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Sam Lacey was relaxing in the Phoenix moonlight, trying very hard to look like an ingenue. It had been hours since the Phoenix Suns had dealt the Kansas City Kings a crushing 102-80 defeat in the opening game of their Western Conference semifinal series of the NBA playoffs, and now Lacey was sitting disconsolately in the hotel Jacuzzi while a woman he had never seen tried to guess his age. Lacey is the Kings' starting center, and though he's only 33, he has the look of such an ancient warrior that K.C. Guard Phil Ford claims Lacey once performed in the old Negro leagues. Steam rose from Lacey's aching knees as the woman studied his face. "Twenty-three," she said. Someone suggested she take a closer look. "You mean he's not 23?" she asked. Lacey rose from the swirling water and called for silence. "If this lady believes I'm 23," he said, "then it must be so. You must never question a true believer."
Lacey knows whereof he speaks, for he and his teammates were themselves the truest of true believers. That night the Kings had lost not only a game but also their leading scorer and only healthy starting guard—Ford having been injured in February—when Otis Birdsong crumpled to the floor of Veteran's Memorial Coliseum with a sprained right ankle. Birdsong, a 24.6-per-game scorer, would be lost for the duration of the series. Yet the Kings' faith in themselves wasn't shaken. Last week this bedrock confidence helped K.C. spin three remarkable victories—Game 2 in Phoenix and Games 3 and 4 at home on the weekend—and build a commanding 3-1 lead in their best-of-seven series.
The Kings were on the verge of more than a mere upset. It was almost as if what was unfolding was some kind of vindication of the work ethic, an endangered species in the NBA. With or without Birdsong, the Kings didn't seem to belong on the same floor with Phoenix. The Suns had cruised into the playoffs by winning 57 games and the Pacific Division title. The Kings, who had a 40-42 record, had to beat Dallas, the worst team in the league, on the final day of the regular season to edge Golden State for a playoff spot. "We've had a lot of problems," said K.C. Coach Cotton Fitzsimmons, "but we hung tough."
To his credit, Fitzsimmons got good mileage out of those problems, turning each new setback into a challenge. "After the first game in Phoenix, I had to reach back and draw on all my coaching experience to convince the players they could win," he says. 'Now they believe."
Phoenix appeared to be in control following the opener, though there were portents of what was to come even in that lopsided game. Until the Suns finally got their running game untracked by scoring 10 unanswered points to take a 71-56 lead in the third quarter, Kansas City had set the kind of slow, plodding tempo the Kings must play to survive. Once Phoenix started to fast-break, the middle of the floor opened up, and the Suns went serenely about their business offensively, running their precision patterns with delicacy and finesse.
Phoenix Coach John MacLeod, who has a deep bench and uses it, was euphoric over the Suns' play in Game 1, and he seemed unconcerned about any possible psychological reversals following Birdsong's injury. "This club is as mentally well prepared as any I've had since 1976," MacLeod said, referring to the Suns team that went to the NBA finals, losing a classic series to Boston. "I don't see any chance of a letdown."
At the Kings' hotel that night, forwards Reggie King and Leon Douglas went over the K.C. loss in their room until 5 a.m. "We were so upset we couldn't sleep," King says. "We just talked about the game. It was embarrassing to get beat that way. We didn't want that to happen again. Ever."
Fitzsimmons decided to move Forward Scott Wedman to Birdsong's position, where he would join Ernie Grunfeld in one of the most peculiar backcourts in memory. Wedman is 6'7", 233 pounds and not a particularly adept ball handler. Grunfeld had become the Kings' 6'6", 222-pound point guard when Ford had surgery after he was accidentally poked in the eye during a collision with Golden State's Lloyd Free. Wedman was having his worst shooting year (.477) since the 1976-77 season, and Grunfeld admitted that he was "probably the slowest guy on the team."
It is instructive—if not entirely fair—to note that the Kings were 8-3 in the regular season when Birdsong was out with various injuries, and that Fitzsimmons considers him one of his most expendable starters. After Ford, Fitzsimmons most prizes Lacey and then King. "That's not a knock at Otis," says Fitzsimmons, "but we struggled when he was on a scoring tear early in the season, and some of our best games came while he was injured. Somebody else can pick up the slack in scoring. But we have nobody who can do for us what Ford and Lacey do."
In Game 2 in Phoenix, the Kings clawed, grabbed, kicked and somehow hung on until the start of the third quarter, when Phoenix opened a 10-point lead by again cranking up its running game. But something went slightly askew for the Suns this time. The Kings, who would shoot only 22% in the period, slowed the game down again, and at the start of the fourth quarter they found themselves down by just two points. Wedman, who played all but 38 seconds of the game, took over for K.C. offensively, scoring 24 points and grabbing nine rebounds. King sealed Kansas City's 88-83 victory with a baseline turnaround that fell through just as the 24-second clock expired in the game's final minute. Grunfeld, too, came through: 19 points, five rebounds, eight assists and five steals. "Maybe they didn't know the character of this team," said Lacey. "We've got the slowest backcourt in the league, and the way we play we're probably killing CBS's ratings. But we don't quit."