You know him now as the coach of the Sacramento Kings, but few men in Phoenix Suns history have had as much impact on the franchise as Paul Westphal. The Suns have made the NBA Finals twice: the 1975-76 Western Conference champion squad featured Westphal as their leading scorer, and Westphal was head coach of the 1992-93 Finals team that pushed Michael Jordan's Chicago Bulls to 6 games.
Follow the jump for more on this Suns legend's role in some of the most memorable moments in team history.
Westphal the player and the 1976 Finals
"The Little Team That Could" 1975-76 Suns were only 42-40 during the regular season, but knocked off the Seattle SuperSonics and then upset the defending world champion, Rick Barry's Golden State Warriors, to win the Western Conference. This earned the Suns a Finals berth against the mighty Boston Celtics, led by legends John Havlicek and Dave Cowens. Westphal led this Suns team in scoring (20.5 PPG on 49% FGs) and steals (2.6 per game), and was second in assists (5.4 per game).
Westphal's production continued through the playoffs, culminating with his performance in game 5 of the Finals, a triple overtime epic known by many as "the greatest game ever played." Heavy underdogs, the Suns had battled the Celtics to a 2 games to 2 tie. In game 5, the Suns trailed nearly the whole way, battling back time and time again before the Celtics finally prevailed 128-126. While the game is best known for this incredible shot by Garfield Heard,
NBA's 60 Greatest Playoff Moments: #6 (via theehibachi)
Westphal contributed 25 points and several heady plays that kept the Suns in the contest. The Suns lost the game, and the following game 6 as the Celtics won their eighth world championship, but this series is remembered as one of the most entertaining in NBA Finals history.
Westphal the coach and the 1992-93 Suns
The Suns had something of a rebirth in 1992. America West Arena, "The Purple Palace", replaced Veterans Memorial Coliseum as the team's home arena, superstar Charles Barkley was brought to the team in a blockbuster trade, and Danny Ainge was signed as a free agent. Promoted from assistant coach to replace the "retiring" (he would later come back) head coach Cotton Fitzsimmons was Paul Westphal.
This was a talented Suns team, possibly the most talented in team history with Barkley, Kevin Johnson, Dan Majerle, Danny Ainge, Tom Chambers, Cedric Ceballos, Richard Dumas and Oliver Miller. You might not know about Richard Dumas, but he was an elite athlete who eventually lost his career due to a drug problem. And, don't laugh at my inclusion of Oliver Miller. He was in the best shape of his life then, and the man could play. Despite his weight issues, he carved out a 9 year NBA career due to his raw talent.
Never known as an exceptional strategist or tactician as a head coach, Westphal instead proved himself as a manager of egos, which was exactly what this star-studded team needed. They won 62 games in the regular season, a franchise record that still stands, then went on to battle Jordan's Bulls in the 1993 NBA finals, eliminating the Lakers, Spurs and SuperSonics along the way. Down 0-2 in the first round best of 5 series to the 8th seed Lakers, Westphal made this famous statement: "We're gonna win the series."
The Suns delivered on Westphal's bold prediction, beating the hated Lakers on the way to a Finals run that electrified the city through the spring of 1993. There was no shame at all in finally losing to Jordan's Bulls in 6 games.
No other Suns figure has this sort of connection with the two most successful teams in franchise history. The next time the Suns play Sacramento, where Westphal currently coaches, raise of glass of your favorite beverage for the man who gave Suns fans so many memorable moments.