Tails never fails.
The Phoenix Suns and the majority of their newspaper-polled fan base must have been unfamiliar with that adage in 1969. Tasked on Mar. 19 of that year with calling heads or tails for the coin flip that would determine which franchise — the Suns or Milwaukee Bucks — would get the No. 1 overall draft pick and earn the right to select UCLA Bruins standout Lew Alcindor, the Suns infamously told then-commissioner J. Walter Kennedy they were going with heads, the choice of fans in a newspaper poll.
The Kennedy half dollar was flipped. It came up tails.
The Suns would pick second, a difference of only one slot but one that came with a Grand Canyon-sized gulf in talent.
On Mar. 20, 1969, the day after Black Wednesday as it was being called, The Arizona Republic sports editor Verne Boatner wrote a column describing the aftermath thusly:
The Phoenix Suns have been struggling since last March to become accepted in the community.
Yesterday, on the blackest day of the infant franchise’s history, all indications were that they had succeeded.
Every where you turned, people took the coin toss hard — and personal. It was amazing how quickly the news spread that Milwaukee had beaten Phoenix in tht (sic) celebrated flip for the fabulous Lew Alcindor.
Within moments of the flip, I pulled into the neighborhood service station. The owner looked like the bottom had fallen out of gas prices.
“Ain’t it a shame?” he sighed. “And we needed him so bad.”
Another stop brought a similar response.
“Too, too bad,” cooed a lady. “But they can still trade somebody for him, can’t they?”
A downtown office looked like War, Death and Famine had just ridden through and Pestilence wasn’t far behind. But they were largely sports buffs, so that was not exactly unexpected.
The Suns and their fans had reason to be crestfallen. Alcindor (who changed his name to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in 1971) delivered spectacularly for Milwaukee, teaming with Oscar Robertson instead of Connie Hawkins to bring a title to the Bucks in just his second NBA season and using his unstoppable skyhook to become the league’s all-time leading scorer. The Suns selected center Neal Walk second, and while Walk had his moments, he was playing in the shadow of a player who averaged 28.8 points and 14.5 rebounds as a rookie. He was always going to be the booby prize, as Walk called himself.
Flash forward 49 years, and the Suns finally have their shot at redemption. Phoenix is poised to select first overall on Thursday for the first time in franchise history after winning last month’s lottery. Now all they have to do is nail it.
The choice isn’t as clear cut as it was in past drafts with Abdul-Jabbar, Magic Johnson, Patrick Ewing, Shaquille O’Neal, Tim Duncan, and LeBron James to name a few no-brainers, but the Suns are widely believed to be choosing Arizona Wildcats center Deandre Ayton when they go on the clock. In doing so, Phoenix will attempt to exorcise nearly a half century’s worth of demons and acquire its first real franchise center.
The Suns have had good centers in the past, but elite, franchise-altering pivots have eluded the team since that errant heads call invoked the Curse of the Coin. Abdul-Jabbar was the progenitor of said curse. It struck again 18 years later.
Jerry Colangelo’s good luck charms (his wife and son) helped Phoenix move up from seventh to second in the 1987 Draft Lottery, but they proved no match for a San Antonio superfan’s red chameleon bolo tie when it came to securing the No. 1 overall pick. That went to the San Antonio Spurs, and with it, Navy center David Robinson. According to the May 18, 1987 issue of The Arizona Republic, the Suns tried to spin the No. 2 pick as best they could, emphasizing Robinson’s Navy commitment that would keep him out of the NBA for another two seasons, and talked up the likes of Dennis Hopson, Reggie Williams, Derrick McKey, Horace Grant, and Armen Gilliam, whom they eventually took (no mention of Scottie Pippen). But the Suns weren’t fooling anyone; Robinson was the crown jewel.
The Suns tried to circumvent the Curse by trading for a Hall of Fame center — O’Neal — for a season and a half, spanning the 2007-08 and 2008-09 seasons but acquired him about five years too late. In his prime, Shaq’s gravity was so immense, it’s a wonder he never christened himself Shaqittarius A*. However, even though he made the 2009 All-Star Game in Phoenix, O’Neal averaged a mortal 16.5 points and 9.0 rebounds with the Suns, his once black hole-ish warping of NBA defenses now withered away, ostensibly via Hawking radiation.
Amar’e Stoudemire manned the middle in Phoenix for close to a decade and averaged 21.4 points and 8.9 rebounds during that span. But he was a power forward playing out of position, which requires stretching the definition of center to include STAT on this list. Him being more preoccupied with his sylphlike waistline than grabbing rebounds doesn’t help matters, either.
In fact, Ring of Honor member and longtime Suns center Alvan Adams best exemplifies Phoenix’s history with the position: good, but not great.
Ayton has the potential to change that. The 7’1 Bahamian center averaged 20.1 points and 11.6 rebounds, shot 61.2 percent from the field, and won Pac-12 Player of the Year as a freshman with Arizona. His combination of strength, quickness, agility, and hops blended with a mature offensive skill set around the basket has drawn comparisons to The Admiral, even if his defense at U of A was closer to Cap’n Crunch.
Still, there are legitimate questions surrounding Ayton, despite being Phoenix’s presumptive choice. Can he thrive the same way he did in college when he’s no longer the strongest player on the court every night? Will he develop an outside shot to match other modern NBA bigs? Having the tools to do so, does he possess the heart to be a paint protector?
Those questions remain to be answered, but it is a rare player indeed who enters the league without any question marks, and Ayton has many more periods — and exclamation points — in his file than his draft classmates. There will be better defenders (Mohamed Bamba, Jaren Jackson Jr.) and shooters (Jackson Jr.) available at the center position on Thursday but no one quite as likely to break the Curse of the Coin for Phoenix than Ayton.
Now if he could just land a movie role or two.