PHOENIX -- Frank Johnson was fired on Wednesday as coach of
the Phoenix Suns, a young team with high expectations that is off to an 8-13 start and has lost six of its last seven games.
The Suns promoted lead assistant Mike D'Antoni, a star player
and highly successful coach in Italy who also coached the Denver Nuggets in the lockout-shortened 1998-99 season.
"There's been something amiss all year, in my opinion," Suns
owner Jerry Colangelo said. "The more I saw on the floor, the more
I disliked what I saw as it related to body language, communication
or lack of same."
D'Antoni, under contract through next season, promised to
immediately try to boost the tempo, beginning with the next game
Thursday night at home against New Orleans.
"It should be exciting the first couple of nights. Balls should
be flying around. We'll try not to hurt anybody," D'Antoni said.
"But hopefully it will make it exciting, anyway."
Bryan Colangelo, the owner's son and president of the Suns'
basketball operations, accompanied the team on its four-game trip
to the East. He watched Phoenix blow a 22-point early lead in
Orlando on Monday night and lose to a Magic team that had dropped
On Tuesday night, the Suns looked unmotivated in a 92-72 loss at
On the long plane ride home, the younger Colangelo said, he
began seriously thinking about a coaching change.
"Reflecting back to a few things that I was observing on the
road trip, and just reflecting back over the past several weeks and
months, it became pretty apparent," he said.
Johnson spent 10 years in the Suns organization as a player,
community relations official and coach. Known as "Fourth-Quarter
Frank" for his shooting ability, he was a key reserve on the 1993
team that reached the NBA Finals.
Johnson replaced Scott Skiles as the Suns' head coach late in
the 2001-02 season, going 11-20 the rest of the way.
Last season, Johnson guided the team to a 44-38 record and a
surprising playoff berth. The Suns -- led by the athletic trio of
Stephon Marbury, Amare Stoudemire and Shawn Marion -- played San
Antonio tough in the first round but lost to the eventual NBA
This year's season began with high expectations, but it was
obvious that last year's chemistry had, for the most part,
"Everybody's got to be in the trench together and it just
didn't seem that way," Jerry Colangelo said. "That's not pointing
fingers at anyone, but the bottom line was something's got to
Injuries to Stoudemire and first-round draft pick Zarko Cabarkapa added to the team's woes. Stoudemire is out for about
four more weeks with an ankle injury. Cabarkapa will be sidelined
for five to seven weeks with a broken wrist.
But D'Antoni, who expressed admiration of Johnson's work and
accepted part of the blame for the team's failures, said the Suns
can be much better.
"It just wasn't working out for whatever reason," D'Antoni
said. "It is a change, and it does put the onus back on the
players, and they understand that."
D'Antoni, 52, has dual citizenship in Italy and the United
States. A star point guard at Marshall, he played one season for
the Kansas City-Omaha Kings before spending 13 seasons with Milan
of the Italian League.
He led the team to five Italian League titles and two Cups of
Europe championships. D'Antoni coached Benetton Treviso of the
Italian League from 1994-97, capturing the Cup of Europe title in
1995 and the Italian League crown in 1997. He returned to coach
Benetton again in 2001.
D'Antoni, whose Denver team went 14-36 in 1998-99 season, wants
to restore some energy to the Suns.
"We've got to get some excitement into the arena," he said.
"Sometimes this year, it felt kind of down, like we were waiting
to let the cannon fall on our head, like 'When are we going to mess
up so people can talk bad about us?"'
He wants to give the players freedom to run.
"We're getting up and down," D'Antoni said. "It will be some
adjusting and there will be some bad shots going up. I'm going to
tell you that right now. It will take awhile to get that out of
their system. But I'm not going to pull the reins back on them."