Danny Ainge's '96-97 Suns Give Hope to Winless Nets
So Ainge's teenage nephew, Owen Toolson, offered up a knock-knock joke.
"Knock, knock,'' he said to his uncle.
Ainge, you see, coached the Phoenix Suns in 1996-97, and they got off to a 0-13 start. But even Ainge got a kick out of that joke.
"All I could do was laugh,'' he said.
But the Suns got the last laugh that season. After not winning a game for nearly the entire first month, they stunningly made the playoffs with a 40-42 mark.
Phoenix, the No. 7 seed in the West, then almost upset No. 2 Seattle in the first round of the playoffs. The Suns led the series 2-1 before falling at overtime in Game 4 at home, and eventually losing 3-2.
"I think one of the most satisfying parts of the year was to shut up all of the sports radio know-it-alls and all the writers who were writing us off af the beginning of the year,'' Rex Chapman, then a Phoenix guard, said of the resurrection.
Chapman is now vice president of player personnel for the Denver Nuggets, who play host to New Jersey on Tuesday night at the Pepsi Center. Yes, those would be the Nets who are 0-13, four games shy of the NBA mark for most losses to start a season.
But Chapman, while he obviously wants New Jersey to get to at least 0-14, might remark to those on the Nets that there is hope. Just look what happened to the Suns, appropriately, 13 years ago.
"We had a lot of good players, but we were just injured at the beginning of the year,'' Chapman said. "It's really the same deal with New Jersey. They have a lot of injuries, and a lot of times that stuff comes in waves. It just snowballs.
"When you're in it, you feel like you may never win. But I think they'll probably come some point this year when everybody's talking about their eight-game winning streak. It's a long season. It's a heck of a hole to dig yourself out of, but it can be done.''
The Suns coach who started to dig the hole actually was Cotton Fitzsimmons. But after the team started 0-8, Fitzsimmons, who was 65 and not in ideal health, figured it was a good time to retire from coaching.
"He came up to me before the eighth game and said he didn't think the team had real good chemistry,'' said Ainge, who had never been a head coach at any level and was in his first season as an NBA assistant. "He said, 'I'm just too old for some of these guys.' He didn't feel he could coach any more. I asked him, 'Can you wait until five more games because the five games coming up are the hardest?'''
Indeed, the Suns dropped them all. But on Nov. 27, 1996, the Suns finally got a win by topping, sure enough, New Jersey 99-77 at home.
The turnaround, though, didn't come overnight. The Suns on three occasions, at 15-31, 19-35 and 20-36, fell to 16 games under .500.
Phoenix began the season with injuries to key players Kevin Johnson, John "Hot Rod'' Williams and Mark Bryant. And, with the season hardly going as planned, the Suns weren't hesitant about making trades or signing anybody they thought could help them get a few wins.
There were 23 players who got into games for Phoenix, with just nine lasting the entire year with the team. Chapman said the season's biggest move by far came Dec. 26, 1996, when the Suns acquired point guard Jason Kidd from Dallas in a blockbuster deal that included the Mavericks getting Michael Finley and Sam Cassell.
Kidd didn't pay immediate dividends since he missed six weeks with a broken collarbone shortly after his acquisition. But after he returned the Suns sizzled, and ended up winning 20 of their final 26.
By that time, Ainge, now Boston's general manager, was seemingly changing the rules of basketball. He regularly started three guards in Kidd, Chapman and Johnson and, when Wesley Person came off the bench, played long stretches with four guards.
Ainge also didn't hesitate to sometimes play three point guards at once. He did that with Kidd, Johnson and rookie Steve Nash, who was very raw at the time and far from being the player who eventually would win two MVPs.
"We had a lot of guards,'' said Ainge, who after the 1994-95 season had retired as a guard for Phoenix, where he had played alongside Johnson. "The guards were the strength of our team.''
Small ball showed for the playoffs, and the Suns stunned the SuperSonics in two of the first three games. In Game 4, Chapman drilled a wild last-second three-pointer while falling out of bounds to force overtime.
But luck would no longer be on the side of the Suns. They fell in overtime 122-115 and were wiped out 116-92 in Game 5 in Seattle.
"We had them on the ropes, but we laid an egg in overtime and they ran us out of the building,'' Chapman said. "But it was a great series. And, when you dig yourself out of a double-digit hole, to be able to come back and get a playoff berth, it was a rewarding.''
Chapman merely has to walk down the hallway now to reminisce about that series. Then Seattle coach George Karl is now the Nuggets boss.
Three years earlier, Karl's top-seeded SuperSonics had been stunned in a first-round series by No. 8 Denver. He was quite relieved it didn't happen again.
"They scared the heck out of us,'' Karl said. "We definitely could have stumbled. It's a huge hole (Phoenix) was in. But, if it's one of those years when a team under .500 can make the playoffs, you've just got to keep preserving and get luck and see what happens.''
Now, the Nets will try to do what Phoenix once did. Ainge sees one similarity in that Johnson, an three-time NBA All-Star point guard who led the Suns that season with averages of 20.1 points and 9.3 assists, missed time early in the season just as New Jersey point guard Devin Harris has before having recently returned.
Don't be surprised if Nets coach Lawrence Frank uses in pep talks that a team came back from 0-13 to make the playoffs. It's like when a team falls behind 3-0 in a best-of-seven playoff series and references to the Boston Red Sox coming back from that deficit in 2004 against the New York Yankees become all the rage.
"It can be done,'' Jerry Colangelo, then Phoenix's president, said of any hope the Nets can get from those Suns. "You've just got to keep the faith. You know it's a long season. One 10-game winning streak and you can get back into it.''
The bad news for the Nets, though, is they're just starting a four-game trip out West. At least the Suns had four of six at home after they fell to 0-13.
So it might not be quite the time to throw a knock-knock joke Frank's way.
Chris Tomasson can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @christomasson.