With the Suns scheduled to play the second outdoor game in their history tonight, there was the predictable search through the memory banks to dredge up hazy recollections of the first one 36 years ago.
Saturday’s exhibition vs. the Denver Nuggets will be played under the lights at the plush Indian Wells Tennis Garden in Indian Wells, Calif., while Outdoor I was played on September 24, 1972 in no-frills Hiram Bithorn Baseball Stadium in San Juan, Puerto Rico against the Milwaukee Bucks.
In the three-plus decades between the two games, the NBA outgrew its cult status and the Suns developed into one of the league’s elite members – which explains why the Indian Wells game is drawing a lot of attention, whereas the San Juan game generated so little buzz only one member of the Valley media (me, actually) was on hand, and the story of the game rated all but four paragraphs in The Arizona Republic.
“When promoters in San Juan approached me,” said Suns Chairman Jerry Colangelo, who would start the 1972-73 season as the team’s general manager and finish it as head coach, “my first question was, ‘how much is it worth?’”
And the second question?
“How much was it worth?” (In those pre-boom days all NBA teams scrounged for a buck, wherever they could find them).
“But then I thought that if weather permitted and safety conditions checked out,” Colangelo said, “it sounded kind of interesting.”
It turned out to be all of that. And where Jerry’s original concern had been about the state of the park, he became more concerned with the state of the fans as the game progressed.
“They were selling a lot of beer,” he said, “and a few people started throwing bottles.”
But not to worry. Aside from a few bottles here and there, and intermittent attacks by hordes of insects, the game proceeded without incident. But there was one after the game when Colangelo and Milwaukee General Manager Wayne Embree had to chase the promoter down a hallway to get their money.
“It didn’t hurt to have a big guy (Embree was 6-9, 300 pounds) along in that situation,” said Colangelo.
The game marked the debut of Butch van Breda Kolff’s brief (seven-game) stint as Suns’ head coach, and with Neal Walk scoring 15 points and Charlie Scott 14, the Suns beat the Bucks, who were led by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Oscar Robertson, 113-110. As he usually did, Suns forward Connie Hawkins drew the most oohs and ahs with some of his patented swoops.
This was a Suns team that also included Dick Van Arsdale, Clem Haskins, Lamar Green, and Dennis Layton. After the game the Suns flew over the mountains (barely, as I recall) to Ponce, and with Hawk putting on a spectacular show, beat the Bucks again, 116-103.
The sweep prompted Butch to proclaim the Suns would finish high in the Pacific Division, but alas they finished 38-44, and Butch himself was finished after his 3-4 start to the regular season.
One of the players who has the most vivid recollections of Outdoor I is Walk, a vastly underrated Sun who would enjoy one of his best seasons that year, averaging 20.2 points and 12.4 rebounds.
“I remember we wondered why we would go to Puerto Rico to play the Bucks on a floor placed between first and third base and over a flattened pitcher’s mound,” he said. “Usually you played exhibition games near the other team’s city, such as playing the Buck maybe in Green Bay, drawing more from fans in the region and exposing your product. But Puerto Rico? What affiliation was there, and whose brainchild was this?
“The night was humid and breezy, windy enough in fact that the backboards swayed a little from time to time, much like the swaying palm trees you could see in the distance. All in all, it was quite an adjustment to make, and no one totally adjusted. I remember taking a shot from the left wing right in front of Coach van Breda Kolff. I heard him say, ‘Looking good,’ but with the wind and the swaying rim, the ball drifted and didn’t even draw iron.”
Swaying rims and gusty breezes weren’t the only problems either.
“The humidity was such that sweat dripped,” Walk added, “and the floor had a misty dew which made it quite slippery. Then there were the sea fowl, which kept flying from one end of the court to the other.”
Lamar Green also remembers the gusty breezes, too, but not because of the swaying backboards, but more for a flying jersey – his.
“I hung my uniform up to dry,” recalls the Suns’ irrepressible super leaper, “and the wind blew it up a tree. I had to pay a kid to climb up and get it.”
Suns Ring of Honor trainer Joe Proski remembers the laundry situation well, too.
“That was one of our biggest problems,” he said. “That and the luggage. When we got to San Juan we learned our luggage was still in New York, and we were up most of the night waiting for it, and had to cancel a workout.
“As far as the game goes, I remember we were supposed to sit in the dugouts, but found out they were too far from the court, which was elevated three or four feet, so they set up some benches for us.”
Walk’s overall assessment pretty much summed up the whole team’s reaction to “The Great Outdoor Adventure.”
“I don’t think that anybody who participated enjoyed the game very much at all,’’ he said, “but many seemed to enjoy the night life in San Juan.”