In a strange, sordid affair Antonio McDyess is forced to choose between the Phoenix Suns and Denver Nuggets. He did not make it easy.
Before Amar'e Stoudemire delighted Suns fans with his explosive dunks and seemingly endless promise, there was Antonio McDyess.
Many current Suns fans probably remember McDyess as a partial starter and reliable jump shooter in either San Antonio (2009-2011) or Detroit (2004-2009), but my friend there was a time where he was a Phoenix Sun - and fun was had.
But this story isn't about any of that - this story is more about the circumstances of his insane departure from Phoenix. But first some background.
Antonio McDyess was drafted #2 overall by the Clippers in the 1995 NBA Draft after two seasons at Alabama. On draft night he was dealt to Denver for 15th overall pick/white person Brent Barry and future NBA Sixth Man of the Year Rodney Rogers.
The 1995-96 Denver Nuggets were two seasons removed from their shocking upset of the Seattle SuperSonics in the 1994 NBA playoffs and had been a playoff team in 1995 as well. McDyess joined a fairly talented roster consisting of Dikembe Mutombo, Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf, Jalen Rose, Bryant Stith, and LaPhonso Ellis but the team slumped to a 35-47 record and missed the playoffs.
McDyess however had a very successful rookie campaign, starting 75 games while averaging 13.4 points, 7.5 rebounds, and earning All-Rookie 1st team honors. Bernie Bickerstaff gutted the roster in the 1996 offseason (fabulously detailed here by our sister site Denver Stiffs) which resulted in Denver falling to 21-61 but McDyess having an opportunity to blossom into an 18.3 point per game player while chipping in 7.3 rebounds per game.
In the 1997 offseason, Denver sought to enter into a contract extension with McDyess - who was going into the last year of his deal - but with the two sides unable to reach an agreement (this article suggests Denver offered 6 years, $70 million) , Denver explored its trade options. They were able to find a willing partner in the Phoenix Suns.
In a 3-team deal amongst the Nuggets, Suns, and Cavs these teams acquired the following;
Suns: Antonio McDyess, 2005 1st round draft pick (Sean May - if you're wondering, this pick was dealt to Charlotte so that the Bobcats would select Jahidi White in the expansion draft. Seriously).
Nuggets: 1998 1st round draft pick (Tyronn Lue), 1999 1st round draft pick (James Posey), 2000 2nd round draft pick (Dan McClintock), 2001 1st round draft pick (Joe Forte), and 2002 2nd round draft pick (Rod Grizzard).
Cavaliers: Wesley Person, Tony Dumas
At a cost of 3 first round picks (and only 2 net) the Suns had a 23 year old budding star.
The Phoenix Year
The 1996-97 Suns were a team in transition. They'd traded Charles Barkley to Houston in the 1996 offseason and for a couple months fielded a lame duck team of spare parts. Rollin Mason covered the early season 1996-97 Suns roster quite well here.
On December 26, 1996 the Suns changed the direction of the franchise by dealing the recently acquired Sam Cassell, along with Michael Finley and AC Green to the Mavericks for Jason Kidd.
After a collarbone injury in his first game delayed Kidd's Suns career by several weeks, the All-Star guard returned and the Suns were able to finish 22-10 and make the playoffs.
Heading into the 1997 offseason, the Suns added McDyess and to go with him signed Cliff Robinson and George McCloud. Those three new acquisitions when paired with a full season of Jason Kidd, the bald shooting stylings of Rex Chapman, and the bench play of Danny Manning (he would win the NBA's Sixth Man of the Year) took off and won 56 games.
Those wins were good enough for 4th in the Western Conference and earned the Suns a date with the San Antonio Spurs in the 1st round. Unfortunately for the Suns, in a familiar refrain, Danny Manning had torn his ACL in the early part of April and would miss the playoffs. Even more unfortunately for the Suns - Tim Duncan was a Spur and San Antonio dispatched the Suns in 4 games.
But there was so much reason for optimism! Jason Kidd was 25 years old and already a two-time All-Star and the Suns had the perfect running mate for him in the wildly athletic and electric 23 year-old Antonio McDyess.
McDyess had averaged 15.1 points per game for the Suns along with career highs in rebounds (7.6) and field goal percentage (53.6%). What warrants an additional mention is that the third year forward was better in every single statistical category in the 2nd half of the season than the 1st.
Suns GM Bryan Colangelo had this to say when asked about McDyess' in January of 1998:
"He's showing the talent and skills that made him a premier player the last two years in this league," he said. "There's so much upside to his game that he can only get better."
What could possibly go wrong? Why nothing of course. I mean just look at this January 1998 quote from McDyess about a Denver newspaper reporting he was planning a return to Denver:
"That's the biggest fib I've heard this year. I don't think there's any possible way I would go back to Denver," McDyess said. "I like it here in Phoenix. I just want to play and I want to be here."
What Went Wrong
The 1998-99 NBA season was marred by a lockout that lasted from July 1, 1998 until January 20, 1999 (free agency would begin on January 18th after the CBA was verbally agreed). With a 50 game regular season scheduled to begin on February 5, 1999, teams had a slim period in which to set their rosters for the upcoming year.
At the outset of the truncated free agency it became relatively clear that McDyess would be choosing between remaining in Phoenix or returning to the Nuggets.
And that's when things got weird.
On Thursday January 21st, 4 days into free agency, the Nuggets appeared to have McDyess locked up and called a 3PM press conference to say so. With the young forward still uncertain of his decision, Denver was forced to delay the press conference until 5:30, and then indefinitely.
In a 2008 interview with Chris McCosky of the Detroit News, McDyess shed some light on his struggle:
"I didn't want to sign there," said McDyess, a forward. "I sort of had an in-between mind at that point."
*Side Note: This article from the 1999 Sports Illustrated archives heavily implies that a lot of the reason for McDyess' internal strife was Denver's pending release of his friend LaPhonso Ellis - a fact which goes unmentioned in the interview from 9 years later.
So what does any young man facing a big decision about who to
date play for do? Why he calls his ex former teammate Jason Kidd of course. Back to you Dice:
"When I got to Denver, I just felt like that wasn't the place for me," he said. "So I called Jason Kidd (his teammate in Phoenix the previous season) and told him, 'I don't know if I want to sign here, man.' He said, 'Just stay right there and don't do nothing you don't want to do. I will be there soon.'?"
How did the heroic Jason Kidd respond? Well he grabbed his pals Rex Chapman and George McCloud and the Suns threesome chartered a plane to Denver to rescue their buddy from the scourge of snowy weather.
After McDyess' agent was assured by Bryan Colangelo that Dice would be welcomed back in the Valley, the Suns recruiting effort was on.
In something that seems straight out of a kid's sports movie, then-Nuggets GM Dan Issel discovered the Suns cavalry was on the way and called in his own reinforcements in his head coach Mike D'Antoni, assistant coach John Lucas, Nick Van Exel, and naturally Avalanche goalie Patrick Roy. Here's a fun anecdote:
Issel and Nuggets owner Charlie Lyons huddled with McDyess and his agents, Dutt and James Bryant, in a locker room at McNichols Arena, where a sold-out NHL game between the
Colorado Avalanche and the Calgary Flames was less than an hour away. When McDyess mentioned that Avalanche goaltender Patrick Roy was his favorite player, the Nuggets brass asked Roy in for a quick pregame visit. He presented McDyess with the goalie stick he had planned to use that night.
Thanks for nothing (then-Phoenix Coyotes goalie) Nikolai Khabibulin.
The 1999 Sports Illustrated article goes into extensive detail about what happened when the Suns arrived but the short of it was that the players headed to McNichols Arena where the Avalance played and parked outside the arena waiting for McDyess to potentially come out.
Here's what happened next:
Chapman says he asked a security guard to tell McDyess they were waiting. After a few minutes a different guard returned and told him, "I just talked to Antonio, and he said, 'Beat it.'"
"I told the guy, 'You're lying,'" Chapman says. "I pressed him and then he finally said, 'Look, I'm just telling you what I was told to come out here and say.'"
McDyess himself painted a more hilarious picture of the incident in the 2008 interview:
But McDyess said Dan Issel, Denver's coach and general manager at the time, knew Kidd's rescue party was on the way, and instructed security and ticket sellers at McNichols Arena to keep Kidd and company out of the building.
"I mean, it was a blizzard outside, and they wouldn't let those guys inside the arena. They kept them out in the snow," McDyess said. "It was crazy times."
Poor shivering George McCloud and Tiny Tim-esque Rex Chapman.
Their daring hockey game rescue thwarted, the Suns returned to an Embassy Suites where they thought a 9:30 meeting with McDyess would follow. The meeting never happened. For one final anecdote enjoy this:
McCloud called McDyess's pager 25 times but didn't get a reply. At midnight Chapman scanned the lobby one last time and ran into Bryant, Dutt and Van Exel as they were checking in--without
McDyess. "I went up to Tony Dutt," said Chapman. "He was wearing a Denver Nuggets sweat jacket. I asked him what was going on. He told me Antonio had made up his mind to play for Denver. I told Tony that I was O.K. with that, if it made Antonio happy. I mean, he's the sweetest guy in the world. All I wanted to know was why did they have to put him through all this?"
The only thing that would make that story better is if Rex Chapman had screamed "Et tu, Tony Dutt?" at McDyess's agent at a Denver Embassy Suites in the middle of the night.
With McDyess back in Denver, the Suns struck quickly the next day when they signed Minnesota power forward Tom Gugliotta to a six year, $58.5 million dollar contract. To the chagrin of coach Danny Ainge, Googs had initially left Phoenix without a contract which caused him to deliver this great line about the Minnesota forward's visit:
"We had a lot of positive feedback," Phoenix coach Danny Ainge joked, "but, hey, I had a year of positive feedback from McDyess too."
Burn on you, Dice.
The Suns looked to double down on...something....when they acquired the jewel of the Bulls second three peat in center Luc Longley.
That Phoenix roster of OK-ness got the Suns a 27-23 record and a first round sweep at the hands of Portland.
McDyess would go on to blossom in the next 3 seasons in Denver, peaking as a 20/12 All-Star during the 2000-2001 season. A barrage of injuries started the next season as during the 2001-2002 and 2002-2003 seasons he would play just 10 games combined.
Denver then dealt McDyess to the Knicks in a deal where Scott Layden traded the recently selected Nene, Marcus Camby, and Mark Jackson for a guy who hadn't played in 2 years. Scott Layden was a great GM. Dice returned to Phoenix as a corpse in January of 2004 in the Stephon Marbury trade.
To his credit, McDyess reinvented his game nicely in his 30s with Detroit and San Antonio.
What's an alternate history like where the Suns have Kidd and McDyess growing together? Who knows - but it would have been pretty damn fun to watch. (Also we probably would have missed out on Backcourt 2000).
Here's some old school highlights of McDyess to give you a taste of what he was:
The last few words go to McDyess who according to McCosky's article, always regretted his decision to return to Denver:
"I was just very young then. I didn't have anybody guiding me or teaching me better at that point. I was basically listening to John Lucas (Nuggets assistant coach). He was my mentor-adviser at the time and that's why he got there and talked to me before (Kidd) came, and I went on to sign the paper."