As I was perusing the pages of azcentral.com the other day I found an article about the latest inductees into the Arizona Sports Hall of Fame. After being a bit puzzled that I'd never heard of the Arizona Sports Hall of Fame before, I actually read the article and realized that in addition to Curt Schilling, Randall McDaniel, Ty Murray, and Kerri Strug heading into the Hall - the fans would have an opportunity to vote for a team to enter with the individuals.
The teams on the list all represented some incredibly special memories for fans of sports in the state: 1975 ASU Football, 1994 Arena Bowl champion Arizona Rattlers, 1996-97 NCAA Champion University of Arizona Men's Basketball, 2008 NFC Champion Arizona Cardinals, 2007 WNBA Champ Phoenix Mercury, and of course the World Series winning 2001 Arizona Diamondbacks.
But although a number of those teams are near and dear to my heart, the team that stood out to me was the 1992-93 Phoenix Suns.
For those of you out there who are either kiddies, late arriving Steve Nash fans, or something else you may not know just how great the Suns silver anniversary squad was. Well guys and dolls sit back and get an education on a basketball team that for my money grabbed the attention of the state unlike almost any other in history.
When the 1988-89 Suns moved from 28 wins the previous season to 55 it was well-acknowledged as one of the better turnarounds in NBA history. Thus there was certainly no shame when they dropped the Western Conference Finals in a sweep to the Lakers. It should probably be acknowledged that those 1989 playoffs are the first NBA basketball I can remember watching in my life - I was hooked immediately.
The next season, Tom Chambers, Kevin Johnson, Jeff Hornacek, and Eddie Johnson were able to conquer the mighty Lakers but fell again in the Western Conference Finals - this time to the Blazers. Still, progress was being made.
The next two seasons the Suns again won well over 50 games but lost in the first round of the playoffs in 1991 and were again KO'd by the Blazers in 1992. The team was fun, the team could score, but the team was far from tough and seemed to be moving further away from title contention.
Following the Suns 1992 Western Conference semifinals elimination by Portland, assistant coach Lionel Hollins famously remarked that the team needed to "go get us a Charles Barkley" in order to take the team to the next level.
Bringing Aboard Barkley:
The first order of business for Suns President Jerry Colangelo was to heed the advice of Hollins and well, go try and find ‘a Charles Barkley' - you know maybe a dude like Charles Oakley or something. But it just so happened that Barkley himself was on the market.
At the time, Barkley was a 28 year old who had just finished his 8th season with the Philadelphia 76ers - and his accomplishment list was pretty meaty. Sir Charles was already a 6-time All-Star and was All-NBA 1st team for the previous 4 years. You know how often those types of guys are available? Spoiler alert - almost never.
Fortunately for Phoenix, the Barkley/Philly relationship had soured after a the team stopped making progress - climaxing in Philly missing the 1992 playoffs. Sensing an opportunity, the Suns dealt fan favorite Jeff Hornacek, 5th year forward and 1988 7th overall pick Tim Perry, and starting center Andrew Lang to the Sixers in exchange for the mercurial forward.
Hornacek was nice and all but that wasn't exactly a stiff price to pay. Just like that the team had one of the 5 best players in the league.
More New Blood:
In case there was any debate on whether or not the Suns were loading up for a title run the team added former Blazers and Celtics guard Danny Ainge. The man who was athletic enough to get some at-bats with the Toronto Blue Jays was no longer at his peak but as a veteran of 11 NBA seasons he'd played in the Finals 5 times (winning twice) and was still deadly from long range.
Ainge was inked to a three-year deal worth $5.2 million to replace some of the departed Hornacek's three point shooting and basically operate as an all-around super pest.
In addition to Ainge, the team was set to add a pair of rookies in Oklahoma State forward Richard Dumas and Arkansas center Oliver Miller.
Dumas was drafted in the second round of the 1991 draft but received an indefinite suspension from the NBA after failing a drug test. Sadly drug test failing would become a recurring theme in the career of the skilled forward.
As for Miller, the Suns snagged him with the 22nd pick of the 1992 NBA Draft to help fill some of the void left by Andrew Lang's departure. The big problem with Miller was just that - he was big, really big.
Though he had a deft passing touch and ran the floor relatively well he packed well over 300 pounds onto his 6'9 frame. Like Dumas with drugs, Miller would be haunted by his weight over the course of his basketball life.
Added as an afterthought was ex-Bullets guard Frank Johnson who had played the previous two seasons in Italy. Johnson was signed in October just before training camp and was not expected to make the roster much less a contribution.
The final new preseason addition was veteran center Tim Kempton -a big red headed bench warmer if there ever was one.
All the new additions were added to a core that was already pretty damn good and had done it's fair share of winning.
The returnees were led by Kevin Johnson, Dan Majerle, and Tom Chambers - effectively the heart of the last 4 teams.
KJ arrived in Phoenix first via the 1988 Larry Nance trade that put Johnson - an expendable rookie due to Cleveland having Mark Price at point guard - right into a starting job. Those 87-88 Suns were put together a brutal record while playing out the string but Johnson finished strong putting up 12/8 numbers in the final 28 games.
The team really took off the next year when Chambers was added as the NBA's first unrestricted free agent and Majerle was selected out of Central Michigan in the first round. The pairing of Chambers and Johnson was one of the most deadly in Suns history as both were consistent 20 point scorers. With the help of Chambers, KJ became a double-double machine and one of the top point guards in the NBA.
Majerle on the other hand spent the years since his drafting expanding his game to add a dangerous jump shot to his abilities as a tough defender with a power penetration game.
The acquisition of Barkley would move Chambers from the starting lineup to a role on the bench where he would prove to be a dangerous bench scorer - although not to the 20 point a game standards he had set forth the previous few years. Interestingly enough the Barkley move actually put Majerle into the starting lineup in place of Hornacek.
Rounding out the somewhat significant returnees were the point a minute man Cedric Ceballos - the reigning NBA Slam Dunk champion - who was coming off a couple seasons in which he didn't play more than 12 minutes a game and center Mark West. Like Majerle, both Ceballos and West were beneficiaries of the Barkley deal as Ceballos would be counted on for more minutes without Perry in the fold and West would return to his starting role with Lang in Philadelphia.
The remainder of the roster featured third-year guard Negele Knight, chronic lazy disappointment Jerrod Mustaf, and big man Kurt Rambis (who would be released in November after appearing in just 5 games). Only Knight would provide any significant contribution during the season.
The roster changes weren't all that was different for the 92-93 Suns, after 24 seasons the team shifted from their western font uniforms (which I still love to this day) to that cartoonishly large flaming basketball we're probably all familiar with.
But the biggest change of all was the arena move. After spending their entire existence in the saddle-shaped Veterans Memorial Coliseum, the team and city constructed America West Arena (now US Airways Center).
New Building, New Uniforms, New Coach? :
Players, arenas and uniforms weren't the only changes for the Suns.
After 4 seasons in his second stint as Suns coach (the first was from 1970-72), 60 year old Suns legend Cotton Fitzsimmons stepped down as head coach of the team. Cotton led the Suns to two Western Conference Finals berths and no less than 53 wins in those 4 years but apparently just felt it was time to turn the job over to his top assistant Paul Westphal.
Westphal was a 5-time All-Star as a player and two-time All-NBA first team when with Phoenix. He wasn't short on playoff success either having played a significant part on the Suns 1976 NBA Finals team and two other Phoenix conference finalists (1979 and 1984).
Westie retired after the 1984 season and after a few years at small colleges wound up on Cotton's bench with the Suns. 4 years later the guy who was groomed for the job all along was in place.
Former Blazers star Lionel Hollins remained on the staff as an assistant coach along with Scotty Robertson - who was the first head coach of the New Orleans Jazz and the coach immediately preceding Chuck Daly in Detroit.
Everything was now in place - suppose it was time to play some games.
Early Roll - Protesting The Spurs
Due to leg injuries suffered by KJ in the preseason, the Suns opened the regular season with a starting lineup of West/Barkley/Ceballos/Majerle/Knight for the first 6 games.
Barkley was exactly as advertised from the outset - throwing up a 37/21 number in the christening game at America West Arena in a 111-105 romp over the Clippers. The team would win 5 of Negele Knight's 6 point guard starts before Kevin Johnson would return from his injuries.
Clearly not full healthy, KJ lasted just 4 games before again ceding the starting job to Knight - this time for a full month. Following a 134-131 loss to Golden State in late November the Suns fell to a relatively disappointing 7-4. Then the team found themselves a rhythm.
The Suns rolled off 14 straight games with Knight and Frank Johnson splitting point guard duties for all but one game of the run. Barkley played at an MVP level for the entirety of the streak while Majerle continued to play at an All-Star level.
In the heart of that streak, Richard Dumas was reinstated to the NBA and was activated for the Suns December 18, 1992 battle with the Lakers. In his long awaited debut all Dumas did was put up 16 points in 17 minutes. Certainly a sign of things to come.
The conclusion of the winning streak came under controversial circumstances in San Antonio. With under a second remaining in regulation of a tied game, the Spurs prepared to inbound the ball and Dan Majerle informed the referees that San Antonio had 6 men on the floor. Contrary to the rules of basketball the referee Joe Forte took the ball out of inbounder Avery Johnson's hands and allowed the 6th man to leave the floor. The correct call would have been a technical foul on the Spurs but it went uncalled an San Antonio would win in overtime. Phoenix protested the result but their cries fell on deaf ears.
Suns Keep Winning; Fans introduced to Shaquille O'Neal
Losing to the Spurs theoretically could have taken the starch out of a lesser team but the Suns would respond by closing the month of January on a 10-3 run to push their record to 31-8. During that run their only losses were road dates with Western Conference contender Seattle and Eastern Conference powers New York and Cleveland.
One of the more satisfying wins during the close of January was a revenge defeat of the Spurs as the Suns handled them easily in a 15 point win on January 29th. In that contest Danny Aingle led all scorers with 26 points on 5/7 three point shooting. Tim Kempton was even able to play in the game - 1 of his 30 appearances on the season.
A relatively memorable moment occurred on February 7th when rookie center Shaquille O'Neal and his awful Orlando teammates visited America West Arena for the first time. During the first quarter of what would wind up as a 121-105 win for the Suns - Shaq literally tore down the entire basketball hoop after completing a dunk. If only the Suns had him then instead of 15 years later.
Phoenix finished the month of February with an overall record of 40-12.
Fighting the Knicks
Throughout their history the Suns had gained a bit of a reputation as a soft team. It was a very well earned reputation - but a reputation the Suns wanted to break free from nonetheless.
A primary indicator of what the Suns were trying to be occurred on March 23rd when the team engaged in a full scale brawl with the rough and tumble New York Knicks.
Towards the end of the first half, things got a little testy between Kevin Johnson and Knicks guard Doc Rivers. After one relatively minor fracas the game resumed but only briefly - the current Mayor of Sacramento and the Celtics head coach got into it again and sparks flew. Let's allow the video to tell the story:
The Suns won the game 121-92 but the aftermath saw Kevin Johnson suspsended for 2 games and 10 different Suns receiving fines of varying values. As for New York, Greg Anthony was suspended for 5 games while Doc Rivers was forced to sit out 2.
Interestingly enough, the Knicks win was the beginning of an 11-game winning streak for Phoenix that would see the Suns move to 59-15.
With the Pacific Division and top seed in the Western Conference clinched, the Suns gave some of their core players games off to rest for the playoffs. Phoenix would finish the season just 3-5 with Charles Barkley playing in only 3 of the 8 games.
Notwithstanding the poor finish - the Suns went on to clinch home court advantage throughout the playoffs when the Knicks finished with only 60 wins to the Suns 62.
Regular Season Accolades:
- 62-20 record (tied with 2004-05 for best in franchise history)
- 27-14 road record (best in the NBA)
- Charles Barkley, NBA MVP
- Dan Majerle - All-Defensive 2nd Team
- All-Stars: Charles Barkley, Dan Majerle, Paul Westphal (coach)
- Top scoring offense in the NBA (113.4)
- Most three pointers made (398)
- Cedric Ceballos - NBA leader in Field Goal percentage (57.6%)
- Dan Majerle - tied for NBA lead in 3 pointers made (167)
Individual Regular Season Stats:
- Charles Barkley - 25.6 PPG, 12.2 RPG, 5.1 AST, 1.6 STL
- Dan Majerle - 16.9 PPG, 4.7 RPG, 3.8 AST, 1.7 STL, 38% from three
- Kevin Johnson - 16.1 PPG, 7.8 AST, 1.7 STL
- Richard Dumas - 15.8 PPG, 4.6 RPG
- Cedric Ceballos - 12.8 PPG, 5.5 RPG, 57.6 FG%
- Tom Chambers - 12.2 PPG, 4.7 RPG
- Danny Ainge - 11.8 PPG, 40.3 3P%
Check back for Part 2 - where the Suns begin their assault on the playoffs.