The man behind Suns rise
When John MacLeod became the Phoenix Suns’ coach in 1973, the team had just finished its fifth season and he had no NBA experience. MacLeod had spent the previous six years leading Oklahoma to a 90-69 record and two NIT appearances – a very good run at a school that has always been known primarily for its football program. MacLeod’s success caught the eye of Phoenix general manager Jerry Colangelo, who had gone through five different coaches – including two interim stints himself – in the team’s brief NBA existence.
The Suns showed little improvement in MacLeod’s first two years, but everything came together in 1975-76. The 1976 Suns were led by guard Paul Westphal (20.5 ppg) and center Alvan Adams (19.0 ppg), who won Rookie of the Year honors and was the first rookie to play in the All-Star Game since Sidney Wicks in 1972.
The Suns started the season 14-9 but went through a 4-18 stretch that put their playoff chances in serious jeopardy. Phoenix then traded forward John Shumate to Buffalo for forward Garfield Heard. Shumate had been a productive player but things just clicked for the Suns after Heard joined the team; they went 24-13 the rest of the way, finishing with a 42-40 record and beating out the Lakers for the last playoff spot by just two games.
Phoenix advanced to the Western Conference Finals, where they faced the defending champion Golden State Warriors, owners of the league’s best record, 59-23. Rick Barry, the 1975 Finals MVP, scored 38 points in Game 1 as the Warriors destroyed the Suns 128-103 but Phoenix grabbed home-court advantage with a 108-101 Game 2 victory despite Barry’s 44 points. After that, the teams traded wins, with Golden State enjoying home-court advantage for Game 7 – but Barry inexplicably scored just six points in the last 34 minutes of the game and Phoenix won 94-86 to advance to the Finals for the first time in franchise history.
In the Finals, the upstart Suns faced the heavily favored Boston Celtics, the 1974 champions. Powered by Dave Cowens’ triple double (25 points, 21 rebounds, 10 assists), Boston captured game one 98-87. The Celtics led by as many as 28 in game two before settling for a 105-90 win. When the series shifted to Phoenix, the Suns won two close games, setting the stage for what would later be called “The Greatest Game Ever Played.”
Thanks to ESPN Classic and NBA TV, just about every basketball fan has seen game five of the 1976 NBA Finals and heard Brent Musburger’s enthusiastic descriptions of the triple overtime contest that contained so many dramatic moments.
“I remember walking out on to the floor of the Boston Garden at 9 pm on a Friday night,” says MacLeod. “There was no air conditioning, it was hot and there was already a lot of Boston spirit in there because instead of going home (from work) people went right to the taverns and had a couple beers and then came to watch the game.”
Phoenix trailed 32-12 in the first quarter and 42-20 in the second quarter but the Suns battled back to get within 94-89 with 56 seconds left in regulation. Ex-Celtic Westphal scored five straight points in the next 17 seconds and each team added one more free throw to send the game into overtime knotted at 95-95. The first overtime ended in a 101-101 tie and then the teams battled through a tightly contested second overtime until Phoenix forward Curtis Perry hit a jumper with five seconds left to put the Suns up 110-109. John Havlicek, despite being hobbled by a plantar fascia injury, countered with a runner to give Boston a 111-110 lead. Initially the clock ran out after Havlicek’s shot but the referees determined that there should still be one second left.
The Suns were out of timeouts but Westphal cagily reminded MacLeod that if the Suns called a timeout anyway that Boston would shoot one technical free throw but Phoenix would then be permitted to advance the ball to the frontcourt for the inbounds pass (that rule was later changed as a result of this game). After Jo Jo White made the free throw the Suns inbounded the ball to Heard, whose jumper beat the clock and sent the game into a third overtime. Fatigue and foul trouble had taken their toll on both teams’ starters by this point and little used reserve Glenn McDonald proved to be the Celtics’ hero, scoring six points in a little over a minute late in the third overtime to give the Celtics just enough of a cushion to escape with a 128-126 victory.
“It was a fantastic game with great shots, great defense. Just a game that people who attended will never forget and a game that people who watched on TV will always remember where they were when everything took place,” MacLeod says.
Game 6, played less than 36 hours after game five ended, proved to be an anti-climactic matchup of two mentally and physically drained teams. Boston prevailed 87-80, which at that time tied for the second fewest points scored in a Finals game since the introduction of the 24-second shot clock.
“We weren’t expected to be there; we came out of a situation where we had a lot of players injured early in the year but all of a sudden we perked up,” MacLeod says of that magical season. “It was a great run – something I’ll never forget.”
Injuries caused the Suns to drop to 34-48 and miss the 1977 playoffs but the team bounced back to post a 49-33 record in 1977-78. Westphal averaged 25.2 ppg and he received a lot of help from 1978 Rookie of the Year Walter Davis (24.2 ppg); both players made the All-NBA 2nd Team as the Suns emerged as one of the highest scoring teams in the NBA (112.3 ppg, fifth out of 22 teams). The Milwaukee Bucks defeated them 2-0 in the first round of the playoffs.
“Walter Davis was a special, special player,” MacLeod says. “He was one of the most unbelievable pressure players that I’ve ever been around. He loved to practice and he loved to play. When we had a late game situation it was going to be either Walter or Paul, but for the most part it was going to be Walter because he was uncanny. Pressure did not bother him. He never got rattled. He made a ton of game-winning shots for us. He had great speed. He could go from the top of the key at one end of the floor to the top of the key at the other end of the floor full bore and then pull up and the end result would be a soft, feathery jump shot. He was a great shooter.”
The Suns ranked second in the league in scoring (115.4 ppg) and went 50-32 in 1978-79 as Westphal (24.0 ppg) made the All-NBA 1st Team and Davis (23.6 ppg) made the All-NBA 2nd Team. Phoenix beat Portland 2-1 in the first round and then smashed the Kansas City Kings 4-1 to reach the Western Conference Finals, where they faced Seattle, the defending conference champions. The Suns lost the first two games in Seattle but rallied to take the next three contests. Seattle escaped with a 106-105 game six victory in Phoenix and then rode outstanding performances by Jack Sikma (33 points, 11 rebounds), Gus Williams (29 points) and Dennis Johnson (28 points) to a 114-110 game seven win.
Phoenix improved to 55-27 in 1979-80 but dropped to third in the Pacific Division standings behind Seattle and the resurgent Lakers, who paired rookie Magic Johnson with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Phoenix beat Kansas City 2-1 in the first round but lost 4-1 to the Lakers in the Western Conference semifinals. That series was actually a little closer than the final margin suggests, as the first two games in L.A. each went to overtime before the Lakers prevailed. After that, a close road win gave L.A. a 3-0 lead.
Prior to the 1980-81 season, the Suns traded Westphal to Seattle for defensive stopper (and 1979 Finals MVP) Dennis Johnson. The Suns still scored a lot (110.0 ppg) but the addition of Johnson helped them improve to third in points allowed (104.5 ppg). Phoenix set a franchise record for wins for the fourth straight season, going 57-25 to win the Pacific Division with the best record in the Western Conference. Magic Johnson missed more than half the season with a knee injury and his Lakers were bounced out in the first round but the Suns failed to take advantage of this, falling behind 3-1 in the conference semifinals against the 40-42 Kansas City Kings. The Suns forced a game seven in Phoenix but the Kings prevailed 95-88 behind 23 points each from Ernie Grunfeld and Reggie King.
Magic Johnson returned to health in 1981-82 and Walter Davis missed 27 games due to injuries, so the Suns fell back to third in the Pacific (46-36). They beat Denver 2-1 in the first round before being swept 4-0 by the Lakers. In 1982-83 the Suns went 53-29 but Denver knocked them off 2-1 in the first round. The Suns dropped to 41-41 in 1983-84 but defeated Portland and Utah to advance to the Western Conference Finals. There they faced the powerful Lakers, who promptly took a 2-0 lead before eliminating the Suns in six games.
Injuries decimated the Suns in the next couple seasons and Davis spent a couple stints in drug rehabilitation programs. MacLeod was fired during the 1986-87 season when the Suns were 22-34. Next season he became Dallas’ head coach, leading the Mavericks to 53 wins in 1987-88. Dallas beat Houston 3-1 in the first round, a series capped off in game four when Mavericks forward Mark Aguirre scored 27 points in one quarter.
“Mark Aguirre was undersized for a ‘four’ but we played him at the ‘three’ a lot,” MacLeod explains. “He had the softest shot of anybody I’ve ever seen and that was how he got it off over taller defenders. He’d get the ball on the rim and instead of bouncing out it would kind of roll around like it was massaging the rim and then it would go in. Mark was a tremendous offensive player. He had a complete offensive game. He was a passer. He was a power player inside who could play against bigger people and he also had the ability to drive the ball to the basket.”
The Mavericks defeated Denver 4-2 to advance to the Western Conference Finals for the first time in franchise history, where they faced MacLeod’s old nemesis from his Phoenix days: the L.A. Lakers. Dallas battled very gamely against the defending champion Lakers but the home team won every game in the series, with the Lakers wrapping up matters with a 117-102 game seven victory. Dallas started 9-3 in 1988-89 but injuries and Roy Tarpley’s indefinite suspension from the NBA for drug use sent the team reeling. Dallas traded Aguirre to Detroit for Adrian Dantley midway through the season; Aguirre helped the Pistons to win their first championship, while Dantley initially refused to report to Dallas. Not surprisingly, Dallas’ record plummeted and MacLeod was fired early in the 1989-90 season.
MacLeod had a brief run as the New York Knicks’ coach, leading the team to the 1991 playoffs, before being replaced by Pat Riley. He coached at Notre Dame from 1991-99, winning Big East Coach of the Year honors for the 1996-97 season. Since then, he has been an assistant coach in Phoenix, Denver and most recently in Golden State, where he served under Mike Montgomery before Don Nelson took over as head coach.
David Friedman’s work has appeared in Hoop, Basketball Digest, Sports Collectors Digest and Tar Heel Monthly. He wrote the chapter on the NBA in the 1970s for the anthology Basketball in America: From the Playgrounds to Jordan's Game and Beyond (Haworth Press, 2005). Check out his basketball blog at 20secondtimeout.blogspot.com
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