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The NBA : At Phoenix, Suns Are Starting All Over Again

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The Phoenix Suns are trying to rise from the ashes of the drug scandal that hit the team last April.

Center James Edwards, guards Jay Humphries and Grant Gondrezick and Mike Bratz, a former Sun, were indicted on cocaine charges by the Maricopa County Grand Jury at the end of last season.

Walter Davis, the Suns’ all-time leading scorer, implicated his teammates in testimony before the grand jury. Davis was not indicted, but on the day that the indictments were handed up, the Suns announced that Davis, a recovering cocaine addict, had had a relapse and was entering a drug rehabilitation clinic for the second time in his 10-year career.

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The charges were dropped against all of the players last summer, but the scandal severely damaged the team’s image.

Jerry Colangelo, the Suns’ general manager, with backing from the Phoenix-based Greyhound Bus Co., bought the team for $44.5 million last October. Colangelo, who has worked for the team since it entered the National Basketball Assn. 20 years ago, wanted to ensure that the Suns remained in Phoenix. Plans are under way for a new downtown arena.

Colangelo has been working hard to rebuild the Suns’ credibility.

His first move was naming John Wetzel as coach. Wetzel succeeded interim coach Dick Van Arsdale, who was hired when the Suns fired John MacLeod last February. MacLeod, who was released two months before the drug scandal broke, escaped with his reputation intact and replaced Dick Motta as coach of the Dallas Mavericks.

Gondrezick was cut in training camp last fall, and rookie center William Bedford, the Suns’ No. 1 draft pick who also testified before the grand jury but was not charged, was traded to the Detroit Pistons for a 1988 first-round draft pick.

The Suns beat last week’s National Basketball Assn. trading deadline by dealing away three-fifths of their starting lineup in return for five draft picks and five players--two rookies and three bench-warmers. Two of the players the Suns acquired are hurt.

“We looked at ourselves and where we were going before we made the deals,” Wetzel said. “We were going nowhere. We didn’t point fingers at any player, but we needed a new mix.”

All-Star forward Larry Nance, the Suns’ leading scorer and rebounder this season, and reserve forward Mike Sanders, a former UCLA star, were sent to the Cleveland Cavaliers in exchange for three reserves--injured rookie guard Kevin Johnson, center Mark West and forward Tyrone Corbin. “It was difficult to trade Larry,” Wetzel said. “I was the one who scouted him in college and recommended that we draft him.”

Nance and Sanders were the only players traded last week who weren’t implicated in the drug scandal.

Colangelo said Nance, who averaged a career-high 22.5 points last season, was the key to the deal because he had the highest market value on the team. Nance will join center Brad Daugherty and forward John (Hot Rod) Williams on the Cavalier front line.

Nance became expendable after the Suns drafted forward Armon Gilliam of Nevada Las Vegas last June. Gilliam, the second player selected, reportedly signed a $5-million, five-year deal. Nance reportedly earned $650,000 this season and will make $800,000 in the final season of his current contract that expires in 1989.

“Nance is 29 years old, and we felt we needed to commit to younger players,” Colangelo said.

The Suns also got the Cavaliers’ No. 1 draft pick in exchange for the Detroit Pistons’ No. 1 pick, which they acquired in the Bedford deal, and two second-round picks.

Edwards, 32, who was in the final year of his contract, was traded to the Detroit Pistons for rookie center Ron Moore and a second-round draft pick. Edwards got off to the best start of his 10-year career before he hurt his right hamstring and went on the injured list. He was averaging 15.9 points, third best on the team, and 7.9 rebounds, second best on the squad.

Moore had scored just 10 points in nine games for the Pistons this season.

Humphries, a former Inglewood High star who was the Suns’ starting point guard, was traded to the Milwaukee Bucks for Craig Hodges, a reserve guard who is out with an injured Achilles’ tendon. Although Humphries reportedly patched things up with Davis in training camp, it couldn’t have been easy for Humphries and Davis to play in the same backcourt because Davis had testified against Humphries.

Davis, 33, who plans to retire at the end of next season, remains with the team.

Humphries led the Suns in assists this season, but his teammates whispered that he had quit passing the ball.

Phoenix reportedly discussed sending Humphries to the Clippers in exchange for guard Mike Woodson, the Clippers’ leading scorer, but the deal hit a stumbling block when the Clippers tried to include reserve point guard Darnell Valentine in the package.

Although it’s too early to evaluate last week’s moves, the reaction has been positive among team insiders.

The Suns, who haven’t made the playoffs since 1985, were an old team going nowhere with no hope of improvement. However, they are now committed to rebuilding with young players.

“It doesn’t matter to me what others think (of the trades). We brought in five new players and added five draft picks. At this point, I’d say we have a future,” Colangelo said. “Five days ago, I wouldn’t have said it.”

MacLeod, who coached the Suns for 13 seasons, was surprised by the moves made by his former team.

“I thought they were trying to rebuild when I was there. I had five rookies last year, and I thought that was rebuilding,” MacLeod said. “I guess this is a restructuring.”

All-Star forward Charles Barkley of the Philadelphia 76ers, who ranks among the league leaders in scoring and rebounding, had a miserable time last weekend as the 76ers extended their road losing streak to a club-record 18 straight with back-to-back defeats at Denver and Dallas.

Barkley scored just 9 points Friday night in a loss at Denver and had 11 the next night in a loss at Dallas.

“I played like . . . ,” Barkley told reporters in Dallas. “I stole money on two consecutive nights. I’m just frustrated about playing. I can’t wait to get home.”

Larry Bird, the Boston Celtics’ All-Star forward, on the trade which sent reserve guard Jerry Sichting to the Portland Trail Blazers for guard Jim Paxson, the Blazers’ all-time leading scorer, last week: “I hate to see Jerry go because he’s a good friend. But Jim can play our style. It’s a step in the right direction. We need help, and he (Paxson) is going to help us.

“Now all we have to do is get (injured center Bill) Walton back from vacation.”

Walton, who has been sidelined since last season with an ankle injury, hopes to return for the playoffs.


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