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Tip-Off Timer: How '69 Coin Flip Cursed The Phoenix Suns

Aug 19, 2009 – 9:05 AM
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Tim Povtak

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Tip-Off Timer counts down the days until the first game of the 2009-10 season. On Wednesday, there are 69 days remaining.

It's been 40 years since Phoenix Suns executive Jerry Colangelo last called "heads" in a coin flip. And it still haunts the franchise today.

When that Kennedy half-dollar landed on "tails" in the NBA office that spring day, it meant that the Milwaukee Bucks – and not the Suns – would get the No. 1 pick in the 1969 NBA Draft.

The Bucks selected celebrated UCLA center Lew Alcindor, who won a championship in his second season, changed his name to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and won five more titles with the Los Angeles Lakers. He became the NBA's all-time leading scorer and won six Most Valuable Player Awards before his induction into the Basketball Hall of Fame.

The Suns got the No. 2 pick, which became center Neal Walk of Florida.

It was the most costly lost coin flip in sports history. Some say it produced the curse that has dogged the Suns ever since.

Under Colangelo's leadership, Phoenix became a very successful, well-run franchise -- winning at least 50 games 19 times, including three seasons of more than 60 wins -- but it never has won a championship.

"We were shell-shocked,'' Colangelo said earlier this year when reflecting back on losing the coin flip. "I just felt like we were going to win the flip. We had taken a group of young guys in the expansion draft who would have fit perfectly with him (Alcindor). We would have been in prime position to have a good long run.''

Instead the Suns got Walk, who became the symbol of the franchise's frustration – often referred to as a booby prize -- although he didn't deserve that tag. He became a reliable and better-than-average NBA center. In five seasons with the Suns, he missed only two games combined. In his fourth season, he averaged 20.2 points and 12.4 rebounds. The Suns reached the playoffs only once with him at center.

Lost in the loss of the '69 coin flip for Alcindor was the fact that the Suns won another coin flip two months later with Seattle when they were awarded the rights to Connie Hawkins, who had sued the league to gain entry after being banned. Hawkins, the New York City playground legend, became a four-time All-Star with the Suns.

Walk was traded to New Orleans in 1974, then played three more seasons with the Jazz and the New York Knicks before finishing his basketball career unceremoniously in Europe.

Walk today works in the Suns community relations department. He has been a paraplegic since 1988 after surgery to remove a tumor surrounding his spine. He went on to play wheelchair basketball and in 1990 was honored by President George H.W. Bush as the Wheelchair Athlete of the Year.

Abdul-Jabbar works today in player development with the Lakers, still hoping to become a head coach in the NBA.
Filed under: Sports