John MacLeod taught me how to play basketball. Literally.
When I first really became a fan of the Phoenix Suns, in 1975-76 as the Sunderellas were making their unlikely first run at the NBA Finals, I looked at Coach MacLeod as though he was General Patton or Winston Churchill, a tactical genius and inspirational leader of my heroes. I could root for Paul Westphal, Dick Van Arsdale or Alvan Adams to make the shots, but Coach MacLeod was the chess master moving the pieces, and the players were executing his vision. As this was my first real exposure to pro basketball, and Coach MacLeod was the first coach I’d ever paid any attention to, he seemed like he must be a more-than-human figure, the way he directed his scrappy underdog players past the best teams of the time.
In truth, he was a gamble of a hire by then-GM Jerry Colangelo, a relatively unknown college coach (from Oklahoma) after years of instability in that spot for the Suns. By 1975, he was in his third season, and he’d racked up an unimpressive career record to that point of being 40 games below .500, but I didn’t know that. He was the guy who led My Guys…which put him at an even higher level in my mind, almost mythic. The Big Guy, maybe.
Those first two years proved to be complete exceptions in what would be Coach MacLeod’s long tenure with the Suns. In those seasons, he and Colangelo carefully weeded out the players that didn’t match up with the vision and system the two men had in mind. It was a rebuilding process, careful and painstaking, and it bore fruit in 1975-76 with just the right mix of veteran role players and hungry young talent.
Coach MacLeod would go on to find players to fit his system for thirteen-plus seasons (a figure that seems unthinkable now, in an era when it seems fan and organizational patience runs out after a three-game losing streak), and lead the Suns to their first period of sustained excellence. The Suns became known for their blinding fast break, and their precision passing. Under his leadership between 1977 and 1983, the Suns never had fewer that 46 wins, and won more than 50 games four times, in a period when only six teams cracked the 60-win mark. The Suns made the playoffs nine times on his watch, reaching the Finals once, and the Conference Finals three times. All in all, Coach MacLeod racked up a record of 579-543 at the front of the Suns bench, and his overall win total of 707 games keeps him among the winningest coaches in league history.
So Coach MacLeod was a Phoenix fixture during my childhood and most of my teen years. Players came and went (except Alvan Adams and a couple others), but he was the Phoenix Suns. The kids I grew up with figured someday we’d play for the Suns, so naturally, we’d get to be coached by Coach MacLeod.
Well, I wound up growing to the less-than-desirable height of 5’ 9”, and found myself ultimately lacking in what scouts like to describe as “any discernible basketball skills,” but I was coached by John MacLeod.
Coach held his annual summer camp for kids in the old Phoenix Jewish Community Center, then on 17th Avenue and Maryland. My mother worked for the PJCC at the time, so I practically lived there in the summer. When the Suns would come in for casual off-season shootarounds, or workouts, or rookie camps, I could often be found there, hopefully sneaking onto the court to rebound for the pros. And for a couple summers, I was a camper at Coach MacLeod’s summer school.
I remember him very much as a teacher. Very matter-of-fact in his instruction of the fundamentals, a guy who didn’t talk down to kids. He seemed very happy to be there, whereas I imagine there are a lot of NBA pros throughout history, coaches and players alike, who probably felt they had better places to be during their months off. Coach MacLeod was always extremely encouraging – He’d work with you individually on a skill until you felt comfortable with it. That was a big thing for him – Were we, as students, having fun and clearly learning from this experience? And he stressed the concept of “team” at every opportunity – Knowing where your teammates were on the court, knowing your teammates’ responsibilities at any given time in case they needed help, knowing how to communicate.
One lesson from Coach MacLeod sticks with me to this day. We were doing a simple rebounding drill, a pretty common one, in which we’d start on one side of the lane, throw the ball off the backboard, then leap to the other side of the lane to catch it. Suns power forward Curtis Perry was a guest on this particular day, and both he and Coach MacLeod happened to be at my basket when it was my turn to go through the drill. Coach bent over at the waist, hands on his knees, ready to watch me for any small tip he could deliver on the nuances of playing down low. Perry stood next to him, prepared to offer input.
Coach blew his whistle, and I promptly threw the basketball over the backboard, where it got stuck in the basket’s rigging.
The other campers laughed. Curtis struggled to contain his giggles. I felt miserable. But Coach just nodded, walked over to me, put his hand on my shoulder and walked me to the top of the key. “Okay, you’re what we call a point guard,” he said. Then I laughed, and he laughed, and so did everyone else.
I think of that every time I play pick-up basketball, and I find myself somehow down among the big bodies when the shot goes up and we’re all trying to tip it one way or the other. “Get out of here,” I think to myself. “Coach said you were a point guard!” And I smile.
Oh, the picture that accompanies this column? Your humble author is in the very back row, third from the right. Good times. Thanks, Coach.