Majerle's play has Suns fans clapping now

THE THUNDERING HEARD

June 16, 1993|By Alan Goldstein | Alan Goldstein,Staff Writer

CHICAGO -- When the Phoenix Suns made Dan Majerle of Central Michigan their first-round choice in the 1988 NBA draft, the selection was greeted by a resounding chorus of "Dan Who?" mixed with a crescendo of boos.

Then-Suns coach Cotton Fitzsimmons responded by snapping, "This will be the last time you people will boo Dan Majerle."

Fitzsimmons' words proved prophetic. The aggressive 6-foot-6 swingman has become one of the Suns' most popular players. He has his own "Thunder-Nine" line of sports clothes, and his new cafe has become the hottest spot in downtown Phoenix.

An All-Star performer the past two seasons, Majerle has a knack for coming up big in clutch situations. His game-tying basket with 15 seconds left saved the Suns from an embarrassing first-round playoff elimination by the Los Angeles Lakers.

Sunday night, with Phoenix trailing 2-0 in the series against the defending champion Chicago Bulls, he instilled new hope in the Suns by scoring 28 points and hitting a championship record six three-pointers in the triple-overtime, 129-121 victory.

Eight of Majerle's points came in the fourth quarter and overtime sessions when both teams, suffering fatigue, struggled to score.

"How could I feel tired?" said Majerle, who sat out only four minutes of the 63-minute marathon. "I was having too much fun."

An overachiever, Majerle is one of those athletes who always seems to enjoy his work. He lacks the fluid grace of a David Robinson, the brute force of a Charles Barkley or the acrobatic skills of a Dominique Wilkins. He simply gets the job done.

His relentless work ethic has even drawn praise from Barkley, who prefers needling his teammates.

"What do I like about Majerle?" Barkley said. "He's tough. No, he's tough-tough. I'd climb in a foxhole with him any day."

Majerle may be averaging a modest 15.4 points through 21 playoff games, but that belies his worth to the Suns.

"You can't judge my game on whether I score a lot of points," he said. "We have so many other guys on this team who can fill it up that I just try to do the other things like rebound, play solid defense and just hustle all the time."

It is why his coach, Paul Westphal, compares him to Hall of Famer John Havlicek without embarrassment.

"I definitely believe it's fair if you compare Dan with John at the same point in their careers," said Westphal, a teammate of Havlicek's with the Boston Celtics.

"They both came into the NBA known as strong defenders, but considered offensive liabilities. Havlicek really didn't start excelling on offense until his seventh year. But like Dan, he had the ability to defend just about anybody on the floor. They also have a similar approach to the game: just work your butt off."

Although he is now a high-profile performer in Phoenix, Majerle still can walk through most NBA cities without attracting much attention.

"It's always been like that for me," said Majerle, a native of Traverse City, Mich. "But it doesn't bother me. Other guys deserve all the notoriety they get. I'm just a blue-collar worker who doesn't get noticed because I don't do anything that spectacular or fancy."

But Majerle, who played center and power forward in high school, was a sought-after prep star after averaging 37.5 points his senior year and winning All-State honors.

Majerle shunned bids from Big Ten colleges to play closer to home at Central Michigan, a member of the Mid-American Conference.

"I signed with Central Michigan before my senior year ended," he recalled. "I knew the conference had sent several guys to the NBA, and it gave me a chance to develop my game, especially my outside shooting."

Back surgery and ankle problems hindered Majerle in his first two years in college. "If I'd been at a Big Ten school, someone probably would have taken my place in the lineup, and I'd have been forgotten. But Central Michigan really supported me."

Majerle earned the nickname "Thunder" in college for his resounding dunks and strong inside play.

"I teamed up at Central Michigan with a guy named 'Lightning Levy,' " he said, laughing. "Yeah, we were 'Thunder' and 'Lightning.' He was a heck of a player, but never made it to the pros."

Coming from a small college, Majerle beat the odds and was selected by John Thompson to play for the 1988 U.S. Olympic team.

"That was probably the most rewarding thing that ever happened to me," he said. "You always have doubts about whether you can compete with stars from big colleges, but after I nTC held my own in the first few scrimmages, I knew I belonged."

He had to settle for a bronze medal in the Seoul Games, but the Russian basketball coach chose Majerle as the best American player.

Mononucleosis sidelined Majerle for 28 games his rookie NBA season, when he averaged 8.6 points. He blossomed into the Suns' all-purpose sixth man, his scoring average and three-point shooting improving each season.

When Jeff Hornacek was sent to Philadelphia as part of the trade that brought Barkley to Phoenix, Majerle joined Kevin Johnson in the starting backcourt this season.

He still plays in the shadow of the irrepressible Barkley, but "Thunder Dan" is making enough noise for everyone to sit up and

take notice.

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