Phoenix Suns Flashback: The magical summer of 1988

Phoenix Suns, Jerry Colangelo (Photo by Marc Lecureuil/Getty Images for Nike)
Phoenix Suns, Jerry Colangelo (Photo by Marc Lecureuil/Getty Images for Nike) /

In the summer of 1988, the Phoenix Suns brought in a few players who would become legendary with the franchise and this writer was there to witness it.

In 1976, I was a Phoenix Suns ballboy for a couple of years. From there, (1979) I went on to work at the Suns’ executive offices for the next 18 years. I’ve seen the great, the amazing, the bad, and sad. Most of all, anything historic that happened in that time frame, I saw it first hand.

So if you bare with me, I’d like to share some of my memories every so often on Valley of the Suns, and this is one of my favorites.

In the summer of 1988, the Phoenix Suns had just come off a horrible season in which they had a record of 28-54. This qualified them for the 7th pick in the NBA Draft with which they took Tim Perry from Temple University.

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The Phoenix Suns brought in two future legends in the summer of 1988.

But it was the second first-round pick, the 14th pick overall, that would become one of the Phoenix Suns cornerstones going forward. With the 14th pick in the NBA draft, the Phoenix Suns selected Dan Majerle from Central Michigan, and the boos started!

They got so loud that the gravel-throated Cotton Fitzsimmons grabbed the microphone and told the Phoenix faithful who had gathered at the Phoenix Civic Plaza, “I cannot help how you feel, but I can tell you this…we couldn’t be happier and I think all you people will be very sorry that you ever booed this young man.”

Standing next to the stage, it gave me chills. I can’t explain it…Cotton was listed at 5’7″, but if he topped 5’5″ I would be shocked. When this man spoke, even softly, you believed what he was saying was the Gospel.

Unbeknownst to the rest of the NBA, Jerry Colangelo was building a Pacific Division power. At that point, the Suns had Kevin Johnson (20 points, 12 assists per game), Jeff Hornacek at the off guard, Mark West at center, small forward sharpshooter Eddie Johnson (22 points per game), and 2nd-year player, Armen Gilliam, at the power forward position.

But Jerry Colangelo wasn’t done building this team; his best move was yet to come.

Because of their just-completed collective bargaining agreement, the NBA just started “unrestricted” free agency for their players, and the Phoenix Suns would be the first team to strike!

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The buzz around the executive office was huge. We knew about the 12:00 a.m. call that Jerry Colangelo was going to make to try land the best player in free agency.

I don’t know if the rest of the owners were clueless, but at 12:01, Tom Chambers‘ agent had the first of what would be the only meeting that the 1987 NBA All-Star game MVP would be taking.

Think about that for a minute. In a game that featured, Bird, Magic, Kareem, Michael, Charles, Isiah, Nique, Dr. J, and Moses, the Phoenix Suns would sign the best player from that game.

The next morning, Colangelo and Cotton were at Tom Chambers’ agent’s house. In those days, Jerry had a very good relationship with most agents, but two in particular: Leigh Steinberg (Jerry McGuire) and Howard Slusher.

For this meeting, Jerry and Cotton brought a secret weapon with them, the Phoenix Suns’ new assistant coach, Paul Westphal. Why was he a secret weapon? Howard Slusher represented Westphal when Paul was a player and is a lifelong friend.

The Suns had an edge that other NBA teams did not.

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In a hard-nosed deal making move, after Jerry and his team presented why Tom Chambers should come to Phoenix, Jerry made the Suns’ offer and told them they had 15 minutes to give them an answer and then the Suns were out.

A short time later Tom Chambers and Slusher returned. Thy were in. So on July 5, 1988, Tom Chambers signed a 5 year, $9 million contract with the Phoenix Suns.

That contract at the time tied him with Larry Bird and Hakeem Olajuwon for the sixth richest contract in the NBA. For context, that’s $177,011 less than Cameron Payne will make next season.

A few days later, Tom Chambers arrived at Sky Harbor Airport where I met him and drove him in Jerry Colangelo’s car back to the Suns’ offices. We talked about the area of town that the other players lived, nightlife, and how excited he was to be with the Suns.

The Phoenix Suns led the league in scoring with 118.6 points a game that year and set an NBA record for the biggest turnaround, as they flipped their record to 54 wins and 28 losses.

Chambers averaged 25.7 points, 8.4 rebounds, and would be an All-Star for three straight years.  That point total put him 9th in the league in scoring just behind future Phoenix Suns player Charles Barkley.

They would lose in the Western Conference finals that year to the great Magic and Kareem Lakers team.

But it was money well spent.

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