PHOENIX -- The recent National Basketball Association meetings might have provided the Phoenix Suns an opportunity to show they had begun to break through the darkness that has engulfed what had once been considered a flagship franchise.

It has been a year marred by the death in a plane crash of one player, grand jury indictments for alleged drug abuse and gambling by other players, and dreadful play on the court. Then the NBA added to the gloom by moving the meetings scheduled here to southern California, citing the racial and political climate in Arizona under the administration of controversial Gov. Evan Mecham.

"That's not our fault," new head coach John Wetzel said, "but it lends to the idea of the Phoenix Suns having a bad name; we're associated with that. It seems like we can't catch a break."

Added General Manager Jerry Colangelo: "It makes you wonder what's going to happen next."

What happens next may well be the most intriguing question. Team officials say they hope to heal old wounds and make peace with the Phoenix community as well as within the organization. It's not going to be easy.

"I'm a guy who's used to hard times," Colangelo said, "because I'm from the wrong side of the tracks, but this has taxed the very fiber of what you're made of, what you stand for. There's been a lot of damage done to this franchise; our hearts were pierced."

Of all the misfortunes that beset the Suns, nothing was as tragic as the death of center Nick Vanos in the August crash of a Northwest airliner near Detroit. Entering what would have been his third NBA season, Vanos was expected to be a major contributor, if not a starter.

"He had just started to get better and feeling good about himself, started to put his head up," said Wetzel. "The players liked him. As a rookie he wasn't ready. He was hurt and he probably babied himself too much. But last year there was a complete turnaround. In this league, the respect of your peers is everything, and Nick had gotten that."

During an outstanding 10-year career, all with the Suns, guard Walter Davis had surely earned the respect of the team -- of the entire NBA. But all that might have been lost forever this March, when he testified before a Maricopa County (Ariz.) grand jury investigating drug possession and trafficking and possible gambling and bribery by and of professional athletes.

Davis, who had entered a drug rehabilitation clinic in December 1985, was the first witness before the grand jury. Testifying under immunity from prosecution, he said some former and present teammates used cocaine.

Less than a month later, indictments were handed up against 13 people, including Suns center James Edwards (one count each of conspiracy to possess a narcotic drug, to transfer a narcotic drug, to transfer or possess marijuana); guard Jay Humphries (conspiracy to transfer and/or possess marijuana and/or narcotic drug) and guard Grant Gondrezick (conspiracy to possess narcotic drug, conspiring to transfer or offer to transfer narcotic drug, attempting to possess same).The Case Dwindles

When the indictments were announced in April, the stir grew as prosecutors and law enforcement officials announced their probe would have far-reaching, "national repercussions."

Little of the sort happened. In fact, today, the biggest question is how the case ever got as far as it did. On Sept. 13, after Edwards admitted using marijuana once and agreed to enter drug counseling, the charges against him were dismissed. A similar agreement had been reached with Humphries earlier. Gondrezick was put on probation after pleading guilty to a charge of witness-tampering in the case.

The dropping of charges against Edwards continued a pattern in which the cases against five of the men indicted were dismissed or returned to the grand jury for review. At no point was any of the talk of gambling substantiated. An editorial in the Arizona Republic likened the investigation's lack of tangible results to "a missed layup rather than a slam dunk."

"There was a great deal of sensationalism and it was supposed to be a very big thing, but it was a big zero," said Colangelo. "There were some difficult weeks and months and what materialized was the unraveling of their case. When this broke, we said that the players were innocent until proven guilty and that before we hanged them let's see what happened, but people went ahead and tried them and convicted them anyway.

"Why did it get to that point? Today, the media has to look at the whole story and come to its own conclusion and judgments. I'm not going to be the judge and jury."Defense Doesn't Rest

Others, however, are willing to offer their opinions.

"Was it all to show how tough they are on drugs or was it to further political careers? The only reason this happened the way it did was because it was politically comfortable and advantageous for someone," said Reggie Turner, a lawyer for Edwards and Humphries.

"Initially, they thought they had The Bomb. After the initial investigations and they got their preliminary information, you would think they would have said that there wasn't a lot there . . . but at that point they couldn't pull out gracefully -- they had to extract their pound of flesh to avoid the appearance of total incompetence."

Turner said he is considering legal action on behalf of his clients against Maricopa County. Citing a gag order covering the participants in the case, Maricopa County Attorney Tom Collins declined to be interviewed for this article, as did Davis.

It is estimated that the county spent nearly $500,000 on the case. There's no way to estimate the cost to the Phoenix Suns.

From 1977 to 1983, the team averaged 52 victories a year, one of the best records in the NBA. In the last four years, the average is 36.

Despite all that's happened, season ticket sales are down only 3 percent from last year, perhaps partly a result of a slick video cassette mailed by the team to 3,000 customers, highlighting the team on the floor and featuring a united front of management and players promising to rise above the events of the past year.

"I guess, if everything were in place and zinging along, the job wouldn't have been open," said Wetzel, named this summer to replace John MacLeod, who was fired in February after nearly 14 seasons with the Suns.

Although Dick Van Arsdale was named interim coach, Wetzel ran the show in practices and during the games. At the start of this season, though, Xs and Os likely will be the least of his problems. Colangelo has said that Davis, who returned to a drug rehabilitation clinic in April, will return to the team this season, rejoining the men he testified against.

"Walter is accused of ratting on his teammates," said Colangelo. "Now, if a guy stepped up and said, 'Here's what I know,' that's one thing, but if he's put in a position where he has no choice but to talk, that's another. What I have to do is try to mend the wounds and help the relationships between all parties. Things may never be the same, but we have to make the best of the situation."

Colangelo and Wetzel say one-on-one meetings between Davis and his teammates are being conducted to try to ensure a smooth passage into the upcoming season. One of those players Davis spoke with is forward Mike Sanders, the Suns' player representative.

"He's trying to make amends right now, trying to clear the air and help us to understand what happened better," said Sanders. "Walter feels that he was set up by the investigators, that it wasn't a fair game and that he was caught up in a situation that he couldn't handle.

"We don't have a choice about playing with him -- the general manager took that option away. We've got to play with him, but I can't see socializing with him after the games."

After an offseason workout here last week, Humphries, the starting point guard, said that, while "everything would work out okay," it was too early to comment on whether he would be able to coexist with Davis, his back-court partner. Turner expressed doubts:

"Do they want to {coexist}? We'll see. No, I'm hedging, I know they don't want to, but what choice do they have? James Edwards is coming off Achilles' tendon surgery {that caused him to miss 68 games last season}. Do they got to be friends? You can forget that. I don't think they were that close beforehand, it's certainly not going to happen now.

"There are some real exposed nerves and emotions here. It's probably salvageable but they have to stop babying and covering for Walter Davis, stop reaching out to him like a fallen angel. The players are saying, 'Five years ago I smoked a joint and I have to go to trial and see a possible 40-year prison term and here's Walter Davis going to lunch and playing golf with team officials every other week.' . . .

"Right now, the guys on the team are scared to death to get close to anyone or to make their feelings known. If you're Mike Sanders and you see them just trading for Eddie Johnson and signing Bill Martin to a contract, do you march in and say, 'I can't play with Walter Davis?' They'll say, 'Okay, that won't be a problem,' and get rid of you.

"I wouldn't be surprised if there were a number of physical altercations before it's all over," said Turner. "Take practices. What happens when Walter Davis starts to think that someone is taking cheap shots at him and he decides to retaliate? I've told my guys that, as much as they want to kick Walter Davis' butt, they have to put it aside."

That is precisely the scenario Wetzel is hoping to avoid. "If I have any uneasiness at all about anything, I've got to address it right away," he said. "If I don't, it could fester and boil over."

"Everyone is saying that Phoenix is a bunch of druggers; we're not, but the whole franchise has been tarnished," Wetzel said. "Players' lives have been totally distorted . . . and that may never be rectified."