As a writer of both frequently fanciful cartoons and physics-challenging comic book adventures, occasionally I get involved in the “what if” stories.
Neal Walk manned the middle for the Suns from 1969-74.
You know, stories where one altered detail from the past completely changes the future. What if Superman’s rocket had landed on Mars instead of Earth? What if Bruce Wayne had been shot by the thief that murdered his parents, and never had the chance to become Batman? Things like that.
I also find such questions fascinating when applied to real life, particularly sports. Case in point:
Around the time of the recent NBA All-Star Game, NBA TV ran a marathon of “classic” All-Star Games from the past. There was Jerry West’s famous three-quarters court shot. There was Magic’s triumphant return to the NBA spotlight after his premature retirement. And so on. Included among the list of games was the 1975 All-Star Game, played at Veterans Memorial Coliseum in Phoenix, the first time the Suns had hosted the midseason classic (They’ve since hosted one more). I’d never seen it before.
The “home” Western Conference All-Stars wore white uniforms, and the “visiting” Easterners wore road purple. That’s right, purple. The uniforms for the game were modeled after the Suns’ own, so there were guys like Rick Barry, John Havlicek, Bob McAdoo and Elvin Hayes running around wearing western-style lettering across their chests, and sunbursts on the sides of their shorts. It was kind of disorienting, to tell you the truth, but it also made you wonder what it might have been like if those guys had actually worn the purple-and-orange on a regular basis.
Nothing, however, was more disorienting, and at the same evoked more of a sense of “what if,” than seeing Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, then in his last season with the Milwaukee Bucks, in an approximation of a Suns uniform during that All-Star Game. For the Suns missed out on the chance to draft the league’s all-time leading scorer by just the width of a single coin.
That was just before Phoenix’s second season in the league. In their first year, they’d piled up a 16-66 record, qualifying them for the “Super-Flip,” the flip of the coin that, in those days prior to the NBA draft lottery, determined which of the league’s two worst teams would have the right to draft first. The Flip had begun in 1966, and over the years yielded such players as Cazzie Russell, the aforementioned Elvin Hayes and Bob Lanier. Portland participated in the Flip an impressive four years in a row, “losing” twice (and drafting Sidney Wicks and soon-traded Jim Brewer) and winning twice, selecting LaRue Martin and someone named Bill Walton.
In any case, the Suns qualified for the Super-Flip in 1969, maybe the super-est (flippy-est?) of all Super-Flips, because Kareem (then Lew Alcindor) was at stake. The other team to qualify was another second-year club, the Bucks. In his account of the Bucks’ first season, then-owner Marv Fishman as much as admits that Milwaukee played their inaugural schedule simply to get through it and hopefully wind up with that coveted first pick. The Suns were given the right to call “heads” or “tails” in the coin flip, and put the choice to a fan vote. The fans overwhelmingly selected “heads.” So, when the Super-Flip was staged via conference call, Commissioner Walter Kennedy asked Jerry Colangelo to call the coin, and Colangelo firmly answered, “Heads.”
And it was tails.
To which then-Suns Coach Johnny Kerr hopefully offered, “Maybe Milwaukee won’t pick Alcindor.”
But of course, the Bucks did, and in Kareem’s second season, Milwaukee acquired the great Oscar Robertson, then went on to win the league title. For the remainder of Abdul-Jabbar’s time there, the Bucks were a perennial contender, reappearing in the Finals in 1974. Then Kareem departed for the more cosmopolitan and less pasture-like pastures of Los Angeles, and…well, some Laker-blogger can tell you what happened after that.
The Suns, meanwhile, determined to take a big man in that 1969 draft, selected Neal Walk, who went on to be a pretty good player for Phoenix, even averaging more than 20 points and 10 rebounds per game one season (and folks, that was not the world’s deepest draft – after Kareem and Neal, the only players in that draft to go on to make an impact were Lucius Allen and JoJo White. The next year, by contrast, Bob Lanier, Dave Cowens, Pete Maravich, Rudy Tomjanovich, Calvin Murphy and Tiny Archibald all joined the league. Timing has never been on the side of the Suns). By virtue of losing out on Kareem, the Suns qualified for a second “Super-Flip” with the next worst team in the league, Seattle, for the rights to negotiate with Connie Hawkins, who was at last being admitted to the NBA after years of exile. The Suns won that coin toss, and the Hawk went on to be the first Sun to have his number retired. But the Suns never won a championship…and they still haven’t.
But, but, but…
It’s the writer in me, but I can’t help but wonder…What if that coin had come up heads, instead of tails? What if we’d seen Jerry Colangelo smiling wide next to all 7-foot-2 of Abdul-Jabbar at his introductory press conference in Phoenix (can you picture the reporters and photographers gawking?)? Where would the Suns have gone from there?
Well, let’s see…First of all, the Suns would never have had the chance to sign Connie Hawkins, and they would not have drafted Walk. But they also would never have felt the need to trade Paul Silas to Boston a few years later for Charlie Scott, so the Suns would have had a front line of Lew Alcindor, Paul Silas and Dick Van Arsdale (who played forward in those days). It’s hard to imagine a better, tougher, stronger set of bigs in the league in 1969. Gail Goodrich might have stuck around to play point guard, or maybe not. But I think the Suns would have won a championship with Alcindor in the pivot and Silas and Van flanking him. They’d have dominated the ball – other teams would have been helpless on the glass – and they’d have been murder in the half-court defense, despite not being the fastest team around. And the Suns would have had at least as much talent aside from their giant big man as Milwaukee did (Robertson, though fading, was still great, of course, but Van and Silas were far better than anyone Milwaukee had after Robertson).
Would Phoenix have won more than one championship in their Alcindor years? They’d have at least as good a shot as Milwaukee did. And what epic wars they’d have had with the Wilt Chamberlain Lakers! Maybe the Suns and the Lakers would have blossomed into the real rivalry I mentioned a few columns back.
But ultimately, I think Kareem would have wanted out of Phoenix, just as he did in Milwaukee. I think he’d still want a big city, with the culture and diversity a big city offered (which Phoenix couldn’t, in the mid-1970s). However, I don’t think Colangelo would have traded him to Los Angeles, but rather to New York – Kareem’s home town and, more importantly, out of the Suns’ division. What would the Suns have gotten back? Impossible to know. But they probably would have wound up in the same position Milwaukee did after trading Abdul-Jabbar – sinking just below mediocrity and waiting to be rebuilt by a new coach…maybe John MacLeod. Lots of the pieces would have been different (without Charlie Scott and Connie Hawkins, Paul Westphal and Keith Erickson never would have played with the Suns), but maybe there would have been a Sunderella team in 1976, just as it happened in real life, or maybe not.
Certainly, New York’s fortunes would have been much different. And I smile when I thin
k of LA not getting Kareem…and probably not Magic and James Worthy after that.
But it didn’t happen that way. The Suns did not get to draft the greatest scorer in the history of the game. They did not get a championship to go with a moody, aloof superstar who would have most likely left them in a lurch as soon as he could.
The Suns got the unique Hawk and his charismatic swoops. They got Neal Walk and his tireless efforts and pronounced year-to-year improvement. They got Paul Westphal and his leadership, cool and charisma. They got Alvan Adams and his poise, passing and grace. They got Sunderella. They got the foundation for everything that has made the franchise what it is today, the team that has inspired my loyalty for so many years.
I, for one, wouldn’t wish for history to have happened any differently.