Thirty years ago, Phoenix Suns set record for most free throws made in game

Phoenix Suns guard Kevin Johnson (left), speaking with coach Cotton Fitzsimmons, made 23 of 24 free throw attempt in a game 30 years ago that saw the team set a record from the line that still holds today. (Photo by Focus on Sport/Getty Images)

With the sports world on hold, Cronkite News will take a daily look at this day in sports history and reflect on some of the biggest moments in Arizona sports.

PHOENIX – The long hours spent at the free throw line. Shot after shot after shot after shot. It’s a tedious, monotonous grind, and every basketball player has been through it.

Thirty years ago today all that work paid off for the Phoenix Suns. In a rocking free-for-all on April 9, 1990, the Suns set the NBA record for most free throws made in a single game during their 119-115 overtime win against the Utah Jazz. Phoenix went 61 for 80 from the charity stripe, breaking the previous record of 60 free throws by the Washington Bullets in a win over the New York Knicks on November 13, 1987.

“Get out of here,” former Suns forward Tom Chambers said after finding out about the record, according to The Arizona Republic.

Chambers made 17 free throws that night, the second most on the team. Guard Kevin Johnson drained 23 of 24 attempts, while fellow guard Eddie Johnson added 10.

Logo for Arizona Sports Rewind, with images of sports players from major sports overlaying the sunset in the shape of the state.

Despite all the free opportunities, the Jazz kept the game close. NBA Hall of Farmer Karl Malone’s performance had much to do with it. Malone scored 39 points and grabbed 17 rebounds in the loss. It was hard for him to enjoy his individual success after losing such a battle on the court in Veteran’s Memorial Coliseum. To him, all the fouls the Jazz committed would have been overlooked if his team hadn’t lost.

“It would’ve been fine if we were on the winning side,” Malone told The Arizona Republic.

Bob Young, the Suns beat reporter for The Arizona Republic at the time, detailed in his recap that the physical flow favored the Jazz. The Suns had their share of sloppy moments, but held on for the close win.

“The good thing about it is we pulled this victory out. The bottom line is you’ve got to win the game any way you can,” Eddie Johnson told The Arizona Republic. “It was definitely the strangest game I’ve been associated with.”

The Jazz committed 52 fouls and four players — John Stockton, Thurl Bailey, Bob Hansen and Eric Johnson– fouled out. Unlike Eddie Johnson, Stockton thought the gritty game was like any other.

“Oh yeah, we’ve been involved in a lot of games like that,” Stockton told The Arizona Republic. “That’s basketball.”

The two teams were vastly different in style, a peculiarity reflected in the players’ postgame comments. Not only did the close win give Phoenix a unique spot in the record books, it helped the Suns gain momentum for the postseason.

Weeks later, the Suns met the Jazz in the first round of the Western Conference playoffs, and again the teams pushed limits before Phoenix captured the five-game series, 3-2. The Suns went on to beat the Los Angeles Lakers in the next round — another first for Phoenix — before falling to the Portland Trail Blazers in the Conference Finals. It was a season to remember for many reasons.

When color commentators talk about every free throw counting, think back 30 years ago to a wild night when they truly did for the Suns, and the NBA record that still stands today.

Brady Vernon

Sports Reporter, Phoenix

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