Years Active: 1976 – 1988
Regular Season Stats: 988 games, 27.5 mpg
14.1 ppg, 7.0 rpg, 4.1 apg, 0.8 bpg, 1.3 spg, 49.8% FG, 78.8% FT
Postseason Stats: 78 games, 29.3 mpg
13.8 ppg, 7.5 rpg, 4.1 apg, 0.9 bpg, 1.1 spg, 47.3% FG, 76.6% FT
Accolades: Rookie of the Year (1976), All-Rookie 1st Team (1976), All-Star (1976)
“I remember looking around at the old guys in the locker room—guys like Pat Riley—and feeling sorry for them because they only had a year or two left. I thought I’d have lots of chances to win the championship, but in 12 years with Phoenix I never got back to the Finals.”
As it turned out, Adams would not only never return to the Finals, but he’d never match the dramatic output of his rookie season, which was the one of the better and surprising ones in league history. Despite winning the Big 8 Player of the Year award three times at the University of Oklahoma, pro scouts had their doubts about Adams’ ability to play in the NBA. Most concerning was his body: 6’9″, 210 lbs. That’s not the size of your prototypical NBA center and there was fear he was too slow to convert to forward.
One man who had no doubts about Adams was John MacLeod. MacLeod was the man who recruited Adams to Oklahoma, but the coach left the Sooners after one year of Adams’ college career to coach the Phoenix Suns. MacLeod now jumped at the chance to draft his former college recruit and utilized Adams as one of the main cogs in his free-flowing Suns offense. Alvan indeed was too frail to play in the lowpost all the time, but his best skill was passing not scoring. This led MacLeod to station Adams in the highpost where he proved to be a devastating force.
That rookie year (1976) he averaged 5.6 assists per game. Before him only centers Wilt Chamberlain and Bill Russell passed that mark. Since then, only Sam Lacey has.
Passing was his greatest skill, but Adams put together an overall great campaign: 19 PPG, 9.1 RPG, 1.5 SPG, and 1.5 BPG to go with the assists. The accolades piled up for Adams that season, too. He was a member of the All-Rookie 1st Team and the All-Star Team, and was named Rookie of the Year.
The Phoenix Suns finished with a 42-40 record that year, but upset the Seattle SuperSonics in the Conference Semi-Finals and then squared off with Golden State Warriors for the Western Conference crown. With teammate Keith Erickson sending in 16 second-half points, Adams sealed the deal for Phoenix with the game-winning shot in Game 6 to tie the series. In Game 7, Phoenix completed the upset of the defending NBA champion Warriors.
In the Finals, the rookie Adams enjoyed the finest play of his pro career. Facing the Boston Celtics, Adams was matched against another undersized center in Dave Cowens. The former regular season and Finals MVP averaged 20.5 PPG, 16.3 RPG and 3.3 APG. The rookie more than held his own against the hustling Celtic center with 23 points, 10.2 rebounds, and 4.7 assists per game. His rebounding and scoring led the Suns while his assists were just 0.1 away from leading the squad, too, as Paul Westphal edged him out.
The Celtics, however, would edge out the Suns in the series. It was six-game defeat for Phoenix featuring the memorable Game 5 which went to triple overtime and had heroics from John Havlicek, Gar Heard, and Jo Jo White.
Following the Finals appearance, the Suns sank into a mediocre 33-win record the next season, rebounded to a 49-win year in 1978 but failed to get out of the 1st round. A blockbuster trade prior to the 1978 season gave Adams the perfect frontcourt mate in Truck Robinson. Although undersized like Adams, Truck, as the name suggests, was a heavy load to bear in the block and was an absolute machine on the boards and he was excited for what the future held for the Suns:
“Me and Walter Davis?” he says. “A great high-post center like Adams? A shooter like Westphal? A quarterback like [Don] Buse? I could have gone to New York or Philadelphia for lots more money, but I could not find a team more perfect for me than Phoenix.”
A 50-win regular season was followed by postseason success, but Adams’ frailty concerns came to fruition. The Suns held a 3-2 series lead in the Western Conference Finals against the Sonics. Missing Adams due to a badly sprained ankle, the Suns lost Game 6 by one point, 106-105. In Game 7, Adams returned, but facing Seattle on the road proved too daunting and the Suns lost 114-110.
That loss would represent the closest point the Suns would make to an NBA finals return during Adams’ career. Tremendously strong teams were fielded throughout the early 1980s, particularly a 1981 squad that won 57 games but was upset by the 40-win Kansas City Kings in the Semi-Finals. During this period, the Suns’ talent rotated and changed constantly: Paul Westphal was traded out, Walter Davis battled drug addiction, Dennis Johnson and Maurice Lucas were brought in, but Adams remained the constant.
His playing time during the early 80s settled in at just under 30 minutes a night but from 1980 through 1983 Adams still produced 15 points, 7.5 rebounds, 4.5 assists, 1.5 steals and a block a night while connecting on 50% of his shots and 79% of his free throws.
However, in 1984, Adams would see the worst season of his pro career thus far. His minutes were slashed to just 20 a night, but the Phoenix frontcourt was now stacked. In addition to the aforementioned Lucas, Larry Nance and James Edwards were now in the fold. The immense talent upfront only produced 41 wins that season, but the Suns caught fire in the playoffs advancing one final time to the Western Conference Finals where they lost to the Lakers in 6 games.
The Suns thereafter succumbed to mediocre basketball for good during Alvan’s career. Four straight losing seasons took their toll as it became harder and harder for the veteran center to endure the rigors of the NBA:
“I don’t know if I can mentally prepare to go through another year,” said Adams, who will turn 34 July 19. “It was a big decision, but it was a simple one for me. I simply do not desire to play basketball anymore.”
And with that, the Oklahoma Kid retired that summer of 1988.
In his career Adams tallied more assists than any center not named “Wilt Chamberlain”, “Kareem Abdul-Jabbar” or “Bill Russell”. His plateau of 14 PPG, 7 RPG and 4 APG is something done by just 13 players ever in league history. It’s a damn impressive list.
To this day, Alvan Adams remains littered all over the record books for the Phoenix Suns. He’s 1st in games played, minutes played, offensive rebounds, total rebounds, steals and personal fouls. He takes the pole position in points, defensive rebounds, field goals made, field goal attempts, and turnovers. He’s 3rd place in assists and 4th in blocks.
You simply can’t discuss the Phoenix Suns (at least knowledgeably) without mentioning the pivot man from Oklahoma.