Colangelo Finds Another Way to Rebuild Suns Quickly


Two years ago, a simple curse would have been welcomed--perhaps something like a bad call on a coin flip. The Suns encountered such misfortune in 1969 when General Manager Jerry Colangelo said “heads” instead of “tails,” and later had little choice except to say “Neal Walk” instead of “Lew Alcindor” in the college draft.

Colangelo later recalled that after the flip, he was “stunned. I got in my car and drove around Phoenix for about three hours. After that, I came back to my office and said, ‘Well, I’ve got to do it another way.”’

Seventeen years later, after the glory days had come and gone, Colangelo and the Suns again had to do it another way. This time, however, their task required more than mere luck. The 1986-87 season was the darkest in Suns history. Catastrophic events became the norm as the Suns were pummeled by defeats, drugs, death and disenchanted fans.


In February, 1987, Colangelo fired John MacLeod, who had coached the Suns 13 1/2 seasons. During a six-year stretch that ended in 1983, the Suns had averaged 52 victories under MacLeod, who also once led the team to the NBA finals. But when they were in the midst of their third consecutive losing season, Colangelo decided a change was needed.

In April, 1987, James Edwards, Jay Humphries and Grant Gondrezick, who were on the Suns roster, and former Suns Garfield Heard and Mike Bratz were indicted on felony charges to possess and transfer narcotics. All had been implicated by then-Suns guard Walter Davis, who testified against them before a Maricopa County grand jury.

And in August, 1987, Nick Vanos, a 24-year-old Suns center, was killed in a plane crash in Detroit.

“We hit rock bottom,” Colangelo said. “We had to start all over again.”

The starting-over process took another year. In the 1987-88 season, the Suns had a 28-54 record, their worst since 16-66 in 1968-69, their first season as an expansion franchise. But after the 1987-88 season ended, the Suns completed the demolition and reconstruction of the franchise. Only guard Jeff Hornacek remained from the 14-man 1986-87 team.

That wasn’t all. Another coach, John Wetzel, also went. Cotton Fitzsimmons, who was a coach for five franchises in his 15-year career and whose record was 46 games under .500, was hired. But only for an unspecified period. Paul Westphal, who had played for the Suns for five years, was hired as an assistant and named the “coach in waiting.” And free-agent forward Tom Chambers, who had developed a reputation as a prolific but selfish offensive player, was given a five-year, $9-million contract and the designation as team leader.

The Suns, indeed, had done it another way.

“We had a plan,” Fitzsimmons said with a straight face. “This thing was by design. It wasn’t a hodgepodge. It wasn’t pin the tail on the donkey. And it also wasn’t by accident.”


Fitzsimmons will admit, however, that he was surprised the plan worked so quickly. The Suns became the eighth team in NBA history to improve by more than 20 games in a season. They had a 55-27 record and finished only two games behind the Los Angeles Lakers. They have advanced to the conference finals, where they have lost the first two games. But Friday night and Sunday, they play Games 3 and 4 before Suns fanatics, who established franchise records for attendance: more than 500,000 total for the first time and 18 sellouts.

Fitzsimmons was named Coach of the Year. Eddie Johnson won the Sixth Man Award. Kevin Johnson was named the Most Improved Player. Chambers made the All-Star team. Two years ago, the Suns were dirty. Now they are brilliant.

“We have surprised a lot of people,” Chambers said.

And they have done it in a different way. Usually when a team improves dramatically, it is because of one player and usually that player is obtained in the draft. When the Celtics drafted Larry Bird in 1979, they improved 32 games, from 29-53 to 61-21. When the Bucks drafted Alcindor, they improved 29 games, from 27-55 to 56-26.

But the Suns’ 27-game improvement, third best in NBA history, was a combined effort, and it was not without luck. Part of the luck, however, was the result of hard work. The Suns were lucky that Gary Fitzsimmons had learned so much about basketball from his father. It was Gary Fitzsimmons, the Cavs’ player personnel director who had worked as an assistant coach under Cotton with the Kings and Spurs, who drafted Kevin Johnson for the Cavs (Johnson can best be described as a younger Isiah Thomas with an afterburner). And it was Gary and Cotton who agreed in February, 1988, to do something to help each other, thus the huge trade of Johnson, Tyrone Corbin and Mark West for Larry Nance and Mike Sanders.

The Suns also were lucky that unrestricted free agency occurred at precisely the right time. They were able to sign Chambers without giving up any draft picks or young players. But the Suns also were bold. They made Chambers an offer and gave him 15 minutes to take it or leave it. Chambers preferred to sign with Utah, Dallas, Houston or San Antonio. But he was so impressed that the Suns wanted him so badly that he signed.

No one knew it at the time, but Chambers completed the rebuilding project.