After seven months of turmoil and tragedy, the Suns stood in front of their bench in Veterans Memorial Coliseum in Phoenix on Nov. 10, their heads down, sharing in a moment of silence. Center James Edwards wiped his eyes. Guard Walter Davis swayed gently from side to side, as if keeping time with his own private hymn. New coach John Wetzel bit his lower lip to fight off tears.
Each player wore a small black patch on the front of his jersey with the number 30 on it. That was the number worn by Nick Vanos. The Suns have dedicated this season to Vanos, their 24-year-old backup center who was one of 154 persons killed in the crash on Aug. 16 of a Northwest Airlines jetliner soon after it took off from Detroit's Metropolitan Airport. "I've thought about Nick before every game," said veteran Alvan Adams last week. "He was my roommate and friend. He was young and just gelling started."
It seemed fitting that the Suns would start their home season with a moment of silence. They're trying, after months of pain and public censure, to begin a new life. And there are indications that things could brighten in the Valley of the Sun. Phoenix beat Golden State 123-109 on opening night and beat San Antonio 124-113 Saturday night for a 2-4 record. In a few weeks, when some key Suns players, notably rookie forward Armon Gilliam, the second player chosen in last June's NBA draft, and 6'10" veteran Larry Nance, come off the injured list, the Suns should improve. "We have to look ahead," says Wetzel.
That's not easy. Since April 17, the Suns organization has been bogged down in an unhappy present. On that day, a shopping cart piled high with indictments was wheeled into a packed, televised news conference at Phoenix police headquarters. Among the 10 men indicted were three Suns, Edwards and guards Jay Humphries and Grant Gondrezick, as well as team photographer Joseph Beninato and former players Garfield Heard and Mike Bratz. All faced felony drug charges. Six other former or current Suns were linked to the case but not indicted. It was the biggest drug scandal ever to hit a pro sports franchise.
The press quickly dubbed the case Waltergate, after Davis, a six-time All-Star and possibly the best player to perform for Phoenix in its 20-year history. His testimony, under a grant of immunity from prosecution, had contributed to many of the indictments. Among other things, he identified present and former teammates with whom he said he had used drugs. Davis, 33, perhaps Phoenix's most popular and respected athlete, claims he was forced by prosecutors to turn against his friends. "I had no choice. I had to answer their questions," he told SI's Armen Keteyian last week. "The last thing I wanted to do was get my teammates and friends indicted. If I'd known I was going to do that, I'd have probably gone to jail instead."
Yet even as Maricopa County deputy attorney James Keppel was declaring that "the wave [of indictments] is not going to stop," legal observers sensed that there was more flash than substance in his charges. Not only did some of the indictments deal with drug use that was alleged to have occurred nearly a decade ago, but much of the information was based on Davis's testimony alone. Eventually, in court, it would be Davis's word against that of the defendant. And how credible was Davis? On the day of the press conference he was checking into a drug and alcohol rehabilitation center for the second time in 16 months. He had relapsed into an old habit of using cocaine.
So began the Suns' spring and summer of confusion and bitterness. Over the ensuing weeks, Waltergate fell apart, the franchise was sold, Wetzel was hired and four Phoenix players from last season—including two who were involved with the drug charges—were released or traded. Vanos died, and so did former Suns guard Johnny High, another key prosecution witness. High drove his Mazda straight into a light pole one night in June, leaving no skid marks or other evidence of having tried to save himself. "The whole summer was in turmoil," says Edwards. "You couldn't sleep at night, wondering what was going to happen next."
The events occurred as if in a chain reaction. A local gambling probe eventually led to the Suns investigation with its allegations of drug use—and possible point-shaving—by NBA players (SI, April 27). Davis was subpoenaed in March and appeared before the grand jury that same month. His secret testimony, obtained by SI last spring, was sensational: He told of first using cocaine during the 1978-79 season with Heard. Asked if anyone else had been present on that occasion, Davis answered, "Pretty much the whole team." He also told of his twice-weekly cocaine buys through 1985 and of using the drug with High, Humphries, Bratz, Gondrezick, Edwards and other players. When Davis finished testifying, the grand jurors actually applauded him. One juror even tried to get his autograph.
William Bedford, then a Suns rookie center, was subpoenaed and testified that he started using cocaine when he was a sophomore at Memphis State. Bedford, now with Detroit, said he had used cocaine with Gondrezick and had smoked marijuana with Edwards. Other testimony seemed to confirm a pattern of casual drug use among some Suns and by other NBA players.
With the NBA season winding down and newspapers playing up rumors of an incipient drug scandal, Maricopa County prosecutor Tom Collins and Phoenix police chief Ruben Ortega hurried to wrap up the indictments. In retrospect, they might have been too hasty; they didn't seem to have enough firm evidence to support felony charges. "We were led to believe it was World War III," says Suns president and chief executive officer Jerry Colangelo, still furious over the fanfare with which the indictments were announced on the day before the season's final game.