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Bruce Newman
February 27, 1989
Reduced to ashes by a drug scandal, Phoenix has regrouped and...
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February 27, 1989

...risen Again

Reduced to ashes by a drug scandal, Phoenix has regrouped and...

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The phoenix suns, who have turned up in more police photos than highlight films in recent years, were back in the crime news a few weeks ago. They had landed at the Phoenix airport after a road game, and four of their number decided to take a shortcut between terminals to get to their cars. The players hurdled a fence into a restricted area, where they fell—almost literally—into the arms of the law. It wasn't the kind of thing that would get them on America's Most Wanted, but all of a sudden people saw criminal overtones in the offense.

Three nights later, after Phoenix had hammered the L.A. Lakers 114-97, Sun coach Cotton Fitzsimmons wrote the flight number for the team's next road trip on the locker room chalkboard. In large letters he added, "Don't jump over any fences." But for the Suns this hasn't been a season for respecting normal boundaries—or teams as powerful as the Lakers. Phoenix had a 32-17 record, No. 2 in the NBA's Western Conference at the end of last week, and the look of a club ready to jump over the moon.

What makes the Suns' play fairly astonishing is that at the start of the season the players barely knew one another. In a breathtakingly short span, Phoenix, which finished 34 games out of first place in the Pacific Division last season, has reinvented itself; the only player left from its roster of two seasons ago is guard Jeff Hornacek. "We thought if this team could play .500 and make the playoffs, it would be a tremendous comeback from adversity," says Sun president Jerry Colangelo.

Early in the season they were over .500, at 10-9, but Fitzsimmons thought they were a little too smug about that modest accomplishment. "He told us we were satisfied, and we were," says point guard Kevin Johnson. "Then he told us we could have been 15-4, which we couldn't even imagine at that time. He made us realize it doesn't take two years to be good, that we can win right now. He made us see a little further than we were willing to look."

Last week the Suns beat the Seattle SuperSonics, Boston Celtics and Sacramento Kings to give them four more wins than they had all of last season and 17 more than they had at this point in 1987-88.

"They've done a remarkable job of rebuilding," says Laker coach Pat Riley, for whom the Phoenix resurrection is especially troublesome. L.A., 1-2 against the Suns this season, with only a 1½-game lead over Phoenix at week's end, can no longer take the division championship for granted. "I gave a little quiz the other day and asked our guys what the records of the other Pacific Division teams were," said Riley after the Lakers' loss to Phoenix on Feb. 1. "Only one guy knew. I told them, 'You guys better take a look.' They know now."

But few teams had ever fallen as far as the Suns, who were a model of consistency from the 1975-76 season through '84-85. During those 10 years they made the playoffs nine times and over one six-year stretch averaged 52 wins a season. John MacLeod coached Phoenix from 1973-74 until midway through the '86-87 season, and many of the players who came to the Valley of the Sun simply never left. Retired Suns were always welcomed back and made to feel as if they were part of a family. "I had a Utopian concept of what I wanted to do with this franchise," says Colangelo, "and stability was a big part of that."

Phoenix's only flaw was that its consistency sometimes became boring. "If anything, we were considered too vanilla because there was never any controversy," says Colangelo. "But then all that ended."

That end came near the conclusion of the 1986-87 season, when center James Edwards, guard Jay Humphries and guard Grant Gondrezick, as well as former Suns Garfield Heard and Mike Bratz, were indicted by a Maricopa County grand jury on charges of possessing or trafficking in cocaine or marijuana. Walter Davis, the Phoenix guard who had entered a drug rehabilitation clinic once before, in 1985, agreed to testify against his present and former teammates to avoid prosecution. As the accusations grew seamier, Sun fans began derisively referring to the team as Phoenix House and the scandal itself as Waltergate.

That all the charges were either dropped or reduced did not begin to undo the damage. How had things ever gotten so out of control? "For a number of years we didn't have the personal contact with our players that we needed," says Colangelo. "I think the fans were hurt by the drug charges, and they were ready to point fingers. It hurt to find out that a lot of those fingers were pointed at me."

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