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MARK HEISLER / ON THE NBA

Alvin Gentry is back down the hall, this time with a chance to own Staples Center

Sharing arena space with the Lakers didn't go too well for Gentry when he coached the Clippers from 2000 to early 2003. Now he brings a far more formidable opponent, the Phoenix Suns, to the venue for the Western Conference finals.

May 16, 2010|Mark Heisler

You not only can go home again, you don't have a choice if you're Phoenix Coach Alvin Gentry, whose three seasons down the hall from the Lakers were enough for one lifetime.

If the entire West has figuratively been down that hall most of the decade, Gentry was two doors and a world away in fact from 2000 to 2003, coaching the conference loony bin, a.k.a. the Clippers.

Not that it was really a three-year personal humiliation.

With the Lakers winning three titles in a row with Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant, no one gave the Clippers that much thought.

There were even times the Lakers got up for them.

Well, there was at least one, a Clippers home game in 2000 when Shaq dropped 61 on them, upset at not getting all the tickets he wanted.

These weren't your father's zombie Clippers but the young team that was filling up Staples Center with Elton Brand, Lamar Odom, Corey Maggette and Darius Miles, going from 15-67 the season before Gentry took over to 39-43 in his second season.

It didn't end on the court, but off it, in the summer of 2002 when they didn't re-sign Brand or Michael Olowokandi.

Olowokandi's support was thin — it was Michael, his agent and me — but Brand was beloved by everyone, including owner Donald T. Sterling, the greatest Clipper of all time at 23, after one year in town, with a 20-10 career average.

Unfortunately, deferring all decisions until the very end was part of the Clipper Way.

Of course, a universal desire to leave was also part of the Clipper Way. A year later Brand would sign an offer sheet with Miami and call Sterling, begging him not to match.

Sterling then matched.

With Brand left dangling in 2002, a single thought occurred to the rest of the young roster:

"They won't pay me, either."

Morale crashed before the season, followed, after it started, by the team.

Gentry was fired at 19-39, General Manager Elgin Baylor having tipped off management's concern, coming downstairs to teach them to defend the pick-and-roll.

Gentry caught on as an assistant with Mike D'Antoni in Phoenix, a timely move with the Suns about to reacquire Steve Nash and the Lakers about to trade Shaq to Miami and fall off a cliff.

The Suns were relaxed, freewheeling and unguardable. A laughing Gentry once announced their game plan to San Antonio assistant P.J. Carlesimo — "We're going to run pick-and-roll from the top, side pick-and-roll" — knowing the Spurs already knew it and still couldn't stop it.

One of the great storytellers around, Gentry was also available to entertain the press.

I remember everything he told me, as in the spring of 2007 when everyone wanted the Lakers to trade my fave, Andrew Bynum, then 19, for Jason Kidd, then 34.

Said Alvin: "Andrew Bynum can't be the reason you don't have Jason Kidd."

I don't miss 'em all.

Unfortunately for the Suns, Jerry Colangelo sold the team to Robert Sarver, who said he'd merely fly in from San Diego for games and, perhaps, flap his wings like a chicken at the Spurs Coach Gregg Popovich for resting Tim Duncan against them.

Once in charge, however, Sarver decided to make some changes for his $400 million, which turned into a total de-Colangelo-ization.

Within three seasons, GM Bryan Colangelo, Jerry's son, was gone, as were Joe Johnson, Shawn Marion, D'Antoni and, 51 games later, D'Antoni's successor, Terry Porter.

So, at last season's All-Star break Gentry became a head coach again.

O'Neal was now at center, de-Colangelo-ization having run amok.

Sarver had just called other owners personally to shop Amare Stoudemire. Making it clear he had no problem with leaving, Stoudemire did a comedy routine on it at the All-Star media session.

(It never occurred to the Suns to get O'Neal until Miami owner Micky Arison called Sarver. After that, Sarver must have thought you could move anyone with the personal touch.)

Not that it didn't look like a good situation, but Gentry said his 9-year-old son, Matthew, told him:

"Dad, I don't think you're going to make it again."

Stoudemire, who had scored 23 and 42 points as they went for 140-140 to win their first two under Gentry, then suffered a season-ending eye injury.

So much for that season.

They started this one 32-23, which wasn't enough to stop them from shopping Stoudemire up to the trade deadline . . . again.

In a stunning development, Stoudemire screwed his head on straight. They're 30-7 since, counting the playoffs, in the Western finals, back at the other end of that long hall in Staples Center.

"We have the utmost respect for the Lakers, but we don't fear them," Gentry said.

"No one gave the right to play them. We earned it."

If anyone has a shooter's chance against the favored Lakers, it's the Suns, who have more shooters than you can count, who went 18-6 against the Lakers between 2004 and 2007.

You don't often get a chance to do it over right after breaking up your team, or intertwining your fate with that of the Clippers, but they are.

mark.heisler@latimes.com

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