We are sad to note that this past weekend, former Suns head coach John MacLeod joined the late Connie Hawkins and Cotton Fitzsimmons as Suns Ring of Honor members who have passed on.
MacLeod won more games as head coach of the Phoenix Suns than any of the other 18 head coaches in franchise history, but could not win this battle against a so-far incurable Alzheimer’s disease.
MacLeod, the head coach from 1973-1987, more than doubles up all those 18 other Suns coaches in seasons (14), games (1,122), wins (579), playoff games (81) and playoff wins (37). They reached the playoffs eight straight seasons in the middle of that run, but missed them in final three.
He was the head coach when I first moved to Phoenix in the summer of 1983 and started following the team on the local cable channels and daily articles in the morning paper. I fell in love with the Suns only pro sports franchise back then and my love has never wavered.
The team I loved was terrible — four straight playoff misses, drug scandals, etc. — but I was there to connect with a team and the players and that’s what local sports coverage was all about back then.
I wasn’t inundated with constant negativity around a team where half the roster was implicated in a drug-running scandal. John MacLeod’s firing was mostly a quiet “letting go” while moving on to the next chapter. The news coverage focused on Jerry Colangelo buying the team and promising to clean it all up. We mostly forget that it was General Manager Colangelo himself who built that deeply flawed team — morally and physically — because back then the papers weren’t all about scandal. The first story that came up on a google search on MacLeod’s firing came from the LA Times, in fact.
But Colangelo righted that ship indeed after buying the team to make sure they wouldn’t get sold to someone who’d relocate them elsewhere. He cleaned out all the bad blood and even the collaterally damaged staff, including the long-tenured and highly successful coach he subjected that awful roster to.
MacLeod went on to coach a couple more years here and there, and was eventually named to the Suns Ring of Honor nearly 30 years later, and well after Colangelo sold the team to Robert Sarver.
MacLeod coached the Suns to eight straight playoff appearances in the late-70s and early-80s, including a pair of Conference Finals and an NBA Finals appearance. It was MacLeod’s team that pushed the vaunted Celtics to six games and almost stole that series if not for a phantom timeout call that should have been a technical.
Remember the recent Suns-Pelicans game where Alvin Gentry called timeout TWICE in overtime when he didn’t have any left, and finally the refs couldn’t play it off anymore and had to penalize the Pelicans by giving the Suns a technical free throw and the ball?
Yeah, that’s exactly what Red Auerbach did in the 1976 Finals, except the refs ignored the timeout request and the Celtics ultimately won the triple-overtime thriller and tilt the series squarely in the Celtics favor. You might even forget about Paul Westphal’s timeout call that DID result in a tech but allowed the Suns to inbound midcourt and feed the “Shot Heard Round the World” to force another overtime. Many still call that one of the greatest games ever played. Read up on your history here.
Watch it below. The video doesn’t show how it went from a one-point Celtics lead to Gar Heard tying it on that crazy jumper, but it was Westphal’s ingenious timeout attempt that gave the Celtics a two-point lead instead of one.
Crazy, crazy game! I get goose bumps watching it now.
Suns players named to the Ring of Honor partially thanks to MacLeod’s coaching acumen include Alvan Adams, Walter Davis, Dick Van Arsdale and Paul Westphal. This goes both ways of course. MacLeod benefitted from being surrounded by a wonderfully talented team of people. Other Ring of Honor members who shared tenure with MacLeod include trainer Joe Proski, general manager Jerry Colangelo and, in his final season, jack-of-all trades Cotton Fitzsimmons. MacLeod even came back for a year as an assistant on Cotton’s staff a few years later.
MacLeod was a bright light in the history of the Suns franchise, and should be given a moment of silence in memoriam. Take a moment right now to thank ... whatever or whoever you want ... for giving us one of the nicest and most loyal members the Suns Ring of Honor will ever have.
Rest in peace, coach.