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Phoenix Coach Alvin Gentry is a normal guy, and that's not average

There are better coaches with better winning percentages, but his civility stands out in a sea of bad manners. He is also a little off-kilter, and is not shy about sharing his admiration for rivals.

January 10, 2012|T.J. Simers
  • Phoenix Coach Alvin Gentry speaks to reporters during the Suns' media day in December. Gentry might not be the best coach in the NBA, but he might be the nicest.
Phoenix Coach Alvin Gentry speaks to reporters during the Suns' media… (Ross D. Franklin / Associated…)

Try as hard as maybe it appears here at times, I don't dislike everyone in sports.

How could I? I've spent time with Alvin Gentry.

Sifting through the thousands of athletes, coaches and administrators over the decades of having done this, it's the ones who prove to be human who stand out.

Too often it is an athlete being an athlete and the gap widens with reality as fame, money and the crowd of admirers swells.

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"My dad passed away three years ago,'' Gentry says, "But I clearly remember something he liked to say: 'It's hard work to be a jerk.'"

You have no idea.

"Grant Hill and I were talking about this," he says. "I wonder if there's a gene in some players that makes them be a jerk. It's so much easier to be nice to people. Isn't it innate in all of us anyway to be nice to everyone?"

There are better coaches than our Pollyanna, of course, and a record book full of those who have won more games than they have lost. Gentry can't say that.

So how has he lasted so long in such a competitive business, working steadily in the NBA for 23 years, a head coach for more than 600 games?

"I think he's a good coach," says Lakers Coach Mike Brown. "A good guy, and he's got presence."

Brown got his job as a San Antonio assistant, which led to a championship ring while replacing Gentry, who went on to coach the Clippers.

When you say it out loud, as I did Tuesday night, you can understand why Brown was laughing so hard.

It's hard to make a case, I guess, to just write about Gentry because he's a good guy. But isn't it nice on occasion to note civility with bad manners so often being criticized?

Besides, I like the fact he tried working a regular job — once. Lasted six months as a shoe salesman; making the Clippers' job not look so bad to him later.

Ask most fans, though, and he's probably just a name in their memory bank. After all, someone has to coach the teams that don't have any chance to win year after year.

Gentry is coaching one of those teams this year, the Phoenix Suns. It's not a very good team and because Steve Nash and Hill are so old, he doesn't always play them when the team plays back to back.

The Suns begin a road trip Sunday in San Antonio, move on to Chicago, New York, Boston and Dallas before being declared dead.

Gentry laughs; he knows dead. He was the Clippers' head coach in 2000, and buried before the end of his third season.

Nice guys, though, don't always finish last.

"I got every dime [Donald Sterling] owed me," he says.

He was up against it Tuesday with the Lakers, but speaking of dead men walking, that's how the Lakers looked after two preseason encounters with the Clippers. And Gentry took notice.

"The Lakers are not dead, but they do realize they have a force to be reckoned with in the Clippers,'' Gentry says. "This isn't a three- or four-game thing and then everything goes back to normal.

"The Clippers are very capable of going deep into the playoffs. I know people want them to go [sky high] and right away, but it's difficult to do it so fast.

"But with Chris Paul, Chauncey Billups and Blake Griffin, they have a chance to do something really special."

When Gentry was coaching the Clippers, the team sold out the last 29 games of the season. In the final home game, the players got up on the scorers' table and began dancing.

The Clippers didn't re-sign Elton Brand, and the end came quickly for Gentry. But as tough as it is to feel a job slipping away, Gentry never let on. The newspaper criticism had to feel like a dagger, knowing Sterling was reading and he's so impressionable.

"If you want to survive you can't take anything personal," Gentry says, the nicest normal guy in sports, the very same with everyone he meets.

He's also a little off-kilter, which adds to the appeal. The other day the Suns won and he began his news conference talking Tebow. How refreshing is that? He just loves the guy; Kobe Bryant as well. Figure that one out.

"I love an athlete who goes beyond the call of duty to maximize his talent; that's why I have such admiration for Kobe," he says, a few hours before Bryant scored 17 of the Lakers' first 25 points in the game.

"People talk about Kobe not being the same athlete because he's played so many games, but he's always going to come back from the off-season with something that can compensate for what he's lost athletically."

Yet he doesn't have Kobe winning another ring this year.

"After what happened to LeBron last season," he says, "I would be shocked if they don't win the championship."

As for Tebow, maybe more Luke Walton than Kobe, Gentry gushes.

"Tebow epitomizes to me what an athlete is all about," he says. "I have a ton of respect for a guy with limitations who doesn't let them keep him from doing great things."''

But there are so many things he cannot do.

"I think we spend so much time in sports talking about what a guy can't do that we forget about what he can do," Gentry says.

So what am I supposed to say when he proclaims his Suns ready to beat the Lakers, and everyone knows they aren't anywhere near as talented?

I guess we know now Tebow isn't a Suns fan.

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