They’re not nearly as inseparable as Bogie and Bacall, or Johnny and Ed, or Tiger and the Nike swoosh.
But there’s something altogether fitting about how the Seattle SuperSonics’ first-round playoff opponent turned out to be the Phoenix Suns. When the NBA was in the throes of its great western expansion, the Sonics and Suns broke ground together, helping sell fans on the premise that there was life beyond the squeaky parquet floor of the Boston Garden.
It was a tough sell.
They endured sparse crowds during those formative days. As fledgling franchises, they lost coin flips for the right to sign a superstar. They tinkered with their color schemes, redesigned their logos and outgrew their original homes. And now, they’re colliding in what looks less like a rivalry than a reunion.
The Sonics and Suns, together again, in SuperPhonic stereo.
The teams have been Pacific Division adversaries 27 seasons, and 21 times the Sonics have either finished directly ahead - or directly behind - the Suns. Twice Seattle won the division with Phoenix as runner-up; twice Phoenix won the division with Seattle as runner-up.
Indeed, the parallels are many: Both the Sonics and Suns are coached by guys who speak in sound bites. Both are led on the floor by point guards who cut their teeth on the same Oakland playgrounds.
Both clubs represent markets whose public has discovered the subtle nuances of a sport they never knew existed: hockey in the Southwest, baseball in the Northwest. And between the Gorilla and Squatch, both teams’ fans are entertained by mascots of the, um, hair-suit persuasion.
There’s a musical connection, too. Alice Cooper, who was Dennis Rodman before Dennis Rodman was born, is as much a courtside fixture at America West Arena as Sir Mix-a-Lot and Pearl Jam’s Jeff Ament are at KeyArena.
Both franchises used contests to determine a nickname: In the case of Phoenix, because several thousand fans submitted “Suns,” a drawing was held, and one Selinda King of Phoenix was designated official name-dropper. (Too bad the winner wasn’t Katie Elder, because then the team could’ve been known as the Suns of Katie Elder.)
Both the Sonics and Suns reached the NBA Finals at a relatively young age, with unspectacular teams that got hot at the right time. The year John MacLeod’s “Sunderella” bunch made it to the championship round, in 1976, it finished a game behind Seattle in the Pacific - and several furlongs behind first-place Golden State. Two seasons later, when Lenny Wilkens’ Sonics won it all, they finished two games behind Phoenix - and several furlongs behind first-place Portland.
More recently, both the Sonics and Suns had terrific clubs that gave the Greatest Team Ever Assembled more of a challenge than it expected in the Finals. Both, though, lost to Chicago in six.
Even the family trees of the Sonics and Suns share the same roots: Al Bianchi, the Sonics’ first coach, had been the right-hand man of Phoenix coach Johnny Kerr when Kerr was running the Bulls in Chicago (whose first business manager was somebody named Jerry Colangelo).
Colangelo assembled the original Suns, working for an ownership group that included several investors from the entertainment industry. There was Oscar-winning composer Henry Mancini, singers Andy Williams (“Moon River”) and Bobbie Gentry (“Ode to Billie Joe”), actor Tony Curtis (I think it was in “Spartacus” where Tony declared, “Dat must be da son udda Lord!”) and television’s Ed Ames, whose ax-throwing incident became the single-most memorable moment in the history of “The Tonight Show.”
As fate would have it, the Suns’ first game was against Seattle, which by 1968 already had a year in the league. Phoenix pleased some 7,000 Suns fans in winning 116-107. There’s a term for that kind of score today. It’s called “shootout.”
With a league-low 16 victories that first season, the Suns finished in seventh place, 14 games behind the sixth-place Sonics. Because they had the two worst records, the franchises went head-to-tail in the coin flip over the rights to sign Connie Hawkins, who finally was declared eligible to join the NBA after a seven-season exile in the American Basketball Association.
The Suns won, partially making up for the coin flip they lost two years earlier for the expansion-team rights to the dominant college player of a generation. Phoenix lost; their first-round draft choice became Florida center Neal Walk. Thus UCLA’s Lew Alcindor went to Milwaukee, where he became Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.
Now, about those original Phoenix investors: Henry Mancini died. Tony Curtis got married several times and divorced several times. As this edition was going to press, he was happily married. Andy Williams? He got lost on the golf course, and Bobbie Gentry got lost, period.
I don’t even know what to think about what happened to Ed Ames.
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