The Playbook: Alvin Gentry

The Playbook is an ongoing series of conversations with coaches.

Phoenix Suns assistant coach Alvin Gentry has been coaching in the NBA for nearly 20 years. As an NBA head coach of the Heat, Pistons, and Clippers, he has coached the likes of Glen Rice, Grant Hill, Jerry Stackhouse, and Elton Brand. He has also been an assistant for the Spurs, Hornets, Pistons, Heat, and Clippers. He currently works under Mike D'Antoni for the Phoenix Suns.

You have been a coach of some kind around the NBA for nearly 20 years. Would you rather be a head coach or an assistant coach in the NBA? What's the difference?
I mean, obviously you'd rather be a head coach. I mean, I'd rather be a head coach and run your own program and run your own team and things like that. However, that's a very difficult situation, so I'm happy doing what I'm doing right now. I think I'm on a great team and a great franchise, but obviously I would like to have another chance to be a head coach in the league.

You're talking to me from a hotel in San Antonio, where you were once an assistant coach working alongside Gregg Popovich and RC Buford under Larry Brown.
I was. I was an assistant for Pop for six weeks before I got the head coaching job with the Clippers [years later] too.

The Spurs have been Phoenix's nemesis a little bit. Do you feel maybe you should have stuck with the dark side?
Well, I don't think so. There's a reason that everything's happened, and these guys have hadAlvin Gentry a great run and Pop has done an outstanding job here. I still think that we're good enough that if everything aligns itself that we'll have a chance to win the championship. I mean, obviously winning a championship is very important.

Before the season they always make people like me pick who's going to win a championship, and I picked Phoenix this year. What do you think, are you going to make me look smart?
We're going to try to make you look smart. I think the whole thing is obviously you've got to stay healthy, and not only do you need to stay healthy, you've got to have some luck. If you look at the situations that have happened, you've got to stay injury free. That's the big thing. We lost Joe Johnson three years ago, a guy that's a really tough matchup for anybody. We lost him. The next thing we lost Raja [Bell], and then last year obviously the suspension thing. And that's not to say that we would have beaten San Antonio anyway, but we had a better chance going in with Amare and Boris than we did without them.

I have to ask you about Jack McCallum's book "Seven Seconds Or Less" for a second. It's a behind-the-scenes look at your current team, the Suns. First of all, overall when that came out and you guys all got a chance to read it, what did you think?
Well, I thought he did a good job with it. Obviously everything is not a bed of roses and there was some negative stuff there, but I thought for the most part it kind of depicted what we're all about and our team and our players and the way things were behind the scenes.

We gave total access to Jack. It wasn't one of those deals where, oh, no, you've got to step out, or hey, let's not talk around Jack. We were just ourselves, and I thought he did a good job of showing that.

There were a couple episodes in the book I want to ask you about. You kind of famously called Michael Olowokandi something that I don't know if we can put it on ESPN.com, but it sounds like "Pansy."
Well, no, and that kind of got a little bit blown out of proportion. We were just talking about dunks one day, and it was really just kind of kidding around thing, and it got to be a little bit bigger than it really was. I like Michael, I think he's a good guy, and that was just kind of one of those things that got a little bit blown out of proportion, I think.

But then in the book Jack points out that the next time you guys played them you hid under the stands for a little bit to make sure there wasn't any uncomfortable confrontation.
(Laughing) that didn't happen. I've talked to Michael after that, and I've talked to him a few times after that, and obviously I coached him for two and a half seasons in LA and had some big games. He had some 20 rebound games and things like that. I think, like I said, I think that one was kind of blown out of proportion a little bit.

That's what we do in the media! There's another episode in there, where your team got back from I think a rough road trip as I remember it, and then you went home and your neighbor's alarm was going off and they were out of town so you went to put on some shorts, went over to check it out and the police took quite a bit of time questioning you about what you were doing there and wondering if you were a suspect, right?
I don't know if I was a suspect, but it just kind of happened that way. I'm sure if you see a guy dressed like I was looking over somebody's fence that you might question them, too. I would hope that it wasn't a racial thing, you know. I would really hope. I mean, I don't get hung up on those kind of things very often. I would just hope that it would just be a suspicious looking person that he decided to ask a few questions to and not the fact that I was black. Like I said, the whole racial thing, I would hope that it wasn't because of that.

I can't get a good handle on race relations in the NBA. On the one hand, a lot of teammates love each other, seems like they've made a big melting pot in a lot of ways, and there are a lot of blacks and whites in positions of power, et cetera. I just interviewed Bob Johnson who owns the Bobcats last week. But at the same time there seems to be all kinds of taboos and things. Like I know people joke about black players don't want to be dunked on by white players. Do you feel like there's a lot of racial tension in the NBA or are we past that?
I don't think there's racial tension. I think there's competitiveness in there. I don't think guys want to be dunked on by anybody. I think if you talk with the Collins brothers at Utah and New Jersey, I don't think they would want to be dunked on by each other. I just think it's a real competitive league. I think what we've got is our players are the most visible players in any pro sport. We don't have hats on, we don't have helmets on, so they're the most recognizable athletes that they are.

But I don't see it as any kind of racial tension or anything. I think guys go out and play. There's a hell of a lot of great black players in this league, there's a hell of a lot of great white players in this league. The last two MVPs, when you look at Dirk and what Steve has done, the last three, really, it's been white players.

I think that sometimes we maybe take the race thing a little bit you know, I don't know, overboard would be the right word, but I just think sometimes you've just got to judge people by people and not worry about what color they are.

Your team, just from reading that book frankly and watching them on TV, it seems like your team is just a place people are happy to be, and it sounds like you as a coaching staff go to some lengths to make everybody feel comfortable.
Well, I think that's a direct reflection on Mike [D'Antoni]. I think Mike does a good job of I think he's got a great relationship with all the players on our team, and that's from Steve Nash all the way down to the last guy on our roster. I think the one thing that he does, he's a good communicator, he makes
sure after practice -- really after most of our practices -- he'll walk around and ask every guy, are you all right, are you okay, do you need to talk, things like that.

And so what I think happens is that rather than have the tension grow, he nips most of the tension in the bud before it can even become a problem. I think that's just a direct reflection on Mike and the type of guy he is. He makes it a real comfortable environment for players to do well in. I think he makes it an environment where you feel like if you have something that you can do and it's in your game that you can do that without any repercussions.

One thing I really noticed in the book was that you, as a coaching staff, encourage shooters. I hear so many coaches talk shot selection all the time and they don't want this shot and that shot, but in that book, we heard you saying, look, we want you guys to shoot that shot.
Well, I think there again is Mike's philosophy, which I think it took adjusting as a coach, when you've been in this league kind of 20 years and it's kind of been the same thing. I think what Mike allows players to do is I think Mike's philosophy is if you have an open shot, we should shoot it because it may be very difficult to get that shot again in the next 10, 12 seconds. So our whole deal is if you've got an open shot, you shoot that shot, it's a good shoot, and as long as it's a good shot, it doesn't matter if it comes five seconds into the shot clock or if it comes 20 seconds into the shot clock.

People have tried to give sort of a thumbnail sketch of what the Phoenix offense is, how it works. Can you give me an insider's perspective?
Well, if you want a thumbnail sketch of it, what we try to do is keep pressure on the defense at all times, and that's on made baskets, missed baskets, turnovers. We try to keep the middle of the floor open so that Steve Nash and Grant Hill and Amare Stoudemire and guys that can drive the basketball and make plays have an opportunity to make plays. Our whole deal is that we take it to the basket, and if you stop us then we try to penetrate and pitch to open shooters and if you don't then we lay it in. It's a pretty simple all around philosophy as far as basketball is concerned.

Now can you give me the thumbnail sketch of Steve Nash's defensive abilities?

I'll tell you this, I think Steve is very underrated. I think what happens in this league is they pin something on you and then it kind of sticks with you. I think Steve is one of the hardest working defensive guys that we have. I think that he's a very smart defensive player. Sure, he's going to get overpowered by some of the guys, but those guys that overpower him overpower a lot of other point guards in this league, too. I don't think that's what I would call a negative. It's just a matter of physically that guy may be bigger or stronger than he is, but I think that it's really you know, some of the things that are said about his defense are not true, and I think as long as he's trying like he is and is working as hard as he is, we're fine with the way he plays defense.

I notice you played for [Pete Maravich's father and coach] Press Maravich at Appalachian State.
I did.

We all heard about how he sort of was the genius that created his son, I guess. But what was it like playing for him?
Well, the only thing about it is I went there thinking, boy, we're going to run up and down and shoot the heck out of the basketball and everybody is going to average 20, and then when I got there, I realized that he was more of a defensive guy than anything, and we didn't shoot a whole lot and we didn't run up and down a whole lot.

I just thought he was ahead of his time with some of the things that he thought about. All the stretching and all the exercising that is done now, we were doing that in 1975. I think that he was way ahead from that standpoint and just some of the things that he did basketball wise, and he was a great man. He really was a great man.

Did you do what we think of now as "homework basketball," all these exercises that he developed for his son Pete?
Well, what he did, we have a lot of drills that we did in practice that would and he was a little bit different. The guards did all the same things as the big guys, the big guys did the same drills as the guards, as he tried to make everybody a complete player and he wanted our bigs to be able to step out on the floor and play and do some things like that. Like I said, I thought he did he was a really great basketball mind that was probably a little bit ahead of his time.

He was just one of the people you worked with. You worked with Larry Brown pretty extensively. We've all heard he's a great teacher, but what does that really mean in practice?
I think what Larry does is he demands perfection, and in order to get that he's a big believer that you have to execute and it starts in practice with your execution. So he's tough on point guards. He really knows how important it is for your point guard to run your team and do good things, so he's tough on point guards. But all the guys that have listened to him and all the guys that have kind of gone by what he said have become really good players in this league.

I think if you go back and talk to Mark Jackson or even Chauncey Billups, I think they'll tell you, they'll be the first to tell you that Larry has really helped their games.

Or Allen Iverson ...
Or even Allen Iverson.

I'm going to run through a bunch of names in your biography here. Your cousin is David "Skywalker" Thompson?
He is.

That must have been something to grow up in driveway games with him, wasn't it?

Well, it is, it was, and the only thing I remember is that when I was a sophomore he was a senior, and we both had really good basketball teams in high school. We decided to guard him as a box-and-one, and I think I held him to like 38 or something like that.

And you were probably happy with that, huh?
(Laughing) No, but he's a tremendous player, and I don't know if the younger generation can appreciate everything that he did or everything that he was in the NBA for a guy his size. But he was a tremendous shooter, tremendous leaper. I mean, the guy averaged almost 40 points a game as a freshman in college, and then he came into the league. I think any time you can line up and get 73 points in an NBA game and the way that he plays and the things that he did, he was a terrific player.

You also worked with Doug Collins.
I did work with Doug Collins. I'll tell you, I think Doug is the most intelligent person that I've ever been around in my life just intellectually and basketball-wise, when you put it all together.

I thought that he just had an unbelievable grasp of the game from a coaching standpoint. I just don't think coaching is for Doug, and I think he'll be the first to tell you that.

But from the standpoint of knowing the game and being able to put guys in situations of success, if you go back and look I mean, when he was at Detroit we came into a situation where basically I think they'd won 22 games or something the year before, we won 46 and then 54, and he did a great job of putting guys in position where they could be successful.

He's just got an unbelievable knowledge of the game and an unbelievable feel of the game. You know, I mean, the guy was the first pick in the NBA draft, so he's got to know how to play. But to me I'm still reall
y close to Doug, and I almost look at Doug as a brother. I'm really close to him. I just thought that he was just he's just a brilliant guy, and I don't know how to explain that other than there's not anything intellectually that you can ask him about that he wouldn't know about, and basketball wise he's just a real I just think he's a real student of the game.

He has an appreciation. He can go all the way back to the Bob Pettits and those people of the world and even back farther than that, and he appreciates the evolution of the game.

Another person I want to ask you about is your former colleague who's now head coach Marc Iavaroni. Can you tell us a little bit about him?
Yeah, I think Marc is the most organized guy I've ever been around in my life. I think he does a great, great job of I think covering all the areas. I think he's going to do a great job in Memphis. Obviously it takes a little while, but I think he'll get guys to play hard for him. I think he has an unbelievable grasp of the game. He's worked for some great coaches. He's been in the system for Pat Riley, he's been in the system for Mike Fratello, two great coaches in this league.

I think what Marc has done which is really good is that I think he's taken something from all of those guys, from Pat Riley, from Mike Fratello, from Mike D'Antoni, and then I think he's kind of incorporated those into the type of coach he wants to be, yet he's still himself. And I think that's the most important thing.

I look for Memphis to do good things here. Obviously it's not going to happen overnight, but I think Marc will do a great job there.

Anything else you want to tell me about that I haven't asked you about?
That's about it, other than when you've been in the league as long as I have you're going to work for a lot of teams and you're going to be fired a lot, okay? But I wouldn't trade it for anything. To me I think it's the purest form of basketball there is.

I think what happens is that in the league, which is really discouraging, is that it's a league of over 400 players and you may have ten guys that are bad apples, and those are the guys that are being written about, and you don't have guys writing about the Grant Hills or the Tim Duncans or the David Robinsons of the world, and to me those are the guys that everybody should be writing about and not the ten bad guys or whatever that are in this league.

For the most part all the guys in this league are good, solid guys. They're easy to coach and they do exactly what you ask them to do. If you take that out and you take 450 guys or whatever and there's only ten bad guys, that's a pretty doggone good percentage.

Actually one thing I want to ask you about really fast is there's only a couple really long tenured coaches in the NBA. Would the league be a better place if coaches got to sort of keep their jobs through the down periods a little bit more?
Well, obviously I'm going to say yes to that (laughing). But it's hard because it is a league of instant gratification. I do think that if you look around, the most successful franchises are the franchises that have longevity with coaches. If you look at Utah and what they've done over the last 15 years, they've won a ton of games. When you look at San Antonio, they're the winningest franchise of any pro franchise over the last ten years.

Obviously I think when you look and you keep continuity within your franchise and be able to just to be able to get by the bad periods at times, I think you can't be judged on one bad year or two bad years. I think you've got to give the coach a chance to kind of get that thing turned around and headed back in the right direction, but a lot of times the patience is not out there with management and they decide to make changes. Obviously that's their prerogative.

But I just see the teams that are winning the most in this league are usually the teams that have continuity within the coaching staff and within the players on the floor.

And they kind of build a culture, I guess?

(Photo: Noah Graham NBAE/Getty Images)