We have already established how the playoffs back east started in this great decade. Now, it is time to see how the West shaped up. In the opening round, the then Kansas City Kings faced off with the dangerous Phoenix Suns.
At this point in their history, before the Chris Webber era, the Kansas City Kings had been noted for being the U-Haulers of the NBA. They had started as the Rochester Royals, then Cincinnati, and finally the Kansas City Omaha Kings. Though they had different owners, the one constant had been Joe Axelson. In Cincinnati, Axelson had traded away the franchise centerpiece(in part because of age, in part to appease Coach Bob Cousy, who feuded with Oscar) Oscar Robertson, which signaled the end of the Cincy era.
Axelson, along with 9 others, would move the team to Kansas City in 1971, and the franchise wouldn’t even have a permanent home until 1976. But, again, they were unwanted in a city with the popular Kansas City Royals and Chiefs. Axelson would make things worse trading the great Nate “Tiny” Archibald and two-time All-Star Norm Van Lier.
Finally, in 1978. Axelson would finally make a good choice, hiring the respected Lowell “Cotton” Fitzsimmons as a coach. Fitzsimmons would acquire considerable mileage as a coach like his franchise, being the head man in five different cities(including a once and future stint in Phoenix).
With a quality commander, the Kings would get to the postseason in 1979, and this year, they were a 47-35 outfit. Again, Fitzsimmons would win Coach of the Year honors. The Kings, with Cotton, had a solid group of players. They had Sam Lacey at center(today forgotten), occasional All-Star Scott Wedman, and the well-regarded Otis Birdsong. Also, off the bench, Bill Robinzine was infamous today as the subject of that noted poet/dunk artist Daryl Dawkins, then with the Philadelphia 76ers. The Kings were talented but not overwhelming.
Their opponent would be the Phoenix Suns, a decidedly more talented squad. There was the “Greyhound,” Walter Davis, who was a marvelous scorer. The former rebounding champ, Leonard Eugene “Truck” Robinson, and the ever-clutch shooter Garfield Heard. The star, though, had come to the Valley of the Sun by events that took place two years before he entered the league.
In 1970, Charlie Scott was a pioneering hoopster at the University of North Carolina. However, 1970 was smack dab middle in the “bidding war” between the NBA and rival ABA, and Scott opted to go to Virginia Squires of the ABA. Meanwhile, Red Auerbach of the Boston Celtics took a flier, drafting him in the 7th round. Scott became a big-time scorer in the ABA and, after 18 months, got the NBA “itch” and wanted to jump to the Phoenix Suns. All was well, except that the little redhead in Boston said, “hold up, what about me”? However, Auerbach was already flush at guard(Jo Jo White and Don Chaney), so he didn’t particularly want Scott. He did, however, want a Sun player, the Machiavellian level street poet named Paul Theron Silas. Silas had come of age loving the great Bill Russell(in fact, he attended the same high school as the bearded one) and leaped at the chance to play in Boston. The Suns agreed, having lost Gail Goodrich and wanting a big-time scorer. While Silas became a soulmate to Boston center Dave Cowens, Scott would thrive, and together the Celtics would capture the 1974 NBA title, with a little-used guard named Paul Westphal coming off the bench. By 1975, though, Chaney would depart for the ABA, and by now Auerbach heard that Scott was available, as his selfish ways had alienated him from his teammates and coach. Phoenix was interested, and Westphal was the sacrifice for Scott. It was a trade that worked well for both sides. They would, in effect, trade each other into the 1976 NBA Finals, as Scott helped Boston and Westphal developed into one of the league’s best guards. By 1979, Westphal had no equal, except for San Antonio’s George Gervin. But, even though he was 1st team- NBA, Coach John Macleod was limiting his minutes, which led to a philosophical clash between coach and player. MacLeod was a decidedly old school type, stressing defense and ball movement, and he was not about to negotiate with his star player over playing time. Westphal sulked. But the style was successful, as three players finished with 300 or more assists.
So, the Kings were a quick, penetrating team led by a former rookie of the year Phil Ford, while Westphal led the Suns. But the coaching styles of Fitzsimmons would determine the outcome of this game. Cotton liked up-tempo, fast-paced basketball, while MacLeod emphasized passing and ball movement and defense. The Suns style won this afternoon in 1980, as they would take a 96-93 decision. Westphal would record 23 points, and Robinson would grab 14 rebounds. For the Kings, Birdsong would get 23 points and 9 rebounds. The battle for the soul of the West had begun in the 80s.