It was tough for Suns to keep their ‘heads’ up
The disappointment cut so deep, Jerry Colangelo remembers, that he left his office, jumped into his car and drove aimlessly around Phoenix for hours, “just trying to shake it.”
Richard Bloch, at home in Beverly Hills, says he muttered into the phone something like, “That’s terrible,” and hung up.
Forty years ago this week, on March 19, 1969, the Phoenix Suns suffered a defeat so damaging that it probably cost them at least one NBA championship and possibly more.
They lost a coin flip with the Milwaukee Bucks for the right to take Lew Alcindor with the No. 1 pick in the draft.
They called heads.
In New York, then-NBA Commissioner J. Walter Kennedy tossed a 1964 Kennedy half-dollar into the air with his right hand, caught it in the same hand and turned it onto the back of his left.
“The coin has come up tails,” he announced to representatives of the two teams listening in on a conference call.
Pandemonium in Milwaukee.
Dejection in the desert.
“We were shell-shocked,” says Colangelo, then the Suns’ 29-year-old general manager and now chairman.
For whatever reason, the Suns believed they were going to win the flip, Colangelo says. They called heads, he notes without regret, because that’s what a majority of fans who had voted in a newspaper poll told them they should do.
“I wanted our fans to share in the win or the loss,” Colangelo says. “It was such a monumental, once-in-a-lifetime flip of a coin, why not let your fans be a part of that?”
Alcindor, meanwhile, was in Louisville, Ky., where the next night at Freedom Hall he would score 25 points to help UCLA defeat Drake in the semifinals of the NCAA tournament. Two nights after that, he would score 37 against Purdue, lifting the Bruins to their third consecutive national championship.
The 7-foot-2 center, who changed his name to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar after leaving UCLA, doesn’t remember where he was or what he was doing when he heard that the Bucks won the flip.
Notes the native New Yorker, “I was disappointed that I couldn’t go play where I wanted to play -- either in New York or San Francisco or Los Angeles.”
Actually, he could have signed with the New York Nets of the rival American Basketball Assn.
“But the NBA made me a better offer,” he says. “It was a pretty easy choice to make, given the fact that the NBA was the more established league. The ABA was maybe, maybe not.”
In Milwaukee, the three-time All-American was an instant hit. The expansion Bucks, winners of 27 games in their inaugural 1968-69 season, won 56 in the first season with their new center and reached the Eastern Conference finals. In their third season, they won 66 and their only NBA championship.
Traded to the Lakers in 1975, Abdul-Jabbar continued to haunt the Suns for 14 more seasons.
A six-time most valuable player and the NBA’s all-time scoring leader, he helped his teams win six championships.
The Suns, who joined the NBA as an expansion team the same season as the Bucks, are still looking for their first.
Bloch, a 79-year-old Southern California investment broker, real estate developer and Suns founding partner, says losing the coin flip changed everything for the Suns.
“It was a very significant setback,” the former owner says from his office in Rancho Santa Fe. “Alcindor went on to become one of the greatest players to ever walk on the court.”
With the second pick in 1969, the Suns took 6-10 Neal Walk of Florida, “who never cut it as an NBA center,” Bloch says.
Actually, Walk lasted eight seasons with the Suns, New Orleans Jazz and New York Knicks, averaging 12.6 points and 7.7 rebounds. In his best season, he averaged 20 and 12.
But he was no Abdul-Jabbar.
Says Colangelo of the former Suns center, “He was definitely looked upon as kind of a booby prize.”
Maybe so, but Walk says he never lost any sleep over it.
“Abdul-Jabbar was Abdul-Jabbar,” he says. “To be second to him is no dishonor, if you ask me. But if you’re a fan of a team and you want that extraordinary athlete, whomever else you get is a booby prize. Then again, how many people get to be drafted into the NBA No. 2? My feelings aren’t hurt. I got to play in the NBA.”
A Suns photo archivist, Walk has been a paraplegic since 1987, when surgery removed a tumor from his spinal cord. He played wheelchair basketball for years -- “I was crappy,” he says -- and in 1990 was inducted into the Jewish Sports Hall of Fame.
By then, of course, Abdul-Jabbar was waiting for a call from the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.
Would he have preferred Phoenix all those years ago?
“Probably,” he says. “The weather’s a lot better. And my good friend Connie Hawkins ended up there.”
The Suns had prepared as if he were coming.
“We had drafted in the expansion draft a group of young guys that would have fit perfectly with Lew Alcindor,” Colangelo says, naming Dick Van Arsdale and future Hall of Famer Gail Goodrich. “I just felt like we were going to win the flip and we would have been in a prime position to have a good long run.”
If only they’d called tails.