The Suns’ chemistry experiment blows up, and Phoenix fans pay the price

Barring an unlikely turn of events in the next 10 years, the Phoenix Suns will never again be coached by Jeff Hornacek.

To understand how much this reality hurts Phoenicians — who know that the troubles of their NBA franchise are rooted in ownership far more than the head coach — you have to understand where Hornacek, and the Suns themselves, came from.


Growing up in Phoenix in the 1980s and early 1990s, I saw firsthand how much my birthplace embraced Jeff Hornacek.

Not blessed with the devastating quickness of Kevin Johnson or the acrobatic dunking ability of Tom Chambers, Hornacek — in a role he would replicate with the Utah Jazz — was the glue-guy shooter and persistent defender every coach dreams of having on his roster. Hardly imposing as a physical specimen, Hornacek became the kind of player who survived in the league for a decade and a half by being smart and thoroughly prepared.

Yes, he could shoot the lights out, but Hornacek studied the game to the point where he could get in the right positions on the floor and not suffer against opponents with higher verticals and more physical heft.

Hornacek’s highest climb as an NBA player came with the Utah Jazz in 1997 and 1998. In each of those two seasons, the Jazz barely lost an NBA Finals home game to the Chicago Bulls which would have put them one win from the title. (At the end of Game 6 in the 1998 Finals, Karl Malone failed to find none other than Hornacek on a crosscourt pass to the opposite corner. As a result, Michael Jordan stole the ball from The Mailman and authored his final supreme moment as an NBA megastar. Hornacek never got a chance to hit the jumper which might have given himself — and the Jazz — a title.)

Yet, while Hornacek came closest to the world championship in Salt Lake City, Phoenix loved him first. The 1993 Suns — with Charles Barkley on the roster and Hornacek then in Philadelphia with the 76ers — are the best team in franchise history. The 1990 Suns, with Hornacek helping K.J. and Chambers to knock out the Lakers and end the Pat Riley era in Los Angeles, are the most beloved team the franchise has ever known:

The 1990 Suns didn’t get a massive parade even while failing to win the title (the 1993 team received that honor), but they were the team which made Phoenicians fall head-over-heels in love with professional basketball. Those Suns became the first Phoenix team to beat the hated Lakers in a playoff series. An organization which had known so much heartbreak since its birth in the late 1960s was finally able to taste what it felt like to conquer the big, bad behemoth from Los Angeles, a city which towered over Phoenix in the regional and national imagination.

Hornacek stood very much at the center of those 1990 Suns, who were more endearing than their 1993 successors.

Sure, Chuck was the character of all characters, but he was nevertheless a hired gun brought in to win a world title. The 1993 Suns were soaked in expectations, lending a somewhat grim undercurrent to the chase for glory. The 1990 Suns remained underdogs from start to finish — talented underdogs and playoff underdogs, but still a team that was not a higher seed in any of its three playoff series.

That Phoenix ballclub was coached by Cotton Fitzsimmons, one of the NBA’s wisecracking originals, whose wit and sense of playfulness charmed the locals in a way that 1993 coach Paul Westphal never could. Fitzsimmons’ sense of fun was a perfect match for his under-the-radar athletes. Phoenix played liberated basketball throughout its 1990 playoff run. The Portland Trail Blazers might have stopped the party in a six-game Western Conference Finals series, but the Suns enjoyed that ride every step of the way.

The 1993 season was a business trip, enjoyable and rollicking though it was. The 1990 Suns captured the hearts of Phoenix residents and set the stage for what lay ahead in the 1990s as a whole.

Jeff Hornacek, an indispensable part of that 1990 team, helped make the Suns who and what they became.

When he returned to the Valley of the Sun(s) to coach the team a few years ago, his presence was universally hailed throughout the community. It was as though Phoenix fans had one of their own in charge of the city’s original big-league sports team, even though Hornacek was born in Illinois and went to college at Iowa State.

That, in short, is why Hornacek’s firing — announced Monday morning — hits hard for an organization which is lost in the desert wilderness. It’s not a story which has played out in New Mexico, but it is as though a Walter White chemistry experiment has broken bad. Phoenix basketball fans and Hornacek himself have paid a steep price for the incompetence of owner Robert Sarver.


The truth of the matter in Phoenix has been known for some time. It’s a story which has circulated throughout the NBA community and is hardly a revelation to anyone who follows the league: Sarver has no clue. He has forced general manager Ryan McDonough to make transactions which have cut against thoughtful, long-term team-building, all in the pursuit of short-term gains.

Loading up on guards; trying to woo LaMarcus Aldridge when his arrival was anything but certain; and not jettisoning Markieff Morris in tandem with brother Marcus have all produced a great deal of dysfunction in Phoenix. Hornacek and McDonough have tried to put Humpty Dumpty back together again, but all of Sarver’s horses and all of his men have been poorly assembled and arranged.

Sarver has been notoriously impatient in Phoenix. This impatience has chiefly manifested itself in the form of wanting present-day results without being willing to wait for a bigger payoff down the line. However, this impatience has instructively emerged in terms of Sarver’s overall disposition as well, and in many ways, this is the flaw at the heart of the organization itself.

Sarver infamously slammed Markieff Morris for reacting so poorly to the trade which sent his brother to Detroit. His rant against millennial culture wasn’t appalling solely as a reaction to Markieff Morris as an individual. (What would anyone expect when two brothers on the same roster are separated without their mutual consent or agreement?) Sarver sent the kind of message which would make Phoenix a profoundly undesirable place to land for any relatively young(er) NBA player. What spectacular foolishness… which neatly summarizes the Sarver era.

The Suns were already at rock bottom a month ago. The idea that Hornacek was supposed to salvage an already-ruined season with Eric Bledsoe hurt was (and is, and always will be) ludicrous. If there’s anything enlightened about this move, it is only this: If Sarver is an unreasonable man, he ought to bring in a coach who is willing to shoulder unreasonable demands. Hornacek will surely get another chance as an NBA head coach. If he lands with an organization which knows what it’s doing, Hornacek will look back fondly on this day.

The hard part for him — and a city which has loved him for a quarter of a century — is that Hornacek will never rise to great heights as an NBA coach in Phoenix.

This chemistry experiment gone wrong in the desert has claimed an immediate victim in Hornacek himself. The sadder part is that a city is being held hostage by an owner without a conscience.

About Matt Zemek

Matt Zemek is the managing editor of The Student Section, covering college football and basketball with associate editors Terry Johnson and Bart Doan. Mr. Zemek is the editor of Crossover Chronicles, covering the NBA. He is also Bloguin's lead tennis writer, covering the major tournaments. He contributes to other Bloguin sites, such as The AP Party.