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John MacLeod: Ring of Honor or Honorable Mention?

{Editor's Note: This excellent Mike Lisboa piece, originally posted on August 17, 2011, is re-published today in recognition of John MacLeod's induction in the Suns Ring of Honor, the ceremony for which will be held at tonight's game.}

The question of John MacLeod’s absence from the Phoenix Suns’ Ring of Honor first occurred to me when Jerry Sloan announced his retirement. While he didn’t enjoy quite the same success as Jerry Sloan, John MacLeod is the longest tenured coach in Phoenix Suns history. "What gives?" I wondered.

This article is not written from an unbiased place. I grew up in Phoenix, having been born there in 1974. My parents had Phoenix Suns season tickets. In junior high, I twice attended the John MacLeod Basketball Camp at Embry Riddle Aeronautical University in Prescott. While I didn’t know MacLeod personally by any stretch of the imagination, figuratively speaking, he was the face of basketball authority for the first 14 years of my life. That makes an impression.

The Phoenix Suns entered the National Basketball Association in 1968. John MacLeod became the Phoenix Suns’ head coach at the beginning of the 1973-74 season. Prior to hiring MacLeod, the Suns had seen five different head coaches in 5 seasons: Johnny "Red" Kerr (1968-69), Lowell "Cotton" Fitzsimmons (1970-72), Butch Van Breda Kolff (7 games of the 1972-73 season) and two stints by Jerry Colangelo (1970, 1972-73). The young franchise was in dire need of a steady presence on the sidelines. Enter John MacLeod.

Plenty of John MacLeod goodness after the jump.

Coming off a six year stint as head coach at Oklahoma, MacLeod was hired at the beginning of the 1973 season to completely overhaul the franchise’s on-court presence. MacLeod’s first two seasons were disappointing, featuring a combined record of 62-102, but there was a bigger picture to consider.


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.

In his third season, he would make Phoenix Suns (and NBA) history by leading the team to its first NBA Finals berth against the Boston Celtics. The Suns, of course, would go on to lose in six games, with game five being the historic "Greatest Game Ever Played."

After reaching the NBA Finals, the Suns disappointed the following year with a 34-48 record and no playoff appearance. In the ensuing decade however, MacLeod would become the first head coach to make success the expectation, not the exception, for a generation of Suns fans. From 1977 to 1985, the Phoenix Suns made 8 consecutive trips to the playoffs including 5 appearances in the Western Conference semi-finals and 2 appearances in the WC Finals. During this stretch, Coach MacLeod and the Suns amassed a record of 387-269 (.590) and set the benchmark for what would be considered success for the franchise going forward. Unfortunately for MacLeod and Suns fans, it was a benchmark he would not reach again. In the 1985-86 and 1986-87 seasons, the Suns would go on to win only 32 and 22 games respectively.

When he was fired at the end of the 1987 season, John MacLeod was in his 14th season as head coach of the Phoenix Suns. At the time, he was the longest active tenured coach and the 2nd longest in NBA history behind Red Auerbach’s 16 seasons with the Boston Celtics. A few months after his termination, a massive drug scandal would consume the Suns resulting in a blown-up roster and setting the stage for the Suns’ 1990s renaissance.

MacLeod would go on to brief head NBA head coaching stints with the Dallas Mavericks and the New York Knicks and then log another 8 years as head coach of Notre Dame University's men's basketball program. He has since served as and assistant coach for the Denver Nuggets and Golden State Warriors. In 2005, he was inducted into the Indiana Basketball Hall of Fame.

Salient bullet points:

  • Longest tenured coach in Suns history
  • Laid the foundation for the 1975-76 Sunderella roster
  • Led Suns to their first NBA Finals after only 3 seasons/
  • Led Suns to playoffs in 9 of his 14 seasons, including 8 straight from 1977-1985
  • Led Suns to 3 Western Conference Finals and 1 NBA Finals
  • Cumulative .516 regular season win-loss record
  • Cumulative .465 playoff record

So, what say you, Bright Siders? Is this a Ring of Honor resume? The final numbers may not be as gaudy as Mike D'Antoni's comparatively brief brilliance (.650 regular season win percentage), but I think in this case, the numbers only tell part of the story. Coach MacLeod was a chief architect in engineering a winning foundation that this franchise has sought to maintain since his tenure. For that, a trip back to Phoenix to add his name to the Ring of Honor is the least we can do.

Win-loss numbers obtained from

[Note by Mike Lisboa, 08/17/11 1:23 PM PDT ]

Due to SBNation's photo policy, I can't post any non-cleared photos in this story. However I can link to this great photo from Life Magazine of John MacLeod (and his sweet gray-fro) giving some guidance to an impossibly young-looking Jeff Hornacek.

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