The evolution of the Phoenix Suns didn’t begin with the trade of Stephon Marbury, the signing of Steve Nash, or coach Mike D’Antoni’s decision to play Amaré Stoudemire at center.
It began in February 1988, when the Suns traded their best player, forward Larry Nance, to the Cleveland Cavaliers.
Reaction among fans and the local media was almost universally negative. Nance was in the prime of his career, an All-Star talent who had averaged at least 20 points a game for three straight seasons.
But Phoenix was in the midst of a 28-54 season, and Jerry Colangelo and Cotton Fitzsimmons understood the only way to start over was to blow the team up.
In exchange for Nance and Mike Sanders, Phoenix received Kevin Johnson, Mark West, Tyrone Corbin and two draft picks — one of which was used to select Dan Majerle.
Dumping Nance’s contract also gave the Suns the financial flexibility to sign free agent forward Tom Chambers the following offseason.
The Suns were reborn overnight. They won 55 games in 1988-89 and four years later were playing in the NBA Finals.
That transformation was on the mind of Suns president Bryan Colangelo in December 2003 when he contemplated trading Marbury and Penny Hardaway to the New York Knicks.
Bryan Colangelo knew he would be criticized if he made the deal.
The Suns had reached the postseason the year before — scaring the San Antonio Spurs in the first round — and the organization had sold Marbury, Stoudemire and Shawn Marion as the core of a championship team.
But as he watched the Suns stumble to a 12-22 record, as he discussed the potential deal with his father and Fitzsimmons, parallels to the Nance trade kept coming up, and Bryan Colangelo knew what had to be done, even if his personal reputation was at stake.
"We talked about the Nance deal a lot," he said. "We got draft picks, flexibility, which would be cap space now. The only element we weren’t getting was Kevin Johnson. We weren’t getting that key guy. But we felt there was still reason to do it.
"I knew I was going to take the hit, but I couldn’t worry about that."
It’s easy now, after the signings of Nash and Quentin Richardson, after winning 60 games, after clinching the Pacific Division crown, to look back on the deal and think, "Of course."
But, in truth, Bryan Colangelo took a huge risk. While creating salary cap space and getting the Suns out from under the weight of the luxury tax, there was no guarantee he could land Nash, no assurance the Los Angeles Clippers wouldn’t match the offer sheet given to Richardson.
If those moves don’t pan out, the Suns are headed to the NBA lottery again, and Colangelo is in the witness protection program.
But bold decisions often define success, and Phoenix’s remarkable season makes Colangelo the one and only choice as the NBA’s Executive of the Year.
"It was an absolutely brilliant stroke," said Jerry Reynolds, player personnel director for the Sacramento Kings. "I’ve always thought Bryan was one of the best GMs in the league. It’s kind of like the old acorn. In his case, it didn’t fall far from the tree. I think it fell directly under the tree."
Reynolds believes most NBA executives would have stayed the course with Marbury, Stoudemire and Marion even if they felt they couldn’t win a championship.
"They had some success with those guys the year before. There was a lot of reason for optimism," Reynolds said. "But Bryan had the courage of his convictions to pull it off. And my goodness, they’ve just hit home runs all over the place."
The trade was in the works for nearly a year. Then-Knicks general manager Scott Layden kept calling about Marbury but was stoned by Bryan Colangelo.
Only once did Colangelo discuss the parameters of a deal with Layden.
But when Isiah Thomas replaced Layden in December 2003 and said he was willing to meet Colangelo’s demands — multiple draft picks, taking on Hardaway’s contract, etc. — the Suns president, unhappy with his team’s performance and uncertain about the future, took the plunge.
It was a tough sell — in the community and in the Suns’ front office.
"There was disbelief internally that we were actually doing it because it was so drastic and so dramatic," Bryan Colangelo said. "But I’m sure it was the same thing Jerry and Cotton felt when they traded Larry Nance. ‘You’re trading your best player and getting what in return?’ "
In 1988, the Suns buried the drug scandal that scarred the organization and — after the trade for Charles Barkley — featured a collection of talent and personalities that, to this day, remains the most-loved team in Valley history.
This Phoenix team has yet to reach the finish line.
But now you know its date of birth: Feb. 25, 1988.