Monday, November 28, 2011

These Are The Moments... The Phoenix Suns

I imagine the first thought that crossed my mind upon waking up this morning is similar to that of many NBAers. Actually, that’s probably not true. I did not bound out of bed singing “thank God the Bentley’s not getting repo’d.” I am confident, however, that my first thought mirrored the second one of many pro ballers: only four weeks until opening day? Damn, gotta get to work!

I started a series highlighting the five (sometimes more) greatest highlights in each franchise’s history out of a stubborn refusal to write about the lockout and- fearing we’d not have an NBA season to enjoy- a desire to keep front and center that which drew us all to the Association in the first place. I now encounter the greatest of all possible obstacles, however, out of respect to the most fun project I’ve ever undertaken, this show will go on. The timetable will be less than certain as the upcoming season will take priority, but that’s just fine. These types of memories have a serious shelf life.

Alright, let’s get back to work, this time with the Phoenix Suns.

The first thing that comes to mind when thinking about the Suns is fun, exciting ball. Walter Davis, Paul Westphal, Dennis Johnson. The talented lead guard quartet of Kevin Johnson, first alongside Tom Chambers, then Charles Barkley, followed by Jason Kidd, Stephon Marbury and two-time MVP Steve Nash in Mike D’Antoni’s “Seven Seconds or Less” offense, it’s impossible to think of an era in which the Suns were not both loaded with talent and a fun watch.

As you read on, you’ll notice one notable name missing from the list above and the highlights below.

Brooklyn-born, Rucker-trained and the first face of the Suns franchise, Connie Hawkins is deserving of a far more prominent place among the greats of his era. After starring in basketball’s urban cathedral, he accepted a scholarship to the University of Iowa. With great size, athleticism and a skill set rarely seen in a man his size, he was surely destined for the pinnacle of pro hoops.

Sadly, however, during his freshman year, he was wrongly implicated in a point-shaving scandal that was traced back to New York. “Hawk” maintained his innocence and never admitted to any wrongdoing, but was expelled from Iowa, unable to secure another scholarship (where’s Jerry Tarkanian when you need him?) and blacklisted from professional basketball.

Rather than parlaying his inevitable college dominance into NBA stardom, Hawkins, though dominant at the various stops on his journey, became something of a basketball vagabond. Following the scandal, he spent one season with the ABL’s Pittsburgh Rens, with whom he averaged 27.5 points and 13.5 rebounds, and won league MVP. Following the ABL’s demise, he spent three years with the Harlem Globetrotters, during which he filed a lawsuit against the NBA for unfairly banning him, before joining a new pro basketball startup- the ABA.

A member of the Pittsburgh Pipers in the ABA’s inaugural season (1967-68), Hawk had one of the best seasons in league history, averaging a league-best 26.8 points, with 13.5 rebounds and 4.6 assists, earning an All-Star selection, league MVP and- after averaging 30-13 in the playoffs- leading the Pipers to the ABA title and capturing the playoff MVP in the process. After the season, the Pipers moved to Minnesota, where Hawkins averaged a fantastic 30 and 11 in an injury-plagued 1968-69 season, after which his suit with the NBA was settled and, at age 27, his rights were assigned to the NBA’s latest expansion team, the Phoenix Suns.

Though he’s synonymous with franchise, Hawkins spent just four seasons with the Suns- one great (24.6, 10.4 and 4.8 assists in 1969-70), two near great and one solid. He was named an All-Star four times, All-NBA First Team once and was a part of the first playoff team in franchise history.

Had the league itself not robbed him of his best years, the Hawk would occupy a far more prominent place in NBA history. Unfortunately, we are thus left with patchy recollections and a collection of highlights devoid of context. What these clips, limited though, do not lack is a window into a graceful dominance- one reminiscent of today's elite big men- that made Connie Hawkins one of the sport’s great icons that never truly was.

Tom Chambers Baptizes Boston

Not surprising to see Chambers’ work featured here, though you were probably expecting to his destruction of a young Mark Jackson (or maybe this gem against the Bulls in 1993). As incredible as that was (loved the way he somehow keeps rising after hitting Jackson’s chest), this even more of a grown man move. You se the four guys trying at various to stop him? Those are three Hall of Famers and a future All-Star, none shorter than 6-foot-7.

The way he blows by Larry Bird (admittedly not a great defender, but seldom humiliated like this) and then Kevin McHale is obscene for a man Chambers’ size. Then, seemingly cut off by Robert Parish and the extremely athletic (late) Reggie Lewis, he gets off the floor as quickly as player ever has, for a thundering, almost dunk contest worthy two-handed reverse.

Kevin Johnson takes it at Hakeem Olajuwon

This was a shockwave.

If you were an NBA fan at the time you were watching. And you were BLOWN THE FUCK AWAY.

That’s Kevin Johnson. DESTROYING Hakeem Olajuwon.

Gar Heard's game-tyer in Game 5 of the 1976 Finals

You might remember that in the dying seconds of double overtime in Game 5 of the 1976 Finals, John Havlicek escalated one of the craziest sequences in NBA history with arguably the greatest shot of his 16-year career. Thanks to the “Celtics’ ghosts” (i.e. the Boston Garden timekeeper)- he’d seemingly given the C’s a 111-110 victory and pulled them to within one win of a record 13th championship.

You might also remember that, with the home crowd celebrating on parquet and the Celtics already in their locker room, the horn was deemed to have sounded early. It was determined that the floor would have to be cleared to allow for the completion of the game’s final second.

A mere formality, right? Not so fast, my friend!

Just when it seemed the scene could get no weirder…

First, Paul Westphal made perhaps the most heads-up “play” in history, calling a timeout that his team did not have. This resulted in a technical foul and a free throw for the Celtics, who now led 112-110, but also allowed the Suns to advance the ball to midcourt.

Then, in a desperate attempt to extend the game, Curtis Perry found Gar Heard a couple of steps behind the free throw line and Heard, a man that had never made more than 65.6% of his attempts from the line with no one guarding him, received the pass with Dave Cowens practically in his shirt, elevated and released a shot that barely cleared Cowens outstretched hand and, well…

Amar’e destroys Michael Olowokandi

Say what you will about Michael Olowokandi as a player- and, yes, there is plenty to say, little of it good- but he is a large man. At a legit 7’-270 and fairly athletic for a man of his size, one would think he's fairly difficult to dunk on, particularly when he squares up to a would be dunker and times his jump. Yep, one would think...

This, and nine figures, are why I will never know what it feels like to be Amar'e Stoudemire.

Rex Chapman's running three-pointer in Game 4 of the 1997 first round.

Though the Suns ultimately lost the game in overtime and the series in five games, this is a truly outstanding play, all around.

Obviously- and deservedly- the most vividly memorable element is Chapman’s catch and incredibly tough running 25-footer off of one leg to tie Game 4 of this 1997 playoff first-rounder. However, every bit a difficult and impressive is Jason Kidd’s 40-foot cross-court inbound pass that hits Chapman perfectly in stride.

I had planned to feature vide of the play here, but was unable to do so as the only clean version has been blocked against embedding. Thanks “ErniePaulGeorge” on YouTube. Very MLB of you, dude.

Eh, what the hell. If you’ve not seen it, I strongly encourage you to click here and watch this beauty of a play.

And, there's another one in the books. As always, I want to hear from you. Let me know what you think of my choices, and chime in with your own. I love your feedback.

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