Timing is everything for Suns' Gentry
The right city, the right players, the right system make it work for former Clippers coach
Of all the adjectives that could've come out of his mouth when I asked about where he came from, of all the things he could've said, Alvin Gentry came up with a story about how picky he used to be.
This man who has become one of the most good-natured, even-keeled people in the NBA. This coach who has been hired and fired by three separate organizations but still finds a kind word to say about all of them. This guy sitting across the table, taking 90 minutes out of his day to catch up even though it means 90 minutes less sleep later on while he figures out a way to give his Suns a better chance to beat the Lakers in the Western Conference finals.
This patient man told me how picky he used to be.
"I was pretty much a momma's boy," he said of his childhood in Shelby, N.C. "All through school my mom would make breakfast for everyone, then, because I was such a peculiar, picky eater, she'd have to make a whole different breakfast for me.
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"My eggs, they had to be like completely cremated and fried hard.
"And she'd make these fruit pies I really liked. Peach, apple, all kinds," Gentry said. "That's all I'd want to eat. My brothers and sisters would go, 'Oh my God' and roll their eyes at me. But I was just picky." At first glance, it seems like a trait he outgrew a long time ago. He didn't ask the waitress at this busy restaurant across from Staples Center to do anything different or peculiar to his order.
And in his three decades in basketball, he hasn't had the luxury of being picky very often. Jobs have chosen him, not the other way around. He's been hired and fired by three different organizations -- Miami, Detroit and the Clippers -- all before he was 55 years old.
It's this fourth job, hired and rehired by the Phoenix Suns, a team so similar in disposition and character to his own, that's making me reconsider the idea of Gentry having outgrown his fussy nature.
Could he, in some unintentional, karmically guided way, have chosen this team?
Could this team, having been built, torn apart and remade in an alternate, awkward image just two years ago, have chosen him, and only him, for its final retrofit?
"I can honestly say to you that it couldn't have worked out any better," he said. "I just really felt like I knew this team.
"Having been around here [as an assistant coach under former coach] Mike [D'Antoni], all of the success we had, all of those things, I thought I really knew this team."
It has, save for these first two games against the Lakers, come together even better than anyone could've expected.
Over the past 15 months, under Gentry's watch, the Suns have gone from declining empire to glistening reclamation project.
And his career, once headed for permanent right-hand-man status, has taken off.
So, picky? Maybe still. Just for the right job.
Lessons from down the hall
It took a long time to get over being fired by the Los Angeles Clippers. He'd loved Los Angeles, loved the opportunity of coaching and molding young talent like Lamar Odom, Quentin Richardson, Elton Brand, Corey Maggette and Darius Miles, loved living five minutes from the beach in Rancho Palos Verdes.
But at some point, in a profession like coaching, you sort of learn how to get over being fired. You move on, find another job and somehow make peace with the idea that the other one just wasn't meant to be.
"I think what happens is, you get devastated when you get fired because you take it so personal," Gentry said. "But I've gotten to the point where I don't take it quite as personal now because it's happened a few times.
"But I think you get devastated and then you learn to pick yourself up and say, 'OK, now what am I going to do?' You can't go around having pity parties and feeling sorry for yourself. You gotta go, 'OK, what are we going to do now?'"
Still, there's a part of him that's always going to wonder what might've been with the Clippers. What could've happened if he was allowed to coach all of those young stars a little longer, as they became men and grew out of their immaturity.
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"We made a lot of progress my first year, and even more progress my second year," he recalled, like it was a million years ago. "But in my third year we just regressed back [starting the year 19-39], and they fire coaches in this league when that happens."
Last season, Odom apologized to Gentry. He'd always felt bad about the player and the man he'd been in his time playing for Gentry. Always known that if he'd been better, if he'd been more mature, things might've turned out differently.
"I understand, and I told Lamar, 'Heck, I could've been better as a coach, too,'" Gentry said.
Learning at the feet of legends
Coaching was never his dream. Playing in the NBA was. But somewhere along the line, it became clear his ability wouldn't match the size of his dream and coaching became the only way he could stay around the game after playing for Press Maravich and Bobby Cremins at Appalachian State.
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He found his way to Colorado with a little help from Larry Brown, who got him a tryout with the Denver Nuggets as a favor to David Thompson, Gentry's first cousin.
Some way or another, he landed a job as a graduate assistant on Bill Blair's staff at the University of Colorado. For two years he lived in the dorms, took home $400 a month and loved every second of it.
After a stint at Baylor, then another stint at Colorado, Brown called and offered him a spot on his staff at Kansas. the Jayhawks went to the Final Four in 1986, the Sweet 16 in '87, then won the NCAA title in '88.
"Larry is an unbelievable basketball mind," Gentry said. "He always wants to talk basketball, wants guys to learn. When you work for him he wants you to be a complete coach.
"I think Larry is really good when he has a team that no one expects to do well. He's a great teacher, the best teacher I've ever been around."
Having Brown as a mentor would be plenty to mold most men. But he is only one of a handful of coaching legends Gentry has learned from.
"I think that's where I've been really fortunate," Gentry said. "I had Coach Maravich and Bobby Cremins in college, who was a huge, huge influence on me. Then obviously there was Larry Brown and Doug Collins [in Detroit], Gregg Popovich [in San Antonio]. All of those guys have had huge influences on my coaching career."
Choosing each other
There was no good way to end it. No easy way to admit trading for Shaquille O'Neal wasn't working out the way they'd hoped. No good way to tell Terry Porter he wasn't getting the results they wanted.
Suns general manager Steve Kerr had to do it anyway, sooner rather than later, and the only guy he could think of to help salvage the situation was Gentry.
"He was the obvious choice," Kerr said. "There was never any question about what we would do and he did such a good job he became the long-term coach.
"We had a team that was probably on the way down when we made the Shaq deal and we tried to salvage it and swing for the fences," Kerr said. "When it didn't work, I knew the s--- was going to hit the fan and it did.
"Once we took a shot and it failed, we had to fix it. Alvin has been my savior, he really has. He's kind of recaptured the spirit of the team."
Gentry's strategy for reconstructing the Suns was simple. Go back to what had made them great before, keep the game fun, but this time play some defense.
The reason it worked so well is that after everything he'd been through in his career, and everything the Suns had been through the past two years, the right guy met the right job with the right team and neither the coach nor the team looked back. "He's great to be around," Kerr said. "He's a survivor. He never burns any bridges in this league. He's worked for a lot of people and nobody has a bad word to say about him. ... What I like about him is he's learned from every situation he's been in.
"It's such a hard job, coaching in the NBA. It's brutal. Hardly anybody makes a real career out of it, but if you look at the guys who have, one of the common themes is that they've had good players.
"I think there's some luck and some timing involved," Kerr said. "If Pat Riley hadn't taken over a team with Magic and Kareem, would he have had the career he's had. Same with Phil [Jackson] in Chicago. At some point you've got to get a break, but then you have to take advantage of it. I think Alvin got a break, he's got good talent here, he's got a good environment and he's doing a good job."
The synchronicity of this particular moment in time, the fortuitousness of his current situation, is not lost on Gentry.
A thousand things had to line up for him to be in this place, with this team, at this point in his career.
After he was fired as coach of the Clippers, he'd pretty much accepted idea that he might never get another shot at running his own team. He was fine with that reality.
"I would've been content being an assistant in Phoenix for as long as they'd have me," he said. "I love the city, my kids love living there. I would've been content just being an assistant, being involved in basketball." Instead, his patience and perseverance was rewarded.
The right job finally came along. Gentry and the Suns picked each other.
Ramona Shelburne is a columnist and reporter for ESPNLosAngeles.com