Most flights with the Suns are spent in the back of the plane, sifting through articles and notes, chatting with my producer (Bob Adlhoch) and director (Dan Siekmann). It’s a way to get ahead of the game and accomplish some of the tedious work that comes with preparing for each broadcast. But my routine took a detour as we flew cross-country to Orlando for the start of a 4-game road trip. An uninvited, yet welcome, visitor came back to hang with us “media guys.” He spent nearly an hour talking politics, movies, sitcoms (30 Rock was a popular show among the group), and spinning unforgettable stories. That visitor was Suns Head Coach Alvin Gentry!
Now, I can count on one finger how many times a head coach has come back to “shoot the breeze.” That’s right. This was a first-time experience, but certainly not the only time I have held an animated conversation with Alvin while he was an assitant. He has always been one of the most approachable and affable coaches I have ever met. And herein lies the beauty of Alvin. He has not changed since being named Head Coach. Certainly, he is on a nice run. The team is 6-2 since he replaced Terry Porter, including the supremely satisfying win over the Lakers. No doubt, the stress of the job is sure to increase as every day passes. Or will it? Alvin just may be the exception to the rule that head coaches are sure to be devoured by the expectations, the responsibilities,and the intense fan and media scrutiny. I have seen the transformation of some really good men. Take for instance, Danny Ainge and Frank Johnson. I developed solid friendships with each when they were players. They became assistant coaches and maintained that same friendly personality. But once they were named head coach, the pressures of the job took their toll, understandably so. Dealing with owners, general managers, not to mention the players who all have unique needs, along with the aforementioned fans and media will make for a restless night’s sleep.
Yet here is why I think Alvin may sidestep some of the pitfalls of the job: namely paranoia and insecurity. Alvin told us on the plane that he doesn’t read the paper or listen to talk shows. He said “that way I can maintain good relationships with writers because I don’t even know they are writing something bad about me.” He mentioned a caustic scribe in Los Angeles named T.J. Simers who is still a good friend even after Simers frequently barbequed Gentry when he was head coach of the Clippers. When Alvin says he doesn’t care what others are saying or writing, I actually believe him.
Our conversation on the plane was like a conversation you might have with that neighbor who you actually like to have a beer with in the front yard. Alvin spun stories about Gregg Popovich, Phil Jackson, Coach K(I’m not even going to try and spell his last name), and Larry Brown. Gentry talked about the toughest (i.e., meanest) players he has ever encountered in the league: Alvin Robertson and Jerry Stackhouse. Gentry says you never wanted to mess with either of those two.
The topic became more serious when we discussed the missing football players in the ocean off the coast of Florida. One of the players being the son of popular Channel 12 sports reporter Bruce Cooper. We all feel so badly for Coop, and Alvin has gotten to know Bruce because one of Gentry’s in-laws is a sports anchor at the NBC affiliate in San Antonio who works closely with Bruce Cooper when in town to cover the Spurs.
We then recalled the tragic story of Brian Williams (aka Bison Dele) who was murdered at sea by his brother. Alvin coached Dele in Detroit and had amazing recollection of the details of that incident.
This is another unique quality that Alvin Gentry possesses. He has an incredible memory. The stories and facts that he retains are mindboggling. I can’t recall what I had for dinner last night! Alvin actually remembers a recruiting visit he made back in 1981. He was coaching at Colorado and made a recruiting visit to Phoenix trying to lure Brophy Prep star Mark Alarie to Boulder (I was a point guard on that team, but he doesn’t remember that!). He then recounts the ensuing trip he took to Yuma Kofa for another top notch high school player. That was 28 years ago and he remembers it like it was last week.
So Alvin brings new energy and new hope to his new job. But, for now, it’s still the same old Alvin. And for that I am grateful. With that, I am back to work because I got nothing accomplished on the plane!