Some Suns fans had their reservations about the direction of the team going back to the start of the previous campaign, when General Manager Jerry Colangelo swapped power forward, and onetime franchise savior, Truck Robinson to the Knickerbockers for power forward Maurice Lucas. What’s this? Phoenix fans asked each other. We’ve won fifty games three times in the last three years, and Truck’s been a part of that! Why are we trading him for an older power forward, who doesn’t have Truck’s scoring or rebounding ability anymore, and has balky knees to boot?
Because while “power forward” was Truck’s position, “power” wasn’t the central part of his game. And since acquiring Truck, the Suns hadn’t gone any further than they’d gone before acquiring him. A shakeup was necessary, not so much in terms of skill set, but attitude.
And the late Maurice Lucas was all about attitude. A physical presence respected, if not feared, by everyone in the league (he once intimidated Daryl Dawkins, who intimidated everyone else, including a few backboards), he’d been a major cog in Portland’s 1977 championship, and brought leadership and a sense of never-back-down-ness to every squad he’d been with since. The physical tools may not have been as sharp in 1982, when the Suns acquired him, but his presence in the locker room would be keenly felt, was the logic, and that’s another place where the soft, finesse-oriented Suns needed him. With Luke, and with a mid-season trade for Center James Edwards, the Suns won another fifty games (fifty one, actually)…and still fell in the playoffs, largely because they still couldn’t match up inside with other teams over an entire series.
So Colangelo went back to work, and some felt he was about the work of dismantling a fine ballclub. During the summer of 1983, he traded All-Star Dennis Johnson, one of the best defensive and rebounding point guards in the league, and a legitimate scoring threat, to Boston for reserve forward-center Rick Robey. Screams could be heard from Apache Junction to Cave Creek.
Robey had been much touted coming out of Kentucky, but hadn’t turned out to be the franchise big man he’d been projected to be. Playing behind Robert Parish in Boston, he’d been a solid rookie, averaging ten points and seven rebounds, but as Kevin McHale’s star rose, Robey’s diminished…as did his playing time. Injuries had cut short his last season as a Celtic, but Colangelo still felt Robey had untapped potential in areas the Suns sorely needed. Besides, as they say, “You can’t teach size,” and Robey, at 6-11 and 230 pounds, had a lot of it (nowadays, of course, he’d be a small forward). He was huge, and a huge gamble, both on the court, and, in terms of the goodwill of the ticketholders, off. But the deal was made with one eye to the west, on the Lakers. Showtime was in full effect, and in those years, the Lakers always had a quality backup big man to spell Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, whether it was Spencer Haywood, Bob McAdoo or Mychal Thompson. With Robey, Lucas, Edwards and returning veterans Alvan Adams and the blossoming Larry Nance, the Suns, Colangelo and MacLeod hoped, now had a wall up front to match any team’s, including the Lakers.
Besides, the Suns still had Walter Davis, who remained one of the elite scorers in the league, and Colangelo and Coach John MacLeod weren’t done tinkering yet. They brought back Paul Westphal after three years to provide buckets and leadership, a solid point guard (and a college teammate of Robey’s) in Kyle Macy, and drafted Rocket Rod Foster to give the club speed. The Suns, it seemed, had it all: experience and youth, power and strength, scoring and defense.
Neither the fans nor the preseason prognosticators felt much reason to be excited. Adams hadn’t played up to the levels of his rookie season in the years since and had fallen victim to seemingly every injury known (and a few unknown) to man. Edwards was a nice scorer from outside who played inside only reluctantly. Nance had shown he was an excellent complementary player, but not the kind you build a team around. Westphal was on his last go-round, his knees shot. Foster could run, but could he dribble, pass, score and defend? Luke was a long way from Portland, and Robey…To that point, Robey had been better known for drinking beers with Larry Bird than for anything he’d done on the court. The Suns were picked to finish somewhere in the middle of the Pacific Division, maybe a playoff club, but not one expected to do any damage.
For the first half of the season, the prognosticators were right. After the first month of the season, the team’s record stood at 6-14, and the fans were calling for another truck – this one to haul Robey, Lucas and Colangelo away. Robey wasn’t exactly scribbling over the “bust” on his nametag, battling injuries that would limit him to 61 regular-season games. But slowly, the club battled its way back to respectability. Davis, Nance, Lucas and Edwards picked up their games, Davis averaging twenty points for the year, and Lucas nearly a double-double. Still, it took a five game winning streak at the end of the season to get the Suns to .500, and they lurched into the playoffs as a sixth seed. Nobody knew it at the time, but it was the start of something remarkable for a team nobody expected anything of – Each of the five teams the Suns beat would be Western Conference playoff contenders.
In the first round, the Suns faced a balanced Portland club that had finished seven games better than Phoenix and played disciplined, patterned basketball. It was a style the Suns were familiar with, since it resembled the style they also played. Despite not having home court advantage (as they would not in any round), the Suns split the opening two games of the best of five series in Portland. However, they lost one of the next two at home, and headed back to the Pacific Northwest for the deciding game. It wasn’t close. The Suns won by twelve.
I’d been glum going into the playoffs, feeling sure the best the Suns, a middling club all year, could hope for was an early exit that wouldn’t be too humiliating. I have to confess something – I was one of those kids that didn’t want the school year to end. Summer in the 1980s Valley felt endless, with its overpowering heat and the drone of cicadas. Phoenix didn’t have pro baseball yet (or football, for that matter), so all a young sports fan had to look forward to was the start of training camp, which felt years away. The earlier the Suns lost, the quicker summer came.
So the Suns’ defeat of the Blazers, in addition to being completely unexpected, also staved off the summer a little longer. Lucas emerged as the vocal leader he’d been promised to be. He was dinged up after the long season, undoubtedly tired from having to shoulder most of the rebounding load on the still-slender team, but he wasn’t going to let the Suns lose. I can still see the look of fierce determination on his face. Even if I’d been double my height and triple my weight, I wouldn’t have wanted to try to box him out when a jump shot went up. Comparing him to a heroic gladiator would be a little much, but the team looked to him, and the whole city took its cue. These Suns were worth rooting for, and Phoenix had their backs.
Having beaten the number three seeded team, the Suns were rewarded with a date with the second seed, the Midwest Division champs, the Utah Jazz. Again, no home court advantage. The Jazz boasted the league’s leading scorer, Adrian Dantley, a prototype Charles Barkley, an undersized forward with a devastating offensive game. If he was the unstoppable force, 7-4 Center Mark Eaton was the immovable object, having led the league in blocked shots at more than four per game. The Jazz could beat you – and intimidate you — at both ends of the floor. But the Suns weren’t intimidated. They stole the second game in Salt Lake City, and took care of business at home, winning the series’ sixth game at Veterans’ Memorial Coliseum. Again, it wasn’t close. The Suns won by twenty. And moved into the Western Conference Finals.
Everyone, everywhere, who followed pro basketball gasped a collective, “Wha-huh?” How did a .500 team suddenly materialize in the position of being one of four teams left standing? A team that didn’t have a player among the top fifteen in the year’s MVP voting? A team without an All-NBA selection? A team with a single All-Star (Davis)? A team whose sole highlight had been Larry Nance winning the inaugural Slam Dunk Contest?
Some in Phoenix, surprised as they were, smiled knowingly. They remembered almost a decade before when a similarly unlikely team, with a record even worse and a roster even less distinguished, miraculously blew through the Western playoffs, defeating the league’s defending champions and nearly beating the most decorated team in history before bowing out. Sunderella, it seemed, had returned.
But the Lakers, whom the Suns now faced, were far different from the league’s 1975 kings, the Warriors, and even the Celtics that finally ended Sunderella’s inaugural run. These Lakers were one of the best teams ever assembled, maybe even the best the Lakers put together during the Showtime Era. Six players scoring in double figures. Four Hall Of Famers (Kareem, Magic, Worthy, McAdoo). Two all-time stars who set the standards for their positions (Kareem, Magic). The league leader in assists (Magic). Perhaps the best defensive player in the league (Michael Cooper). The Suns had accomplished much, and it had been a nice story, but it was time to go home now and climb into bed. You can find most information on the Internet now, but I’ve been unable to locate the odds Las Vegas had on the Suns winning the series. My guess is they were somewhere close to a kershmillion-to-one.
The series started as expected, as the Lakers ran over, around and through the Suns at the Forum. The Suns had early leads in both games, but couldn’t sustain them, the Lakers’ experience and chemistry wearing the Purple Gang down. Gamely, the Suns battled back at home. After losing a big early lead in Game Three, they rallied to force overtime, and dominated the extra period, winning by eight. The Lakers peered over their sunglasses, yawned, and went back to making travel arrangements for Boston, winning Game Four in Phoenix and heading home needing one more victory to put the Suns away.
Lucas, for one, was not impressed. He was used to being the underdog. After all, his Blazers had been given no shot against the Sixers in the 1977 Finals. Those Sixers were the ancestors of today’s Miami Heat, with star power to burn – Julius Erving at his apex, George McGinnis, Doug Collins, Caldwell Jones, Lloyd (soon to be “World”) Free, and Jellybean Bryant, who’d go on to father a future NBA star who’d give the Suns considerable trouble later on. Those Blazers had stared down the Sixers and won. Lucas knew anything was possible (so, too, for that matter, did Sunderella veterans Adams and Westphal). And so the Suns waltzed into the Lakers’ den, took an early lead, and never let go, winning 126-121.
Now it was serious. Back to Phoenix the teams went. The Suns knew they could beat the Lakers, and now the rest of the world knew it, too. The home crowd was roaring, hoping to hold off the summer heat a little longer. The Suns, who’d been playing with controlled desperation for months, actually held the lead going into the fourth quarter. It came down to the wire, but Sunderella wouldn’t quite make it up the steps and into the Ball this year. The 1984 Lakers, one of the finest squads ever assembled, prevailed by the narrow margin of two points to win the series in six hard-fought games.
I’ve watched those games on tape, fellow fans, and believe me, they were hard-fought. The Lakers had their hands full with a Suns club that really had no business being on the floor with them. And you know who made a serious contribution to those games? Lucas, sure, Davis and Nance, of course, but I’m talking about someone else.
He didn’t get a lot of minutes, score a lot of points, or tally a lot of rebounds. But he was a valuable bench player, and his impact was surely felt. Mostly on Kareem’s back, McAdoo’s shoulders, and the bridge of Kurt Rambis’ nose. He helped give the Suns exactly what they’d hoped for when they traded their all-everything point guard to get him – a strong, unintimidatable inside presence.
Alas, his moment in the sun (and with the Suns) was fleeting, as oft-injured Robey would only suit up for 50 more games in Phoenix (and indeed, in his career) over the next two seasons, during which time the Purple Gang would slide out of the playoffs and into chaos. Frederick Robert Robey would go on to have a place of infamy in Suns fans’ memories…The Robey-DJ swap is still widely considered the worst in team history. True, Robey never made the trade “pay off,” but it wasn’t entirely his fault – His body betrayed him. And hey, it’s not like he asked for the trade in the first place.
But for that one season, 1983-84, he was a part of – and a contributor to – one of the great feel-good stories of the Suns 43 seasons; a team of oddly-matched parts that no one saw coming, and which nearly made history.
Sometimes, it’s the teams you least expect that surprise you the most. Something to think about heading into a new season.