Utter the words “coin flip” around NBA fans in the state of Arizona, and you may as well risk blindness washing your mouth out with soap.
The next NBA season marks the 50th anniversary of the Phoenix Suns, and they’ll celebrate their half-centennial with the still-lingering question of how things might be different had the organization’s brass called heads in 1969.
If only Jerry Colangelo had put a call out to my dad, who lives by the motto tails never fails, the Suns would have landed UCLA star Lew Alcindor in the NBA draft and the can’t-miss mega-prospect would likely have delivered a championship.
Instead, Phoenix is the NBA’s oldest franchise to never win a championship.
Phoenix has a contentious relationship with titles. Between the city’s four, major professional organizations — the Suns, Cardinals, Diamondbacks and Coyotes — and Arizona State’s revenue sports men’s basketball and football, the Valley of the Sun has just one championship.
The Phoenix Suns’ lack of a Larry O’Brien Trophy is an especially sore subject among longtime Valley residents. The rest of the city’s professional teams are relatively new arrivals: the Cardinals moved to Tempe from St. Louis in 1988; the Winnipeg Jets became the Coyotes in 1996; and the Diamondbacks debuted in 1998. All came as a result of the area’s population boom of the 1980s.
The Suns are products of a different Phoenix, when the desert city was still small by the standards of a professional sports league. The Suns predate Loop 101 drawing residents away from the heart of the Valley and into master-planned communities.
Old Phoenix’s legacy is the legacy of the Phoenix Suns, and vice versa. Fittingly, a metropolis that owes its explosion to a transplants hosts an NBA franchise that owes much of its history to transient players.
Connie Hawkins began his professional career in the ABA. Kevin Johnson was acquired from the Cavs; Tom Chambers from the Supersonics; Charles Barkley from the 76ers. Steve Nash was a Suns draftee in 1996, and became the organization’s second all-time MVP after Barkley — but his star rose previously after he was a piece in a trade to acquire Jason Kidd from the Dallas Mavericks.
Even Dick Van Arsdale, a Phoenix legend known affectionately as “The Original Sun,” began his career with the New York Knicks.
Phoenix’s long history of relying on free agents and trades is a byproduct of the franchise’s inauspicious NBA draft history, which dates back to that coin flip in 1969.
Plenty of Suns greats were drafted into the organization: Dan Majerle in 1988, Shawn Marion in 1999, Amare Stoudemire in 2002. Devin Booker appears headed on his way to greatness.
However, Phoenix has never drafted that one transcendent player who becomes the star all championship-winning franchises have.
Such players have instead vexed the Phoenix Suns. Michael Jordan bested Phoenix in the organization’s second and last Finals appearance 25 years ago. Tim Duncan went on to win two of his NBA championships at the expense of two of the best Suns teams in franchise history.
And Lew Alcindor — re-named Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and after leading the coin flip-winning Milwaukee Bucks to a championship — bounced the Suns from five Playoffs between 1980 and 1989.
Phoenix’s longstanding draft malaise added a new chapter last month when its lottery ball came up No. 4, despite having the second-best odds of drafting first. Meanwhile, the Boston Celtics, coming off a great year in which former Suns draftee Isaiah Thomas became a breakout star, gained the No. 1 pick. Phoenix divisional rival Lakers received the second pick.
The Suns’ odds of landing the No. 1 pick in this draft were 20 percent. Of course, they were significantly higher at 50 percent for the 1969 coin flip.