Cotton-the first time he coached the Suns. 15 years before leading them again in 1988.
Fans of the Phoenix Suns expect their team to be competitive and to make the playoffs. That's just the way it is. Anything less is a disaster. After a run of 18 playoff appearances in 20 years (1988-89 to 2007-08), a whole generation of Suns fans had not experienced even one perennially below-average team until this past few years.
Talk about spoiled. And pissed off. Suns fans deserve better than this!
Until this year, the Suns had not missed the playoffs in consecutive seasons since a three-season drought from 1985-88 marred by pedestrian talent and drug scandal. Jerry Colangelo, who'd been with the team for 20 years in various roles including General Manager and Head Coach (twice) before buying the team, executed a huge reboot. He engineered the Kevin Johnson/Larry Nance trade, signed the NBA's first ever unrestricted free agent (Tom Chambers) to replace Nance, ushered all-time leading scorer Walter Davis out the door, and went back-to-the-future by installing Cotton Fitzsimmons as Head Coach (Cotton had coached the team 13 years before).
The rest is history. For many Suns fans, the 1988-89 season in which KJ, Chambers, Eddie Johnson, Jeff Hornacek and Dan Majerle burst from the shadows onto the national stage was the most enjoyable season of their lives. Why was 1988-89 more enjoyable, for some, than 1992-93? Or even 2004-05?
Because Suns fans were at the bottom of the barrel, embarrassed on a national level, disenchanted by drug scandals and poor play. And then all of a sudden the sun came out and shone on Phoenix brighter than ever.
What makes the Suns' play fairly astonishing (32-17 as of February 27, 1988) is that at the start of the season the players barely knew one another. In a breathtakingly short span, Phoenix, which finished 34 games out of first place in the Pacific Division last season, has reinvented itself; the only player left from its roster of two seasons ago is guard Jeff Hornacek.
"We thought if this team could play .500 and make the playoffs, it would be a tremendous comeback from adversity," says Sun president Jerry Colangelo at the time.
Imagine being a Suns fan in the mid-80s (I personally don't have to imagine it because I was there, but many of you would have to). The Suns were a disappointment and at the end, a disgrace. The venerable John MacLeod was losing his touch. Throughout this period, the Suns boasted two star talents in sweet-shooting, 6-time All-Star, all-time leading Suns scorer SG Walter Davis (22 ppg and 4.6 assists in 1986-87) and in-his-prime All-Star PF Larry Nance (22.5 ppg, 8.7 reb, 3.4 assists in 1986-87). Young Jeff Hornacek was an underperforming bench warmer and all the other guys were middling.
In the last year of that stretch, the Suns third-best player was Eddie Johnson. At the trade deadline, Colangelo shook it up. Years of disappointment despite the presence of two all-stars just wasn't getting it done.
So he sent the Suns very best player - all-star Larry Nance, still in his prime - to Cleveland for a rookie PG, a couple of role players and swap of draft picks (the Suns getting the short end of that stick, as the worse team). While in hindsight Suns fans call it the Best. Trade. Ever. because it marked the beginning of an era, at the time the Cavaliers thought they had won the day. Nance was now part of a Big Three with Mark Price and Brad Daughtery, hopefully propelling the Cavs to the Finals to combat the mighty Lakers and Celtics.
That end came near the conclusion of the 1986-87 season, when center James Edwards, guard Jay Humphries and guard Grant Gondrezick, as well as former Suns Garfield Heard and Mike Bratz, were indicted by a Maricopa County grand jury on charges of possessing or trafficking in cocaine or marijuana. Walter Davis, the Phoenix guard who had entered a drug rehabilitation clinic once before, in 1985, agreed to testify against his present and former teammates to avoid prosecution. As the accusations grew seamier, Sun fans began derisively referring to the team as Phoenix House and the scandal itself as Waltergate.
That all the charges were either dropped or reduced did not begin to undo the damage. How had things ever gotten so out of control?
"For a number of years we didn't have the personal contact with our players that we needed," says Colangelo. "I think the fans were hurt by the drug charges, and they were ready to point fingers. It hurt to find out that a lot of those fingers were pointed at me."
Colangelo and right-hand man Cotton Fitzsimmons took a lot of heat. As players were being traded left and right, in the wake of the scandal (and oh yeah, don't forget the team was bad), there was a lot of anger in Phoenix.
Columnist Joe Gilmartin of the Phoenix Gazette addressed Fitzsimmons on behalf of many Phoenix fans when he wrote, "There's a train leaving at midnight. Be under it."
While they spent a lot of money on background checks before the 1988 draft - eventually settling on vanilla, never-in-trouble players Tim Perry with the 7th pick and Dan Majerle with the 15th - they didn't follow the script with the signing of Tom Chambers. And fans and players wondered what the plan was.
But when the Suns decided to go out and spend big money on a free agent for the first time in their history, they seemed oblivious to the troublemaking implications of their act: The player they came up with was Tom Chambers, who in his seven seasons with San Diego and Seattle had gotten the reputation of being a selfish malcontent and was despised in practically every arena he played in, including, at times, the Coliseum in Seattle.
"I used to hate watching him play," says Kevin Johnson, and even Colangelo admits that he used to think Chambers was "a little whiny." Nonetheless, Phoenix gave Chambers a five-year, $9 million contract and set about building the team around him.
Chambers remade himself in Phoenix, for sure.
Chambers has often played out of position for the Suns-including at center-and has even thrown his body around diving to the floor for loose balls.
"If I had been with this team the first five years of my career, maybe all those negative things would never have been said about me," says Chambers. "It was always one isolated incident here, one there, and they followed me around the league. It hurts to have people think I'm a jerk. I wish it would all be forgotten, but it never will be, and I understand that."
He grew up and became the symbol of the new Suns. He averaged 25.7 points per game that year and remained their best big man until Sir Charles showed up to join him as he faded into the sunset. To this day, he devotes every day to the Suns franchise as a studio host.
Chambers was just one of the new faces who blossomed on that team. That rookie PG, Kevin Johnson, turned into one heck of a player in his second season, going from 12 and 9 in 28 games after the trade to 20 and 12 in 81 games the next season. Eddie Johnson played a great sixth-man role. Steve Kerr rode the deep bench, while Jeff Hornacek - who'd re-made his entire shooting stroke - emerged into one heck of a player after being an afterthought in two prior seasons. Dan Majerle was a high-energy scrappy kid off the bench, after being booed on draft night.
The point here is that the Suns went from nothing to something overnight. Their front office was maligned and disliked locally and nationally. Jerry Colangelo had been the GM throughout the drug scandal and that three-year drought with a poor roster.
And the two faces of the mid-80s franchise were, at one point, ushered out the door despite giving everything they had to the Suns. Nance and Davis were the best the Suns had to offer, and they epitomized the type of player the Suns wanted to present to the world. Wonderful athletes, great players and great men.
When Davis left the Suns - remember, he was the all-time franchise leader in scoring and a six-time all star - the Suns had reportedly offered him a paltry one-year deal at a 50% pay cut. And didn't even promise him - a six-time all-star, though nearing retirement - a starting position.
But when the team struggled, they had to go. You can't always reboot while keeping your best players and you can't always get great value when they leave either. Between the two all-stars, the Suns got a rookie PG, a worse draft pick and a net gain of one middling role player (and "cap space to sign new guys").
Sometimes, you just have to roll the dice and start over.
That 1988-89 was a gamble. They were not picked to win the West. Heck, they weren't even picked to make the playoffs. Chambers had just merely replaced Nance. Kevin Johnson, while a good player, would be lucky to match the contributions of the departed Walter Davis. The rest of the roster was a hodgepodge.
Who would have guessed, before that season started, these guys would start a run of wild franchise success?
I'm sure some people will look back on that 1988 trade deadline where Nance was shipped to Cleveland and say they saw the bright future right then and there. And some will say that pushing "Sweet D" Walter Davis out the door was the best thing for the franchise. And others will say that the Tom Chambers signing (29 years old at the time) was a sure sign of franchise success going forward.
We all love to look back on those wonderful times and say "I knew it!"
But sometimes, dawn breaks before we even realize it. It's easy to lambast the Suns right now, having ushered Steve Nash and Grant Hill out the door in an attempt to reboot. It's easy to kill the Suns over signing an offensively-talented tweener forward who had worn out his welcome on his prior team. It's easy to ridicule the "safe" but underwhelming picks of Morris and Marshall. And it's easy to wonder what kind of master plan includes the acquisition of a hodgepodge of new players at different stages of their careers.
But maybe, just maybe, the Suns can hit lightning in a bottle. At least they are trying.