Luck – The Phoenix Suns Don’t Have It


As we all watch the NBA Finals approach, every Phoenix Suns fan has that feeling in the pit of their stomach.  Especially if you were watching in 1976 or 1993.

You remember what a thrill it was to watch your team compete for an NBA Championship…but lose.  Even though the Suns didn’t win it all, and never have, the city went bonkers.  You couldn’t sleep at night.  You couldn’t work.  Family matters became trivial.  The lawn went unmowed.

But now, it’s just loneliness.  You want to watch.  You love the NBA and the Playoffs.  But it’s just not the same without your team competing.

I’m clearly stating the obvious.  But what got us here?  Why are the Suns the 4th winningest team in the NBA, but have no championships to show for it?  The top four are Chicago, San Antonio, Los Angeles and Boston.  Those four teams have a combined 44 championships.  Why does Phoenix have none?

I could bore you with a lot of facts and figures– sports writers love to throw numbers at you.

But I’m going to touch on the intangibles.  The facts we all see on and off the court as fans, but don’t show up in a box score or anyone’s NBA metrics.

I want to talk about luck.

Good teams make their own luck.  No Excuses

Before you say it – let’s make one thing clear.  I’m not using luck as an excuse.  Good teams make their own luck.

The Lakers won by blowing everyone else out of the building. It never came down to a missed free throw here, a bad call there.  They blew people out on their way to sixteen championships.  No excuses.

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When you are a team like the Suns, it’s easy to get caught up in self pity, wallow, and despair about what might have been.

Okay – so the disclaimer is out of the way.  But – let’s look at the facts.  A trip back in time, down what may be described as the ‘Suns Black Hole’.

In 1968, the Suns finished their inaugural season with a 16-66 record, the worst in the NBA.  Bad enough to get them into a coin flip against the worst team in the Eastern Conference, the Milwaukee Bucks.

It was sort of the NBA’s first lottery system (Hasn’t improved much, has it?). The prize was the presumptive first draft pick, a center from UCLA, Lew Alcindor. (Later to become known as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, arguably one of the greatest to ever play the game.)

The Suns got to call heads or tails, and they let fans decide.  The fans said, “Heads.”  As every real Suns fan knows, the bad luck result was “Tails.”  Two years later, the Milwaukee Bucks had a NBA Championship banner hanging from their rafters.  The Suns did not.

“The Hawk” had reached and passed his prime.

In 1969, the Suns got another coin flip.  This time against Seattle.  They won that one, and got Connie Hawkins.  Not a bad consultation prize, but “The Hawk” was 30 years old.

After years of competing on the playgrounds of New York, playing for the Harlem Globetrotters, and in the ABA, “The Hawk” had reached and passed his prime.

He was good enough to get the Suns into the playoffs a year later, and almost upset a Los Angeles Lakers team loaded with Hall of Fame stars like Wilt Chamberlain and Jerry West.  But there would be no championship for Phoenix.

The next two years, Hawkins teamed up with Paul Silas, as the Cotton Fitzsimmons-led Suns streaked to 48-34 and 49-33 regular season records.  But as bad luck would have it, they ended up in the loaded Midwest Division, and didn’t make the playoffs.  Feel familiar?  After that they traded Silas for Charlie Scott, the whole thing went south.

It wasn’t until the team traded Hawkins for Keith Erickson, sent Scott to Boston for Paul Westphal, and drafted Alvan Adams, that things turned around again.  The Suns made an amazing run to the 1976 finals, which virtually ended in a game 5 triple-overtime loss, as little used Celtics sub Glenn McDonald scored six in the third overtime.

Bad luck, again?  Maybe, but you could certainly argue that Gar Heard’s prayer that sent the game into triple overtime was certainly good luck too.

Never mind that Alvan Adams, Curtis Perry and Gar Heard were all injured and would miss significant time the following year – a string of bad luck injuries that would haunt the franchise for years to come.  It did lead to some good luck – a high draft pick and the acquisition of Walter Davis.

The injuries piled up year after year, and so did the early playoff exits.  But many called the Suns perennial contenders; they just couldn’t get over the hump.

Oh yeah, the bad luck/good luck that led to Walter Davis coming to the Suns?  I’m not going to get into the details here, but after a bad fall (or was that bad luck?) on the Los Angeles Lakers basketball court which wasn’t properly cleaned for the season’s first pre-season game, Davis became addicted to pain-killers.

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Davis just about brought the franchise down with him when he fingered other alleged drug-using players on the team to the Maricopa County Attorney.  The franchise became nearly worthless enough for Jerry Colangelo to buy the team.

Let’s fast forward to 1993.  An already good Phoenix Suns team (After blowing two big leads in games 1 and 2 to the Portland Trailblazers in a 2nd round playoff exit) trade Jeff Hornacek and change to Philadelphia for Charles Barkley.  The town goes mad.

They love Charles, and he almost single handily gets Phoenix into the NBA Finals against the mighty Chicago Bulls.

The Suns, with the best record in the NBA and home court advantage, blow the first two games in Phoenix, but then win two of three in Chicago including a triple overtime thriller  (Sweet for you 1976 fans.).

So what happens next?  The series returns to Phoenix for game six, and John Paxson buries a three to win the game and series.  Paxson…not Jordan.  Oh come on! Bad Luck!  The Bulls get to hang their third banner.  The Suns have none.

Sure, Phoenix goes on to win a lot of games with Barkley (sometimes playing hurt) the next two years…but get eliminated by a hot shooting Houston Rockets in two straight seven game second round match-ups.   A year later, and Barkley is traded to Houston, and we all know how that worked out.

The Suns floundered again for a few years, before the mid 2000’s.  They turned things around by drafting young talent like Shawn Marion and Amar’e Stoudemire and signing free agent Steve Nash.

If you want the details on all the bad luck this team faced over the next five-six years, then I’ll have to write a book about it.  Let’s just say broken faces, gashed noses, swollen eye sockets, hip check related suspensions and a Kobe air-ball created some of the team’s most disappointing finishes ever.

Despite one of the most talented Suns teams of all time, this group couldn’t catch a break if it was handed to them.  Injuries, bad calls, suspensions – you name it.  This is “breaking a mirror while a black cat crosses in front of the ladder you are walking under” kind of bad luck.  On a Friday the 13th.

It was a six year lesson in bad luck no young Suns fan will ever forget.

May 5, 2010; Phoenix, AZ, USA; Phoenix Suns guard (13) Steve Nash and forward (1) Amare Stoudemire in the second half against the San Antonio Spurs in game two in the western conference semifinals of the 2010 NBA playoffs at the US Airways Center. The team is wearing "Los Suns" jerseys on Cinco de Mayo in response to an anti-immigration law recently passed in Arizona. The Suns defeated the Spurs 110-102. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-US PRESSWIRE
May 5, 2010; Phoenix, AZ, USA; Phoenix Suns guard (13) Steve Nash and forward (1) Amare Stoudemire in the second half against the San Antonio Spurs in game two in the western conference semifinals of the 2010 NBA playoffs at the US Airways Center. The Suns defeated the Spurs 110-102. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-US PRESSWIRE /

And now, well, it’s been six bad years and counting.  I for one don’t see any relief in sight.  A 1976-like combination of trades, good draft picks and some good luck is long overdue.  So is this current dry spell for a team that is known nationally for its winning ways.

This franchise has stepped on enough cracks.  Seen too many horror shows.

To win a championship in any sport, you have to be very, very good.  And you have to be lucky. (Like last year’s Golden State Warriors.  No injuries, no suspensions, no three-overtimes.)

The Suns have been good from time to time, and will be again.  But lucky?  No.

Forty-eight years and only two whiffs of a championship?  Not good enough.

We just want a banner – especially for those of us who remember the coin flip and everything that came after.