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LOS ANGELES -- There was a moment during the Suns-Spurs series when Amare Stoudemire was jawing with officials. Instead of acting like his star player wasn't behaving foolishly, Phoenix coach Alvin Gentry did what any coach who has been tempered by being fired three times would do.
With the help of colorful profanities, he loudly proclaimed that if Stoudemire kept it up he would be sitting on the bench next to the coach.
"I just feel like telling it like it is," Gentry said. "I do it with all the guys, I really do. One through 12. I don't think you need to say, 'We need to rebound.' Tell the guy who needs to rebound to rebound."
Needless to say, that isn't always how it's done in the NBA. As talented as Stoudemire is, his previous coaches in Phoenix had a tendency to coddle rather than coach.
Gentry, while hardened, isn't an unbendable dictator, but rather a coach who has managed to strike a balance between accountability and flexibility.
|In his latest job, Alvin Gentry hasn't been afraid to assert his way.|
The Suns are down 0-2 to the Los Angeles Lakers in the Western Conference finals, but regardless of the outcome of this series, Gentry has proven he's not just some retread coach who lucked into a good situation. The Suns, who didn't make the playoffs last season, have made it this far in large part because of Gentry's leadership.
"It's like everything else in life: A really smart person learns from his experiences, and Alvin has pretty much seen it all," Suns general manager Steve Kerr said. "He understands the politics. He knows how to work the room, so to speak. He knows how to establish with players, with management, with ownership."
Gentry is the classic example of a good coach who throughout his early career was stuck in unwinnable situations, including three long years as head coach of the miserable Los Angeles Clippers.
That stint with the Clippers looked like it was going to be Gentry's last head-coaching job, but he came to Phoenix as an assistant under then-coach Mike D'Antoni in 2004. After D'Antoni left for the Knicks and the Suns' experiment with Terry Porter failed, Kerr called upon Gentry last season to return the Suns to the success they had experienced when D'Antoni took them to four straight seasons of at least 54 wins.
"We got too far away from our identity," Kerr said. "When Mike left and we hired Terry, I think Terry had a really difficult job on his hands. Alvin knew our team better than anybody, so when we strayed too far from where we were, we had to bring it back. It's not just the pace of the game, just the familiarity with each other, the reliance on each other. And Alvin was a link to the past, but a trusted figure. He was the only person we considered. And obviously, I wish I had considered him in the first place."
It was no secret that when Gentry took over, the Suns needed to become a better defensive team. And while the Suns have been unable to come up with a way to neutralize Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol and Lamar Odom in this series, there is no doubt that Gentry's influence has changed the culture in Phoenix.
Gentry studied under some of the league's best defensive coaches -- Larry Brown, Doug Collins and Gregg Popovich -- and he has applied what he learned from his mentors while still pushing the offensive concepts that D'Antoni introduced.
Considering the Suns were led by two-time NBA MVP Steve Nash, Stoudemire and 14-year veteran Grant Hill when Gentry took over, his new way of doing things could have created problems.
But that never happened because, other than simplifying defensive schemes, Gentry won the Suns over by not playing favorites, by rewarding guys for hard work and by instilling confidence in the players who had been underutilized. The Suns' explosive bench was a major factor in their sweep of their nemesis, the Spurs, in the second round. Sub Goran Dragic became an overnight sensation after Game 3 of that series, when he dropped 23 of his 26 points in the fourth quarter.
"[Gentry] demands certain things from certain people," said reserve Jared Dudley, who also has flourished. "I think the biggest thing he did was give everybody an opportunity to play. He put a lot of confidence in the bench like, 'Hey, if you [expletive] up, you're going to stay in the game until you get it right. If not, you're going to be taken out and not be a part of the rotation.'"
There's a remarkable clarity that comes along with being fired three times. After being dismissed by the Pistons, Clippers and Heat, Gentry vowed that the next time he became a head coach, he was going to trust his instincts and do things his way.
That sounds like basic common sense, but in the NBA, job-security concerns make coaches reluctant to follow Gentry's path.
"I tell everybody that when you get fired it leaves a scar because you take it real personal," Gentry said. "But I think what happens is you realize that it's really not personal. I look at Mike Brown's situation [in Cleveland], and if Mike Brown loses his job, it has nothing to do with him. The guy is a hell of a coach. He's been a hell of a coach since he got there.
"The only thing I'll say for me is that I knew if I ever got another opportunity I was going to do it exactly the way I knew it should be done. I don't care who says what. I'm going to play all the guys that I think give us an opportunity to win a game. And it doesn't matter the name on the back of the jersey or how much money they make."
The Lakers may be a mismatch for the Suns, but Gentry's brutal honesty makes him a perfect fit in Phoenix.
Jemele Hill can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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