There is a marvelous scene in the Oscar-winning film One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest in which Jack Nicholson and a giant Indian he calls Chief lead the patients at an insane asylum to victory over their attendants in a basketball game. With the exception of Golden State and Portland—the former serene in victory, the latter resigned in last place—the NBA's Pacific Division is kind of manic itself nowadays, and Nicholson is a frequent spectator of the frenzied action from his courtside seat at Los Angeles Laker home games.
Last week, as the season drew to a close, the Lakers, the Phoenix Suns and the Seattle SuperSonics were in a tight, dog-eat-dog scramble for the two remaining playoff slots. One night Laker Guard Gail Goodrich paused by Nicholson's seat before the game.
"We really need Chief now," he said.
"Nah," said Nicholson, "he can only get this high off the floor." He didn't point very high.
In Portland on another night last week, Phoenix Guard Paul Westphal sat in the stands watching his teammates warm up and compared the two coaches he's played for in the pros—John MacLeod of the Suns and Tom Heinsohn of the Boston Celtics.
"MacLeod would have made a fantastic preacher," he said. "He sees a crippled guy and he comes in and uses it in his pregame talk. He says, 'He didn't have one of these,' and he slaps his arm, 'but he was still smiling.' I counted 72 bleeps in Heinsohn's halftime talk in a Christmas Day game. Seventy-two! I was sitting in back keeping count."
MacLeod's sermons must have some effect, because Phoenix, which has struggled into the playoffs only once since it joined the league in 1968, was the nearly unanimous pick to finish last in the division this season. Instead, at the end of last weekend, the Suns were in third place, just behind Seattle but ahead of the Lakers, a team blessed with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and four other men who have played on championship teams.
The Suns are much better on hardwood than on paper. In two important road wins last week, 100-97 over L.A. and 113-97 over New York, and in all their other recent games, the Suns started two rookies, Center Alvan Adams and Guard Ricky Sobers, two forwards who have bounced around the league a bit, Curtis Perry and Garfield Heard, and Westphal, who was a substitute for three seasons with Boston.
The Phoenix surge dates from Heard's arrival from Buffalo just after the All-Star break. Suns General Manager Jerry Colangelo gave up John Shumate, the team's first-round draft choice in 1974, to get Heard, and Phoenix fans were not happy about it. But in his first game in a Phoenix uniform, Heard scored 17 points and grabbed 13 rebounds and the Suns beat Golden State.
"All of a sudden he went from villain to hero," says Colangelo.