Evolving to survive
Dan Majerle had an excellent collegiate career at Central Michigan, averaging at least 21.1 ppg in each of his last three seasons. The Phoenix Suns selected him with the 14th overall pick in the 1988 NBA draft but before he joined the professional ranks he was the leading scorer (14.1 ppg) and third leading rebounder (4.8 rpg) for the U.S. Olympic team in Seoul, Korea. Other than a close victory over Canada (76-70), Team USA breezed through their first six games, winning by at least 15 points. Team USA faced a powerful Soviet Union team for the opportunity to advance to the gold medal game. The Soviets, led by sharpshooting guards Rimas Kurtinaitis (28 points) and Sarunas Marciulonis (19 points) and the inside game of mammoth center Arvydas Sabonis (13 points), prevailed over Team USA, 82-76, and went on to win the gold medal by avenging an earlier loss to Yugoslavia. The Americans crushed Australia 78-49 to claim bronze.
That 1988 team is of course the last American national team that was comprised primarily of collegiate players. Many people felt that the best U.S. amateur players could no longer defeat the top teams from other countries; for years, those nations sent their best professionals to compete in FIBA events and those professional players were older and more physically mature than U.S. collegians. However, Majerle disagrees that age or playing experience were factors that prevented his 1988 team from going all the way. “I think that we had a bad game,” Majerle says. “They had a great team, honestly. If you go back and look at those records, that Russian team had lost a game. We just happened to lose one game at the wrong time against the Russians. Hersey Hawkins went down with an injury, so one of our shooters was gone. David Robinson did not have a very good game in that game but I honestly believe that if we played them 10 times we’d probably beat them eight or nine times. It was just one of those things where we lost the game and the rest is history but I’m very proud of that team; I thought that we played really well and that for the most part we were very successful.”
Majerle joined a Suns team that was coming off of a 28-54 season but was in the process of a complete roster makeover; Phoenix signed Tom Chambers in the offseason, while Eddie Johnson was entering his second year with the team and Kevin Johnson was beginning just his second NBA season after arriving in Phoenix via trade in the middle of his rookie year. Those three players plus Armon Gilliam and Jeff Hornacek each averaged at least 13.5 ppg as the Suns led the NBA in scoring (118.6 ppg) and won 55 games, finishing just two wins behind the L.A. Lakers for the Pacific Division title and the best record in the Western Conference. On a team loaded with scoring stars, Majerle carved out a role as a defensive player, though he did lead all Suns’ reserves in scoring that year (8.6 ppg). The Suns made it all the way to the Western Conference Finals before being blitzed 4-0 by the Lakers, who swept their way through the West only to be swept by Detroit in the Finals after injuries took out starting guards Magic Johnson and Byron Scott.
Phoenix won at least 53 games in each of the next three seasons but could not quite get over the hump to make it to the Finals. The Portland Trailblazers eliminated the Suns en route to Finals appearances in 1990 and 1992 and the Utah Jazz beat the Suns in the first round in 1991. Majerle’s role on the team gradually increased. In 1990-91, he averaged 13.6 ppg and made the All-Defensive Second Team. Up until that point, he had not really developed his outside game, making just 76 three pointers in his first three seasons. That began to change in 1991-92 when Majerle became the third scoring option on the team behind Hornacek and Kevin Johnson, averaging a career high 17.3 ppg while shooting 87-228 (.382) from three point range.
Majerle’s evolution from “Thunder Dan” to three point bomber became complete in 1992-93 after the Suns traded Hornacek, Tim Perry and Andrew Lang to Philadelphia for Charles Barkley. “I had a lot of injuries; I ended up having three back surgeries and a couple ankle surgeries,” Majerle says. “So the longer you play you are not going to be able to keep doing the things that you did as a younger player. When we got Charles Barkley in 1992 my game transformed to being more of an outside player. I worked a lot on it, practiced and became a three point shooter and a guy who can deliver the ball and do other different things. To stay in this league a long time you have to be able to evolve your game and do different things.”
Barkley’s rebounding and inside scoring provided the ingredients that the Suns had been missing and they won the Pacific Division title even though Kevin Johnson missed 33 games due to injuries. Barkley ranked fifth in the league in scoring (25.6 ppg) and sixth in the league in rebounding (12.2 rpg), winning his first and only MVP. Majerle finished second on the team in scoring (16.9 ppg) and made 167 three pointers, tying with Reggie Miller for the league lead. Majerle made the All-Star team for the second time and also was selected to the All-Defensive Second Team. The Suns fell behind 0-2 in a first round best of five series versus the Lakers but won three straight games to advance, taking the last contest 112-104 in overtime. They beat the San Antonio Spurs in six games and survived a seven game series against Seattle to reach the NBA Finals for the first time since Paul Westphal helped lead the Suns there in 1976.
Ask Majerle to describe the happiest and most disappointing memories from his career and he replies instantly: “That’s easy: it’s the same year, 1992-93, when we got Barkley. That’s the year we opened America West Arena and we went to the Finals. We won 62 games that year, had the best record in the league and got all the way to the Finals. We lost our first two games at home but then went to Chicago and won two out of three there. We came back to Phoenix for game six, it came down to the wire and we had a chance to win but John Paxson hits a three with a couple seconds left to beat us and that’s the end of the series. I guess the answer to your question is that whole year was probably the most fun, going to the Finals and experiencing all that, and then having it end so quickly when we were right there. I believe that if it had gone to a game seven in Phoenix that we might have a championship ring but obviously it didn’t work out that way and that’s the most disappointing thing.”
Most NBA fans either remember Paxson’s late three pointer or have seen it replayed countless times. The iconic image of that play is the shot of Majerle standing on the right baseline raising his hands in horror as Paxson stands on the left wing and launches the fateful attempt. “We were up two and the last thing that we said coming out of the huddle was ‘no three pointers,’” Majerle recalls. “If it goes to overtime, we’re at home in Phoenix and we’ll just beat them in overtime. Horace Grant had not had a very good game and he didn’t really want to shoot the ball. I remember (Danny) Ainge doubling down off of Paxson and, as soon as I saw him pass the ball out to Paxson standing wide open I had this sickening feeling in my stomach that it was going to go in.”
Michael Jordan set an all-time Finals record by averaging 41.0 ppg in that series. Not surprisingly, Majerle does not have to think long when asked who was the toughest matchup for him. “Jordan,” Majerle says instantly. “Jordan. I mean, any question you ask me, it’s going to be Jordan. That’s why he was so great: he played both ends of the floor. When he was determined not to let you score, or not let you touch the ball, there was not a whole lot you can do about it.”
Is there anyone in today’s game who plays with that kind of tenacity at both ends of the court? “I think Kobe,” Majerle answers. “I think that Kobe does a good job of trying to play defense and that he understands that he needs to be a good defensive player and he realizes that for him to be a great player and be as great as Michael was that he has to play on both ends of the floor. When I watch him play I think that he definitely tries to do that.”
Fans will debate until the end of time whether or not Bryant is as good as Jordan was. “I think that he’s close to being as good as Jordan was,” Majerle says. “It’s hard to compare the two. I played against both of them. I played against Kobe when I was a little bit older. There is no denying what Kobe can do. It’s hard to compare. They’re both great. That’s hard. I don’t know. Kobe’s just like Jordan. He’s pretty much got the all-around game: he’s got great range, he can post up, he creates shots for himself obviously, he can finish, he’s got the mid-range jumper. He plays defense, rebounds, passes. Maybe he doesn’t have the same players around him that Jordan did, but Kobe can do it all.”
In 1994, Majerle again suited up for Team USA, this time with a group of NBA players. That squad, led by Shaquille O’Neal (18.0 ppg) and Reggie Miller (17.1 ppg), went 8-0 to claim the gold medal in the FIBA World Championship. Majerle averaged 8.8 ppg and finished fourth on the team in three pointers made.
The Suns had excellent seasons in 1994 and 1995 and in both years they took 2-0 leads over the Houston Rockets before eventually losing in seven games; the Rockets went on to win the championship both times. Majerle set the NBA single season record for three pointers made (since broken) with 192 in 1993-94 and he made the All-Star team for the third and final time in his career in 1994-95 but after that season the Suns traded him to Cleveland. Majerle spent one season there before signing with Miami. He played for the Heat for five seasons and, although his scoring numbers were not as high as they had been in Phoenix, he started every game that he played in during the 1999 and 2000 seasons. Miami had some very good teams during that era but lost in the playoffs to the Jordan-Pippen-Rodman Bulls in 1997 and the New York Knicks from 1998-2000. Majerle had a curtain call season back in Phoenix before retiring in 2002. He is currently a broadcaster for the Suns, who placed his number nine in the team’s Ring of Honor in 2003.
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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