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THE NBA: STARTING OUT AND STARTING OVER : HOUSE OF THE FALLING SUNS : There Seems to Be No Light at End of Tunnel for Once-Proud Franchise in Phoenix

October 11, 1987|ANTHONY COTTON | The Washington Post

PHOENIX — The recent National Basketball Assn. meetings might have provided the Phoenix Suns an opportunity to show they had begun to break through the darkness that has engulfed what had once been considered a flagship franchise.

It has been a year marred by the death in a plane crash of one player, grand jury indictments for alleged drug abuse and gambling by other players, and dreadful play on the court. Then the NBA added to the gloom by moving the meetings scheduled here to southern California, citing the racial and political climate in Arizona under the administration of controversial Gov. Evan Mecham.

"That's not our fault," new head coach John Wetzel said, "but it lends to the idea of the Phoenix Suns having a bad name; we're associated with that. It seems like we can't catch a break."

Added General Manager Jerry Colangelo: "It makes you wonder what's going to happen next."

What happens next may well be the most intriguing question. Team officials say they hope to heal old wounds and make peace with the Phoenix community as well as within the organization. It's not going to be easy.

"I'm a guy who's used to hard times," Colangelo said, "because I'm from the wrong side of the tracks, but this has taxed the very fiber of what you're made of, what you stand for. There's been a lot of damage done to this franchise; our hearts were pierced."

Of all the misfortunes that beset the Suns, nothing was as tragic as the death of center Nick Vanos in the August crash of a Northwest airliner near Detroit. Entering what would have been his third NBA season, Vanos was expected to be a major contributor, if not a starter.

"He had just started to get better and feeling good about himself, started to put his head up," said Wetzel. "The players liked him. As a rookie he wasn't ready. He was hurt and he probably babied himself too much. But last year there was a complete turnaround. In this league, the respect of your peers is everything, and Nick had gotten that."

During an outstanding 10-year career, all with the Suns, guard Walter Davis had surely earned the respect of the team-of the entire NBA. But all that might have been lost forever this March, when he testified before a Maricopa County (Ariz.) grand jury investigating drug possession and trafficking and possible gambling and bribery by and of professional athletes.

Davis, who had entered a drug rehabilitation clinic in December 1985, was the first witness before the grand jury. Testifying under immunity from prosecution, he said some former and present teammates used cocaine.

Less than a month later, indictments were handed up against 13 people, including Suns center James Edwards (one count each of conspiracy to possess a narcotic drug, to transfer a narcotic drug, to transfer or possess marijuana); guard Jay Humphries (conspiracy to transfer and / or possess marijuana and / or narcotic drug) and guard Grant Gondrezick (conspiracy to possess narcotic drug, conspiring to transfer or offer to transfer narcotic drug, attempting to possess same).

When the indictments were announced in April, the stir grew as prosecutors and law enforcement officials announced their probe would have far-reaching, "national repercussions."

Little of the sort happened. In fact, today, the biggest question is how the case ever got as far as it did. On Sept. 13, after Edwards admitted using marijuana once and agreed to enter drug counseling, the charges against him were dismissed. A similar agreement had been reached with Humphries earlier. Gondrezick was put on probation after pleading guilty to a charge of witness-tampering in the case.

The dropping of charges against Edwards continued a pattern in which the cases against five of the men indicted were dismissed or returned to the grand jury for review. At no point was any of the talk of gambling substantiated. An editorial in the Arizona Republic likened the investigation's lack of tangible results to "a missed layup rather than a slam dunk."

"There was a great deal of sensationalism and it was supposed to be a very big thing, but it was a big zero," said Colangelo. "There were some difficult weeks and months and what materialized was the unraveling of their case. When this broke, we said that the players were innocent until proven guilty and that before we hanged them let's see what happened, but people went ahead and tried them and convicted them anyway.

"Why did it get to that point? Today, the media has to look at the whole story and come to its own conclusion and judgments. I'm not going to be the judge and jury."

Others, however, are willing to offer their opinions.

"Was it all to show how tough they are on drugs or was it to further political careers? The only reason this happened the way it did was because it was politically comfortable and advantageous for someone," said Reggie Turner, a lawyer for Edwards and Humphries.

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