoffs. To say the least, the hearty souls who called themselves Suns fans were not brimming with optimism heading into the third year of the MacLeod era.
MacLeod, handpicked off the Oklahoma University campus by General Manager Jerry Colangelo two years earlier to oversee a thorough rebuilding of the Suns, was in the midst of laying the foundation for a team they hoped would be a perennial contender. The year before, center Neal Walk and a second-round draft pick had been traded to the New Orleans Jazz in exchange for center Dennis Awtrey, forward Curtis Perry, guard Nate Hawthorne, and the Jazz' first round pick in 1975. The Suns had drafted Notre Dame forward John Shumate with the fourth overall pick in the 1974 NBA Draft. Popular forward Connie Hawkins had been traded to the Los Angeles Lakers for swingman Keith Erickson.
Prior to the '75-76 season, the final pieces, and the biggest, were put into place. Prior the 1975 Draft, talented guard Charlie Scott was dealt to Boston for guard Paul Westphal and second-round picks in the '75 and '76. In the draft, the Suns, holders again of the fourth-overall pick, selected 6-9 center Alvan Adams, who was recruited to Oklahoma by MacLeod before the coach departed for Phoenix. MacLeod clearly was staking his reputation, not to mention his future in Phoenix, on the lanky Adams. MacLeod's based his pick on Adams' mobility, coupled with his outstanding passing skills.
With the pick they had acquired from the Jazz, the 16th pick overall, Phoenix selected guard Ricky Sobers from Nevada-Las Vegas. Like most players who were tutored by Rebels coach Jerry Tarkanian, Sobers was an outstanding defender and could easily adapt to the open-court style MacLeod was aiming for.
In addition, the Suns picked up guards Phil Lumpkin (trade with Portland), John Wetzel (waivers from Atlanta three weeks into the season) and Pat Riley (trade with the Lakers in early November). Coupled with Team Captain Dick Van Arsdale, the Suns unveiled a vastly different group in the fall of 1975. Different, but not so much that fans came rushing to Veterans Memorial Coliseum to see for themselves.
Yet, the Suns offered reason for hope in the early stages of the campaign. Phoenix stood at 14-9 after a December 17 home win over Milwaukee. Adams' passing ability was forcing bigger centers to come out of their comfortable low-post spot and away from the hoop, and the forwards took advantage. Van Arsdale and Westphal were meshing into a top-flight backcourt tandem. With the majority of the season still in front of them, fans were starting to whisper to each other that this season might be different.
The bubbly was flowing after the Suns defeated the defending champion Golden State Warriors in the Conference Finals.
Then, it all stopped.
An inexplicable slump saw the Suns drop 18 of their next 22 games. Ironically, it was another home game against Milwaukee that proved to be the rock-bottom point. A 105-96 loss on January 29 left the Suns at 18-27. Chants of "here we go" heard a month earlier were now being replaced by groans of "here we go again." The most optimistic of fans clung to the idea that it couldn't get worse.
Three weeks later, it got worse. Playing in the Louisiana Superdome against the New Orleans Jazz, Van Arsdale suffered a broken left arm. MacLeod had no choice but to insert Sobers into Van Arsdale's spot, meaning the Suns, 24-30 at the time, would attempt to salvage a once-promising season with two rookies in the starting lineup.
It turned out to be the tonic the Suns needed. Sobers' tenacious defense, along with his fearless attitude, pumped life into the sagging Suns. Over the next six weeks, Phoenix would win 17 of 26 games and, heading into game number 81 of the season, an April 8 home date with the Los Angeles Lakers, two unusual circumstances surrounded the contest -- the Suns would clinch a playoff spot with a win, and a sellout crowd of 13,036 would watch.
The game was never in doubt. Phoenix pounded the Lakers, 113-98. For the second time in the Suns' eight-year existence, there would be basketball played beyond the regular season. In the Suns' locker room, Colangelo, MacLeod and Bianchi toasted each other with champagne. In one sense, it did seem as if the goal had been reached. It would later prove to be just one of many milestones on an incredible journey.
In the playoff setup of that year, the Suns, at 42-40, were given a first-round bye, and prepared themselves for a best-of-seven Western Conference semifinal series with the Seattle Supersonics. Coached by legendary Celtics center Bill Russell, the Sonics won the opening game in Seattle, only to have the series evened by the Suns in Game 2. Games 3 and 4, played before raucous crowds in Phoenix, were easily controlled by the Suns, and after dropping Game 5 in Seattle, the Suns clinched their first-ever series win at home in Game 6. Once again, Suns fans rejoiced as if the greatest of all achievements had taken place.
Once again, they were wrong.
The Western Conference Finals would be the point where basketball fans across the country would start to notice what was going on in the desert. The still-underdog Suns would face the defending NBA Champion Golden State Warriors -- a talented, deep team that had posted an NBA-best 59 wins during the regular season. None of the so-called experts would go so far as to give the Suns a remote chance -- that would have implied that they had a chance to begin with.
After the Warriors blew out the Suns by 25 points in the opener, Phoenix played even-up with the defending champs, taking Game 2 in Oakland. Game 3, back in Phoenix, went to the Warriors, which set the stage for a double-overtime thriller in Game Four. Phoenix pulled out a 133-129 win to even the series in a game that could have easily been considered "the greatest game ever"...at least for about three weeks.
Golden State went back on top in the series with a Game Five win in Oakland, and with seconds remaining in Game 6, trailed the Suns by one. As the Warriors set to inbound the ball, the series hung in the balance. As Jamal Wilkes lined up a potential game-winning jumper, Gar Heard came out of nowhere to block the shot as time expired, and the series would be decided in a winner-take-all Game 7 on Sunday, May 16 in Oakland.
For the first time in the relatively brief history of the city of Phoenix, the town seemingly came to a complete stop for two and a half hours on a Sunday afternoon, with every television tuned to the CBS broadcast. What was a close game in the first half turned when Ricky Sobers and Warriors star Rick Barry tangled. Barry, and the Warriors, weren't the same afterwards. The Suns controlled the game in the fourth quarter, and with just less than two minutes left, Al McCoy said the words Suns fans dared not dream of eight months earlier.
"The Suns will play for the World Championship," McCoy told his radio audience, "the World Championship, that's what I said."
Was beating the Warriors really an upset? Not if you ask the Suns' captain.
"Outside of the first game, I think anyone who saw the series would agree we outplayed Golden State," says Dick Van Arsdale, now the Suns' Senior Vice President for Player Personnel. "We felt we were their equal, so winning the series wasn't a shock to us."
Maybe so, but the reception waiting for the Suns when they got home that night sure was. Over 5,000 fans packed the old East Wing (now known as Terminal 2) at Sky Harbor. Keeping in mind that in those days the Suns flew on commercial flights, the homecoming left the players stunned, and a little concerned.
"I felt bad for the other people on our flight," Van Arsdale said. "Many of them had no idea what was going on. All they wanted to do was get their luggage."
For MacLeod, it was a sight he had waited three years to see, and will remember for a lifetime.
The reception awaiting the Suns after they won the West paralyzed Sky Harbor Airport.
"I don't think I've ever experienced anything like it," said MacLeod. "I think that was the beginning of a special time for Phoenix and the Suns."
Smiles, screams of delight, and a general sense of euphoria surrounded the airport terminal that night, but at least one person probably would have preferred a quieter celebration.
"There was a car dealer who had a model on display in the terminal lobby," MacLeod said. "The car got its roof, hood and trunk trampled by people trying to stand up and see us."
In the middle of all this hoopla was the fact that there was still work to be done. As Al McCoy had proclaimed earlier that day, the Suns would indeed play for the NBA Championship. In a clear case of teams arriving from opposite directions, the upstart, eight-year-old Suns would face the tradition-rich Boston Celtics in the NBA Finals. The Celtics had 12 World Championships, a parquet floor and the Boston Garden. The Suns had hope, a Madhouse on McDowell, and something many experts weren't counting on -- confidence.
"We knew they had an outstanding team, which they did," MacLeod said, "but we also felt the way were playing at the time, that it was a nothing to lose situation for us. Nothing to lose, everything to gain."
At the outset, not everyone was thrilled with the prospect of a Suns/Celtics series. After all, this was not what everyone had expected.
"Some people didn't want us to be there," MacLeod said. "We were not considered a team with much appeal at the time. They wanted Golden State and Boston in the Finals."
Through the first two games of the series in Boston, it appeared there was good reason to be disappointed with the match-up. The Suns struggled with Dave Cowens, Jo Jo White, Paul Silas, Charlie Scott and John Havlicek, as the Celtics posted double-digit wins in the first two contests. A four-game sweep was being predicted. However, those expecting a quick end to the series were getting ahead of themselves, and at the front of that line were the Celtics themselves.
"I think they underestimated us, particularly after the first two games," MacLeod said.
If Boston did underestimate the Suns, they realized their mistake in Games 3 and Four. As "The Madhouse on McDowell" gained fame, the Suns evened the series by essentially following the same formula that had worked in the Golden State series -- physical basketball, and like the Warriors, the Celtics learned in those two games that the Suns were not easily intimidated. After taking Game 3 105-98, the Suns staged their most impressive game of the entire playoffs, holding off numerous Celtic rallies to edge Boston 109-107. The series, whether America wanted to admit it or not, was tied.
Then, there was Game 5.
Like any landmark event in sports, the number of people who claim they were in Boston Garden on the night of June 4, 1976 has grown year by year. It took the storyline of the NBA Finals, and reduced it to one game -- the established favorite, playing in its storied home, battling for its life against the underdog.
Boston raced to a 20-point lead in the first half, then watched as Phoenix staged the first of what seemed to be an endless amount of comebacks. The teams were tied at the end of regulation....and at the end of the first overtime. In the second overtime, John Havlicek's jumper seemed to hit as time expired to give the Celtics a one-point win, but in a wild melee that included fans, referee Richie Powers put one second back on the clock. Phoenix took a timeout to get the ball at halfcourt. One problem -- they were out of timeouts.
The Suns were assessed a technical foul, the Celtics converted the free throw. At this point, Al McCoy, who did his broadcast that night high above the Garden floor with a fan who had consumed one too many in his lap at various times, was the only one whose words could do the moment justice.
"In it goes to Heard, here's his jump shot ... GOOD! It's good! We will go to a third amazing overtime. I've got to take a breather," McCoy exclaimed. "I've got to tell you, somebody up there is on our side."
Alvan Adams averaged 17.9 points, 10.0 boards and 5.2 assists during the 1976 playoffs.
Amazingly, even that somebody couldn't pull the Suns through. Boston finally took a 128-126 victory in the third overtime.
They eventually called it The Shot 'Heard' Round The World, but not everyone was interested in historical significance.
"We had a foul to give," recalls Celtic forward Paul Silas. "and I told (Celtic Head Coach) Tommy Heinsohn that when the ball came in, whoever got it, we should grab him.
"Tommy said 'No, no. There's no way they can get a shot off with one second and score.' So when Gar made that shot, walking off the floor, you talk about an angry man, that was me."
The anger, of course, didn't last. Thirty-six hours after playing in the greatest NBA Finals game ever, the Celtics wrapped up the NBA Championship with an 87-80 victory in Phoenix.
The impact of what took place, for the Suns, is still vivid in the mind of the man who put it all together.
"We had made the playoffs in our second year (1969-70)," recalls Suns Chairman and Chief Executive Officer Jerry Colangelo. "It was just a taste, though, since we had lost in the first round. Then the next two years, we won 48 and 49 games respectively, and because of the playoff format, we didn't qualify.
"It had been five years since we had been in the playoffs, so it was very important to make the playoffs."
The impact of the Finals appearance, and the triple-overtime thriller, is equally important.
"When you consider that we were an eight-year old franchise, and we're playing the Boston Celtics in historic Boston Garden, it's really an accomplishment," Colangelo says.
"I run into people all the time, all the time," says Alvan Adams, now the Vice President of America West Arena. "It doesn't matter if they're an Atlanta Hawks fan, or a Cleveland Cavaliers fan, or even a Boston Celtics fan. They say, 'Man, that started it for me. I was unemployed, I was working in a bar, I was on a street walking by a store.' They always say 'That's when I became a Suns fan.'
"It did a lot. A tremendous amount."
So did a season that took the Phoenix Suns from mild attraction to serious item in the minds of sports fans.
The most telling statement about the Suns' incredible run in 1975-76 is that, over the last 25 years, there really hasn't been a season quite like it. Some may point to two editions of the Houston Rockets, the 1980-81 squad that won only 40 games in the regular season yet made it into the Finals, or the 1994-95 team that came from the sixth seed in the West to capture its second consecutive NBA Title. However, no team has captured the imagination of the basketball world quite the way the Suns did.
Cinderella? Sure. Fluke? Not according to the players.
"In each of the three series, I feel were equal to or better than our opposition," says Van Arsdale. "We outplayed Golden State, and if we win Game Five in Boston, no doubt in my mind, we win the Championship."
"In the last month of the regular season, right on through the playoffs, Coach MacLeod had us in a position where we believed we could win every game we played," says Adams.
The other argument against the fluke theory is the fact that, after an injury-marred season the following year, the Suns ran off a streak of eight consecutive playoff appearances.
Another, often overlooked, aspect of the 1975-76 Suns were their basketball savvy. Consider that five of the 12 players on that squad (Van Arsdale, Wetzel, Riley, Westphal and Heard) eventually became NBA Head Coaches. Adams was the 1976 Rookie of the Year, Colangelo was NBA Executive of the Year, and three members of that team (Van Arsdale, Adams and Westphal) are members of the Suns' Ring of Honor.
Honors, memories, and tremendous impact. The 1975-76 Phoenix Suns did everything short of the ultimate -- win an NBA Championship. Perhaps the reason so many people still point to the 1975-76 Suns as a landmark team is the feeling that such a season may never be seen again.
"Given the competitive balance of the NBA, not to mention the fact that we now have 29 teams, I think it would be next to impossible for a team to have a season and a run like that team did," says Van Arsdale. "Never say never, but I think it'll be a very long time before you see anything like that again."