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Colangelo decided that the players—as many as possible—had to go before he could remold his team. "It became clear that at some point we were going to have to back up the truck," says Colangelo. "It was like a black cloud that wouldn't go away. So we had to eliminate our ties with the past."
The Suns sent one third of their roster packing in just two days last February. Humphries went to the Milwaukee Bucks for guard Craig Hodges and a 1988 second-round pick; Edwards was sent to the Detroit Pistons for center Ron Moore and a second-rounder in 1991; and forwards Larry Nance and Mike Sanders were dealt to the Cleveland Cavaliers for Kevin Johnson, forward Tyrone Corbin and center Mark West. Then in July, Davis signed a contract with the Denver Nuggets as a free agent.
"I think most people in Phoenix thought the Suns had hit rock bottom when they traded Nance for three guys they'd never heard of," says Kevin Johnson, who, as a rookie out of Cal, was playing behind Mark Price in Cleveland. "Cotton and Jerry may have felt they had no choice, but they took an unbelievable risk." Columnist Joe Gilmartin of the Phoenix Gazette addressed Fitzsimmons on behalf of many Phoenix fans when he wrote, "There's a train leaving at midnight. Be under it."
Before last year's draft the Suns spent thousands of dollars on an investigation into players' backgrounds, and they considered six players to be potential troublemakers. Five of those players were taken in the first round by other teams. Phoenix, which had two first-round draft choices, chose forward Tim Perry of Temple with the seventh pick (he has averaged a meager 4.1 points per game) and Olympian Dan Majerle of Central Michigan, a guard, with the 14th (he was sidelined with mononucleosis on Dec. 17, and his playing status is day to day).
But when the Suns decided to go out and spend big money on a free agent for the first time in their history, they seemed oblivious to the troublemaking implications of their act: The player they came up with was Tom Chambers, who in his seven seasons with San Diego and Seattle had gotten the reputation of being a selfish malcontent and was despised in practically every arena he played in, including, at times, the Coliseum in Seattle. "I used to hate watching him play," says Kevin Johnson, and even Colangelo admits that he used to think Chambers was "a little whiny." Nonetheless, Phoenix gave Chambers a five-year, $9 million contract and set about building the team around him.
"I'm sure early in his career he was selfish," says Fitzsimmons. "But he's a hell of a guy now. You only have to talk to him for five minutes to know that he wants to win. Without Tom we'd be a team struggling under .500."
Chambers, who's 6'10", 230 pounds and quick, is averaging more than 25 points a game. He has often played out of position for the Suns—including at center—and has even thrown his body around diving to the floor for loose balls. "If I had been with this team the first five years of my career, maybe all those negative things would never have been said about me," says Chambers. "It was always one isolated incident here, one there, and they followed me around the league. It hurts to have people think I'm a jerk. I wish it would all be forgotten, but it never will be, and I understand that."
Until the recent signing of 34-year-old defensive specialist T.R. Dunn, Chambers and forward Eddie Johnson were, at 29, the two graybeards on a very young team. Before arriving in Phoenix, in June 1987, Eddie Johnson had played on only one winning club during his six seasons with the Kansas City and Sacramento Kings. Like Chambers, he has been rejuvenated by his baby-faced teammates. The NBA may have no deadlier jump shooter off a screen than Eddie, yet despite that and the fact that he's averaging more than 21 points a game coming off the bench, most people have either never heard of him or assume he's the former Atlanta Hawk guard who had a nasty habit of getting arrested.
"I've been pretty quiet about what I do," says Eddie. "If you're not spectacular in this league, you're not noticed. All I do is go out and get my 20 points a night—every night."
Even the addition of Eddie Johnson and Chambers would have counted for little had the Suns not gotten Kevin Johnson from the Cavaliers. That Johnson, who will turn 23 next month, is one of four Suns (the others are Chambers, Eddie Johnson and Armon Gilliam) who have scored 40 or more points in a game this season. He also ranks third in the league in assists and first in butt-kickings. "I made a big play in one game," says Chambers, still slightly mystified, "and he came and up and kicked me in the butt." On other occasions Kevin Johnson congratulates his teammates by delivering emphatic shoulder butts.