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#TBT - Dick Van Arsdale, the Original Phoenix Sun

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Last week we looked back at the career of the most recent Suns’ departure. This week, we examine the career of the first Phoenix Suns’ arrival!

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The Original Sun, Dick Van Arsdale

In the beginning, there was Dick Van Arsdale. Younger Suns’ fans might not even know his name. Maybe they’ve glimpsed it in the Ring of Honor. Or caught a passing reference to it in a rundown of Suns’ history. And even then, well, it’s just a name. Who is this Van Arsdale cat anyway?

The Tom and Dick Show

For starters, long before Markieff and Marcus Morris were unfortunate twinkles in someone’s eye, Dick and his twin brother Tom were lighting up Indiana basketball courts. The twins were co-winners of the state of Indiana’s “Mr. Basketball” and “Trester Award for Mental Attitude”. The former recognizes on-court skills, and the latter, those who “excel in mental attitude, scholarship, leadership and athletic ability in basketball.” The twins would also co-star at Indiana University where Dick garnered All-Big 10, All-American and Hoosiers’ MVP honors.

In the 1965 NBA Draft, the twins were selected with consecutive draft picks. Dick went to the New York Knicks with the 10th pick in the 2nd round. Tom went one pick later to the Detroit Pistons. Both would be named to the 1966 All-Rookie Team. And that was the end of their shared careers... for a while.

First, The Knicks

Dick Van Arsdale was an immediate contributor for the Knicks, logging 29 minutes a game in his rookie season. In his memoir, Life on the Run, Van Arsdale’s teammate and roommate Bill Bradley described him thusly:

He is a handsome man, 6’5” and blond, with a personality as sturdy as his durable legs.

Which is... well, it’s something, isn’t it?

Over the course of the his next two seasons, his minutes increased as did the Knicks rise in the standings as they made the playoffs in both the 1966-67 and 1967-68 seasons after missing them in Van Arsdale’s first year.

The Original Sun Rises

Despite logging a healthy 36 minutes a game in his third year, that wasn’t enough for the Knicks management to protect Van Arsdale from the impending expansion draft for the newly formed Milwaukee Bucks and Phoenix Suns. As befitted a young franchise in a young city, youth was order of the day for the Suns. From Suns.com:

Jerry Colangelo, who had been the chief scout for the Chicago Bulls, was named Suns general manager at age 28, becoming the youngest GM in professional team sports at the time. The mandate from ownership was basic and direct - build a first-class organization and make it a winner. Colangelo's philosophy on how to build a winner was equally as clear-cut.

"We should go with young talent," he said. "Of course, the ideal blend is a mixture of youth and experience, but when it's a tossup, youth must prevail."

The third year shooting guard, known as the “Flying Dutchman” (though at 24, practically ancient by today’s standards) was the perfect blend of youth and experience for the nascent team. Colangelo’s fixation on youth resulted in Van Arsdale being the just the third-oldest player on the roster. Paired with future Hall of Famer Gail Goodrich and veteran coach Johnny “Red” Kerr, Phoenix had high hopes in its first NBA season.

On October 18, 1968, Van Arsdale scored the first points in Phoenix Suns history with a layup against the Seattle Supersonics as the team won its franchise opener. The Suns leaned heavily on their original star, playing him over 42 minutes a game. However, youth and inexperience was reflected in the Suns’ record of just 16 wins and 66 losses. Van Arsdale was inarguable the team’s best player, leading them in both points and assists. Van Arsdale and Goodrich also made their first NBA All-Star appearances.

Playoff Paydirt!

What a difference a year makes though. In 1969, the Suns brought in another future Hall of Famer in playground legend Connie Hawkins. With Hawkins taking over as lead scorer and Goodrich assuming the reins of the offense, Van Arsdale had the most efficient year of his career, averaging over 21 points per game while shooting just over 50% from the field. He also saw the first of many Phoenix coaching changes. GM Jerry Colangelo named himself head coach after forcing Johnny Kerr’s resignation for a 15-23 start. It all worked. The Suns improved to 39-43 and landed their first ever trip to the playoffs. Van Arsdale made his second All-Star appearance. This time he was joined by teammate Connie Hawkins instead of Gail Goodrich.

A Steady Presence in Unsteady Times

In 1970, Gail Goodrich returned to the Los Angeles Lakers from whence he had been “stolen” via the expansion draft. As Goodrich departed, so did Phoenix’s playoff hopes. Despite being anchored by a pair of stars in Dick Van Arsdale and Connie Hawkins, the Phoenix Suns would go five long years (oh only five years!) without seeing the post-season again.

Nevertheless, Van Arsdale excelled for what turned out to be his forever basketball home. Despite making only one more All-Star appearance in his career, Van Arsdale never played less than 30 minutes per game over the ensuing 6 seasons. Van Arsdale provided a steady presence as Phoenix surrounded him and Hawkins with revolving door of journeymen. Until, finally he got some help to start 1975-76 season.

The Cindererella Season

Phoenix made two franchise-altering moves in the summer of 1975. First, they traded for the swift Boston Celtics combo guard Paul Westphal. Then they drafted smooth-passing big man Alvan Adams from the University of Oklahoma. You may have seen their names next to Van Arsdale’s in the Ring of Honor. Despite seeing his minutes reduced in the playoffs as the team’s young stars took over, Van Arsdale played a key in the Suns’ Cinderella run to the 1976 NBA finals.

Reunited

Fresh off the heels of a spectacular playoff run, the 1976-77 season was the most-anticipated in Suns’ young history. To add to the excitement, Dick Van Arsdale would be joined by his brother Tom for what all parties hoped would be a historic season. Though the 35 year-old twins enjoyed their time together, the reunion ended up being bittersweet. From Suns.com’s article “The Original Twins”:

“Tom was always in the situation where he never got to play for good teams,” Dick said. “It was really frustrating for him. Every time he would be traded, it was to a team that wasn’t as good as the one he had left. He was at a point where he was tired of the game, the trades and the losing. He would have quit if Jerry hadn’t made the deal for him.

“He was really glad to come to Phoenix and it looked like he would be a big asset off the bench.”

But almost as soon as it seemed the Suns were ready to put the jigsaw pieces together for a championship, fate knocked over the table. Injuries hit the Suns hard and the team stumbled to a 34-48 mark, while Dick (7.7 ppg) and Tom (5.8 ppg) each had the least productive campaigns of the 12-year careers.

Both men would retire as the season ground on. And of course, they matched each other with 3 All-Star appearance apiece.

Once a Sun, Always a Sun

Van Arsdale’s relationship with the Phoenix Suns didn’t end with his retirement. If anything it deepened. He remain with the Phoenix Suns for the rest of his working career as an interim head coach (when John MacLeod was fired in 1987), front office executive (rising to Senior Vice President of Player Personnel) and a long-time broadcast partner with soon-to-be Ring of Honor member Al McCoy.

In 2006, he suffered from a stroke. Paola Boivin detailed Van Arsdale’s stroke and recovery for AZCentral.com:

Five years ago, on a clear, temperate November morning, Dick Van Arsdale climbed out of bed and into an unfamiliar world.

He couldn't speak. He felt trapped in an unfamiliar body. His wife, Barbara, discovered him rattling the patio door and knew something was wrong.

A diagnosis confirmed her fears: A stroke had put a full-court press on the Original Sun's ability to communicate.

You would hardly know it today. The three-time NBA All-Star is as affable and self-deprecating as he was pre-stroke. Oh, he forgets words on occasion, but nothing that has hindered his post-stroke life as an accomplished artist.

The Original Sun is still around, painting and supporting the Phoenix Suns. Hopefully, he won’t have to wait as long as Cubs fans to see his team finally get their ring.