[Basketball Digest, that half-sized, almost-pocket publication that we all knew and mostly read back in the day, ran a series called “The Game I’ll Never Forget.” The idea was to ask a player or coach to recall that one game in his career that was indelible above the rest. The Basketball Digest series makes perfect fodder for this blog, so let’s do our first installment with the underrated great Alvan Adams of the Phoenix Suns.
Since these articles come with their own intros, we’ll keep it brief with our intro. Except to say: Adams’ recollection, given in the conversational first person, appeared in the December 1982 issue of Basketball Digest. Writer Bert Rosenthal recorded and edited Adams’ answer. With that, here’s Rosenthal’s intro.]
At 6-foot-9 and 210 pounds, Alvan Adams of the Phoenix Suns is one of the shortest and lightest centers in the National Basketball Association. He also is considered a docile, peaceful, and non-violent person. Those personality traits most often are reflected in his play, which is best characterized by his finesse and as little body contact as possible.
So, it was very surprising to find Adams involved in three incidents on the court last season, which would have been better suited to a boxer than a basketball player. First, Washington’s Spencer Haywood elbowed him in the mouth, causing some of Adams’ lower teeth to split through his upper lip. “I didn’t know what hit me,” Adams said of the incident.
Less than a week later, he suffered a broken nose and a black eye when elbowed by George Gervin of the San Antonio Spurs. Gervin contended the blow was accidental, saying it happened when he followed through on a layup attempt. But Adams maintained it looked like Gervin “took a shot at me.”
Then Adams and Jeff Ruland of the Bullets got into a jostling match when both were vying for position under the boards. Ruland hooked Adams by his arms, flung him to the floor, and, when the Phoenix center arose, decked him with a punch to the eye.
Throughout all the physical battering, Adams continued to be a model of consistency. For the seventh-straight season, he scored more than 1,000 points and grabbed more than 500 rebounds. And, as usual, he led the centers in assists with 356. “He’s the best passing center since Johnny Kerr,” said Suns assistant coach Al Bianchi.
“He has total perception out on the court, and there isn’t a smarter player in basketball today,” said Phoenix general manager Jerry Colangelo.
Despite the high praise from his bosses and his consistency over the years, the big rap on Adams is that he is too small and too light to lead the Suns to an NBA championship. MacLeod, who coached Adams in his freshman year at the University of Oklahoma, thinks otherwise.
In defense of his continued use of the feathery Adams, he said: “Who’d you rather have? A 7-foot-5, 290-pound guy who can’t do anything or a 6-foot-9 guy who can help you a lot? Teams have won championships with Dave Cowens [in Boston], who is 6-foot-9, and Wes Unseld [in Washington], who is 6-foot-8. There’s no reason why we can’t do the same with Alvan.”
Adams, of course, agrees with his coach. “I think we can win a championship with me in the middle,” he said. “We’ve had some good teams with good chances, and we’ve come close.”
Since Adams joined the Suns for the 1975-76 season, when he was a landslide winner of the NBA’s Rookie-of-the-Year award over such other standouts as Gus Williams and World B. Free, Phoenix has compiled a 333-241 record, one of the best marks in the league. And in those seven seasons, the Suns were in the playoffs six times, reaching the final series in his rookie year before they were beaten by the Boston Celtics, four games to two. One of the losses was the memorable triple-overtime game—the fifth in the series—won by the Celtics at Boston Garden.
Now Adams is the only Sun player remaining from that 1975-76 team that won the Western Conference playoff championship. It certainly has not been his fault that the team has not gotten that far since then in the postseason competition.
“He’s not 260-pounder, but he’s very consistent, is probably the quickest center in the league, and he gives a great effort,” said MacLeod.
Adams: The Game I’ll Never Forget
Of course, the most-memorable NBA game I have ever played in was that triple-overtime thriller against the Boston Celtics in the fifth game of the 1976 championship series. But it was a game that we, the Phoenix Suns, did not win, so I would prefer to talk about a game prior to that series, which we did win.
It was the seventh-and-deciding game of the Western Conference final series. That season, 1975-76, was my first in the league and, prior to the season, the Suns were not picked to do well during the year. Basically, we were a young team. Besides myself, Ricky Sobers was a rookie, while Paul Westphal, who had played sparingly with Boston, was in his first year with the Suns.
The previous year, we had finished with a poor record [32-50], so picking us to finish near the bottom of the Pacific Division was not surprising. Since the Suns hadn’t been doing well and some of our fans were down on us, we really didn’t know what to expect. But after a slow start, we finished strong and ended the season with a 42-40 record.
It was good enough for third place in the division, one game behind Seattle, but 17 games in back of first-place Golden State, the defending league champion. It also was good enough to make the playoffs—and to draw a bye in the miniseries playoffs.
We got into playoff action in the conference semifinals against Seattle and beat the SuperSonics, four games to two. That moved us into the conference final against the Warriors. They had finished with the best-record in the league (59-23, including a three-to-two advantage against us). All the advantages seemed to be in favor of the Warriors. In addition to their excellent record, they had the homecourt advantage. They had the playoff experience (not only had they won the championship the previous year, but they had been in the playoffs almost every season, while this was only the Suns’ second time there in the franchise’s eight years), and they were a veteran team.
After splitting the first two games of the series at Golden State and the next two at Phoenix, each team won on its homecourt, setting up the decisive seventh game at the Oakland Coliseum. We had reached that stage after outlasting the Warriors by one point (105-104) in Game 6.
At that time, we were a very controlled team, but one that had excellent execution. Basically, we ran set plays and didn’t fastbreak much. I got the ball at the high post and looked inside for Garfield Heard or Curtis Perry. Curtis and Gar also were great rebounders, shot blockers, and defensive players, and really a tremendous help to me on the boards.
In the first half of the final game against Golden State, we did not execute as well as we should, and at intermission we trailed by six points (48-42). Rick Barry, the Warriors star forward and most valuable player in the 1974-75 championship series, was hurting us the most. By halftime, he had 14 points.
During the intermission break, our coach John MacLeod, pointed out the basic facts to us. Run your offense, control the boards, and avoid turnovers, he said. While we were sitting in the locker room, I think it hit me and the other players on the team that we could accomplish something big. Even though we had not played well in the first half, we were only six points down, and we felt we could beat the Warriors. We had come this far against the best team in the league—and we did not want to lose now.
We came out confident in the second half—and we did not lose.
Gar, who was guarding Barry, held him in check. Our rebounders—Gar, Curtis, and myself—dominated the boards, and, consequently, the Warriors did not get many second shots, nor were they able to run their fastbreak consistently. And we played tight defense.
By the end of the third period, we were ahead by two points (67-65). Then, with nine minutes remaining in the game and the score tied 70-70, we broke it open, outscoring the Warriors 18-6 in the next six minutes, and led 88-76. The Warriors couldn’t come back from that deficit, and we won, 94—86.
It was a balanced team effort. Heard and Westphal each scored 21 points, Perry and Sobers had 12 apiece, while I scored 18 and grabbed 20 rebounds—a lot for me. Barry was high for Golden State with 20 points, but only six in the second half.
That put us into the final round against Boston. But when we got home that night, the Phoenix fans reacted as if we already had won the title. They jammed the Phoenix airport and gave us a great reception. That’s the way it is in a small NBA town. We weren’t the NBA champions, but that was good enough for the fans in Phoenix.
If we had lost to Seattle in the first round, I don’t think we would have generated much enthusiasm or curiosity among the fans. The same probably would have been true if we had lost to Golden State. But beating the World Champions was a big occasion, especially since we hadn’t been picked to do much that season.
Even after the loss to Boston in the championship series, the fans were still excited. Our victory over the Warriors had generated a lot of interest in the franchise. That’s why that final game against Golden State was so memorable.
[BONUS COVERAGE: To add some perspective to the magnitude of Phoenix’s upset victory over Golden State in 1976, let’s go to a column that ran in the Arizona Republic on May 17, 1976, the day after the series clincher. Verne Boatner, the newspaper’s sports editor, magically brings back to life the postgame euphoria in the Suns’ dressing room, helping to show why Adams selected this win over all the others in his career.]
They were magnificent! The Purple Gang, which had played with so much poise down the stretch, was as emotional as a group of junior high kids in the dressing room after knocking off the defending world champion Golden State Warriors, Sunday.
“A lot of people laughed at us this year,” said jubilant coach John MacLeod. “They said it couldn’t be done. Well, I don’t care what they say now. We showed everybody what togetherness and hard work can do.”
“I told you, I told you!” gloated an exultant Curtis Perry. “But you wouldn’t believe. The dudes with no talent did it again.”
“I’m not an emotional person,” said dog-tired Gar Heard. “But today I wanted to cry. We came from so far back this season. It’s really a great moment for me. It’s really a satisfying experience for Jerry (Colangelo), and John (MacLeod) believed in me and went out and got me here.”
General Manager Colangelo, who has truly suffered the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, didn’t mince words about his feelings. “I cried at the end,” he said, “and I don’t care who knows it. It was the most-exciting moment of my life. Every heartache, every tear, every night of no sleep—this makes it worth every second.
“With one minute to go, I said, “It’s in the hands of God. I will accept whatever outcome. But I said a quick prayer for our Suns. I am so happy for our fans, my wife Joanie, our kids, the owners, the players—everybody who believed in us when things weren’t going so good. It’s the high point of my life.”
The low point?
“When we lost the coin flip for Jabbar. I got in my car and just drove aimlessly for four hours. It was a four-hour relapse. Then I went back to the office and back to work.”
“It’s all like a dream,” said the Oklahoma Kid, rookie Alvan Adams. “I keep thinking I’m going to wake up and it won’t be real. First, I didn’t expect to play much this year. I became a starter. Then, Rookie of the Year, now this. I didn’t think it was possible to dream such a dream.”
“It’s a dream come true,” said 30-year-old captain Dick Van Arsdale. “There was only one thing missing from my life: I had never played for the world championship. Now this—I still can’t believe it is come true. It’s a personal high for me.”
Paul Westphal, whom many have called the heart and soul of this team, claimed he had no preference whether the Suns met either Cleveland or the Boston Celtics, his previous team. “Just bring ‘em on!” he exclaimed. “I had mixed feelings when the Celtics traded me. The team (Phoenix) was no good last year. I wasn’t happy about playing for a lousy team. But even back in training camp, it was apparent that we would be very competitive.”
An Impossible Dream for the Suns to win the world championship, with two rookie starters and three unknowns, who have played together less than a year?
“Golden State did it last year,” answered Westphal. “They were kind of an inspiration to us this season.”
Rookie Ricky Sobers, who caught resounding boos every time he touched the ball after a swinging incident between him and Warrior Rick Barry, claimed the catcalls “only made me play that much harder. Why did I swing at him? Because he came at me. I boxed him out, and I guess he thought I was a little too rough.
“But I’m not out there to fight. I come to play basketball. Rick Barry is a great player. Those things just happen sometimes, in the heat of the moment.”
Perry was dragged out of the ensuing melee by MacLeod and Warrior coach Al Attles. “Rick hit me, but he said it was accidental—and I believe him. What got me hot was that someone pushed me on the (press) table, and a guy in the stands grabbed my jersey and punched me.”
As the only returning starter from a year ago, Perry was asked how he felt about the season. “I’m only glad I was able to contribute a little,” he smiled. “There couldn’t be a greater group of guys to play with. They’ve worked so hard, and it really paid off.”
Asked for turning points in the season, MacLeod responded, “Three things turned it around for us. First, the acquisition of Gar Heard. Second, Keith Erickson coming back so well from injuries. And third, (assistant coach) Al Bianchi joining us.”
Words can’t describe the super defense the Suns threw up in the second half, but MacLeod preferred to give Golden State credit. “They had a lot of good shots that wouldn’t go down,” he said. “They did what we did last week. It happens sooner or later to all basketball teams. We can’t stop those guys one-on-one, so we had to help out, and I thought we did a pretty-good job.
“With so many great shooters, it’s an impossible task to shut them down. But we were tough on the boards. We gave them only one shot most of the time. Basketball is a game of ups-and-downs—a roller coaster. We enjoyed the ride.”
“I don’t think I’ve ever been with a bunch of kids who deserved it more,” said Bianchi, whose voice was cracking with emotion. “It’s been great. I still can’t believe it’s true.”
“The Impossible Dream!” echoed from the showers.
“It’s only just begun,” sang someone else.
And so it has.
The Sunderella Suns—unbelievable!