The dream of every NBA coach, as Alvin Gentry sees it, is to partner with one of those exceptional stars.
“They really are generational players,” Gentry says. “Anthony is a generational player, I think. And he is 22 years old.”
Anthony Davis of the Pelicans, whom Gentry will be coaching next season, has already earned an NCAA championship in 2012 (with Kentucky) and an Olympic gold medal four months later, in addition to two All-Star invitations, one first-team All-NBA selection and a breakthrough playoff appearance last season with New Orleans.
Coaches can navigate the NBA for decades and never connect with someone like him. Don Nelson, Jerry Sloan, George Karl and Rick Adelman – each with more than 1 000 wins – have coached many great players, but never that one transcendent star who could win the championship.
“Anthony is right in that category, and there is a lot of responsibility that comes with that,” says Gentry. “It is up to us to make him as good as he can possibly be, and not settle for him to be less than great in this area or that area. I told him that I have no doubt that he is going to be an MVP in this league. And I said to him, ‘We are going to be really, really good if you also win Defensive Player of the Year.”’
It is one thing to dream of coaching Davis. It is another thing to know how to coach him – to bring the experience and energy and wisdom that are crucial to the job. How do you make the dream come true?
NBA players tend to assume that Gentry is one of them – that he played in their league.
“A lot of them do,” he says, laughing. Until he was 54, he celebrated his birthday each November 5 by dunking.
Last June, as the 60-year-old associate head coach of the Warriors, he dunked at shootaround on the morning that Golden State won the NBA Finals.
“That was a little bit of an illusion,” he says. “In Cleveland the wall is right by the basket, so I used the wall to do it. But the guys bet that I couldn’t do it, so I did it.”
By his junior year at Appalachian State – where he was a point guard for coaches Press Maravich and Bobby Cremins – Gentry had already decided to pursue a career in coaching. He knew he wasn’t capable of playing in the NBA, but that didn’t stop Shaquille O’Neal from challenging him three decades later in Phoenix.
“He gave me one ball and he said, ‘If you dunk it I will buy you a Ferrari,”’ Gentry says. “I never tried so hard in my life. I came close because the adrenaline was so high.”
For 27 straight years he has worked in the NBA. Anytime Gentry has been fired by a GM or owner, there has always been another GM or coach waiting to hire him immediately. And it has always been someone good.
“I can line up everybody I’ve worked for, and it’s pretty tough for anyone to match man for man,” he says. “I worked for and with Gregg Popovich. I worked for Larry Brown, Doug Collins, Doc Rivers, Kevin Loughery – no one really knows about him, but here’s a guy that in the ABA won championships.”
The last decade of uptempo ball-movement in Phoenix (four years under Mike D’Antoni, followed by five years as head coach) and Golden State (with Steve Kerr) has kept Gentry optimistic and energized. He looks and behaves younger than his age.
“I still believe that this has got to be a really fun game,” Gentry says. “There’s no reason why you can’t prepare your team to lock in and then have fun doing it. We are going to have fun, and I have told the guys that.”
He can make good on that promise in New Orleans because he has already established a partnership with GM Dell Demps and executive VP Mickey Loomis, who also runs the New Orleans Saints for Tom Benson, the owner of both franchises.
“Dell has no desire to control anyone,” says Gentry. “He wants opinions. He wants you to challenge what he is saying. He does not want to be in the situation where everything is yes, yes, yes.
“We’re going to disagree on a lot of things; we are going to agree on a lot of things. To me that is healthy. That is one of the reasons why teams are successful. We talked about loyalty, and I told Dell: I look at loyalty as guys expressing their opinions, and then when everything is discussed and you come to a conclusion, you walk out united. When I worked with Doug Collins, we used to have a saying: Agree, disagree, but align.”
“You make a list of things you’re looking for and the criteria that’s best for your team, and we kept coming back to Alvin before we even talked to him,” says Demps. “When we did talk to him, it was clear he was going to be the right guy to lead our group. From day one it was clear we had a shared vision.”
A quarter-century of NBA experience has taught Gentry that many battles aren’t worth fighting, and that alignment is crucial to the pursuit of the highest goals. He knows full well that the success of this job with the Pelicans – his ultimate opportunity – hinges on his partnerships with Demps as well as with Davis.
The big break came in 1985, when he left Colorado as an assistant in order to work at Kansas for Larry Brown.
“David Thompson is my first cousin, and so I worked at the Denver Nuggets basketball camp and I got to know Larry,” says Gentry. “Bob Hill and John Calipari were assistants to Larry, and those two guys left. That’s how I got hired onto the Kansas staff.”
Brown, now coaching SMU at 74, is the most deeply networked coach in the modern game. Everyone in basketball seems to be connected to him by fewer than six degrees of separation. Brown has tended to focus on coaching his own players at the expense of scouting the opponents.
“He said, ‘They are either going to run post-ups, isolations, or screens-and-rolls – so I don’t want to know what they’re doing,”’ says Gentry, who also remembers Brown complaining about the scouting tapes that his assistants would edit. “He said, ‘You guys put in edits where they never miss a shot.”’
So when I started working, when I made edits to show the action of the play, I made sure that the other team never made a shot. Because I knew Larry was going to say, ‘There’s no way to beat these guys, because they make every single shot.”’
So much of coaching involves positive thinking and reinforcement, Gentry was learning. The players must believe in themselves in order to succeed.
“Larry has a photographic memory – he could let 10 plays go, and then go back and correct everything that happened in those 10 plays,” Gentry says. “He is phenomenal in that way. And he hates labels being put on guys. He wants you to be a complete coach. So he wants you to know the offense, he wants you to know defense, he wants you to know out-of-bounds situations, adjustments and all of that. It was very demanding and a lot of fun, because he wants you to be great.”
As much as Gentry aided the Warriors last season by installing the offensive system of the Suns, he was hired by New Orleans to help at both ends of the floor.
“He’s known as a tremendous offensive coach,” says Demps, “but during the interview process we talked lot about defense and how that was going to be important for this group.”
After winning the national championship at Kansas in 1988, Gentry moved with Brown to San Antonio to take over the Spurs (alongside Popovich, who joined the staff as an assistant coach).
“I was not really looking forward to that,” Gentry says. “I loved college, so I thought I will go there for a couple of years and it will look great on the resume and that might help me get a job. And then when I got there, it was such pure basketball that I thought I am never going to leave here.”
Brown continued to push Gentry’s education in San Antonio.
“I remember we traded for Mo Cheeks,” says Gentry. “Something happened in practice and Larry said, ‘Alvin, take Mo over there and show him how to play.’ And I just thought, this is Mo Cheeks, are you kidding me? Here I am right out of college, and this guy right here has been winning the championship with Philadelphia passing it to Dr. J on the break. So I walked Mo over there and I said, ‘Just act like I’m saying something.”’
There were three stints with the Clippers. In 1990 he became an assistant to Mike Schuler for one season. One decade later he was hired as head coach by owner Donald Sterling.
“The most amazing thing is I had [five] guys who still had college eligibility when I took the job,” he says. A trade for 22-year-old Elton Brand elevated the young Clippers to 39 wins in Gentry’s second year. “And then we had all of these free agents, and we didn’t sign any of them,” Gentry says. “The [young] guys felt like we are not going to sign here, so it became a selfish situation. And in all honesty I really don’t blame them. It was going to be a situation where they really had to have something to present to the next team in free agency, and at that time there wasn’t any analytics to say that this guy is averaging 8.2 points a game but his plus-minus is 163 over the course of the season.”
In 2013, a decade after he had been fired by Sterling, Gentry returned to the Clippers as lead assistant to newly-installed head coach Doc Rivers.
By the end of the 2013-14 season, Sterling was the one on his way out after his racist comments about NBA players had been made public. In the midst of a demoralising controversy, the Clippers threatened to win their second-round series as Gentry experienced a lesson in leadership.
“There are two guys in the league who could have handled what happened and kept their team going – Doc and Gregg Popovich,” says Gentry. “Doc did an unbelievable job of telling our guys that we are not going to use this as an excuse, that we are still going to play and we are still going to compete, that this about us being focused. It is not about anybody else but the players in this room and the coaches.
“Our players put on a brave face, but it did have an effect on them and of course you can understand why it would. You are talking about a bunch of guys between the ages of 25 and 30, and this is a guy who supposedly is your owner and you’re supposed to be playing for him. They made it very obvious that they were playing for their fellow team members. In the end we got beat by a better Oklahoma City team.
“I wouldn’t consider us really close friends, so I was shocked when I got a phone call from Doc. But spending a year with him, I know why he is so successful. He knows people. And his leadership is second to none. Just being around him for that year and seeing how he operated and what he did is going to help me amazingly in the job that I have right now.”
There are parallels. Rivers also was known as an offensive-minded coach before 2007, when his Celtics acquired Kevin Garnett. He was the transcendent star whose passion for defense and teamwork helped Rivers to redefine his career, even as Rivers was helping Garnett to establish himself as a champion in 2008. Gentry’s opportunity now is to define himself as a championship coach by bringing out the best in Davis.
“I told Anthony this – and I think it’s very important – about Kevin Garnett,” says Gentry. “I never had the opportunity to coach him, but I know guys that coached him, and they say that every day Kevin Garnett came into the gym, he had to know that when he left he was a little bit better than he was yesterday.
“It’s like I said to him: As great as he is right now, I see his game expanding in so many areas,” says Gentry of Davis. “And the thing I like about it is he is still willing to learn. I sent Darren Erman, who is my associate head coach and defensive coordinator, to work with him, and he showed him a couple of little things from last year that he had to improve on. And every day Anthony has been working on them. Every single day. Guys usually don’t work on defensive things when you are having a workout, but he has been great at it.
“He is just a special player, and we can’t set limits on him. We have to try to take him to a level that he didn’t feel he could get to – or that no one thought he could get to. We have got to make the sky the limit for him.”
Loughery, whom Gentry assisted in Miami for five seasons (and whom Gentry replaced as interim head coach in 1995, months before Pat Riley took control of the Heat), was known for his in-game adjustments.
Collins? Gentry joined him in Detroit in 1995 as an assistant, and then replaced him as head coach from 1997-2000.
“As far as his basketball mind, his passion and his friendship – all are second to none,” says Gentry. “If he’s your friend, he is your friend for life. Anything that he has is yours. If I got on my phone and I said, ‘Doug, I need you, I need you right now. Can you come here?’ I know he would be here, and that is the greatest thing about Doug that I can possibly say. I have a closeness with him that really I would say is more like a brotherhood than anything.”
From Rivers, in addition to his leadership under pressure, there was his ability to adjust his systems to the personnel.
In the midst of these relationships were the four years in Phoenix (2004-08) that Gentry spent in assistance to D’Antoni.
“Mike felt like the old NBA of slowing it down and pounding it inside were starting to change,” says Gentry. “When he hired me, he said, ‘This is how we’re going to play.’ I said, ‘You can’t play like that – not for a whole season.’ He said, ‘I did it in Italy, I won championships doing it, and we’ve got better players here. Why can’t we do it?’ So we started playing that way. Then I could see after a few games that this is interesting. You keep teams on their heels. You just play your good players. We didn’t have really any positions.”
When D’Antoni left the Suns after four straight years of 54 or more wins, Gentry kept the offense running for the next five seasons. He reached the Western finals in 2010 with point guard Steve Nash, the former two-time MVP who at age 36 was still the best player whom Gentry has ever coached.
Two months ago, as champagne was being sprayed in the Golden State locker room, Gentry looked into the TV cameras and made two announcements. The first was to congratulate D’Antoni, because the Warriors had proved that his floor-spreading offense was indeed capable of winning the championship. With that declaration Gentry rectified the past; with his other statement he was looking to the future.
“A.D.! A.D.!” shouted Gentry. “We’re coming right back here!”
“Oh yeah, they killed me on that,” says Gentry of head coach Steve Kerr and GM Bob Myers, who were standing to either side of him in the visitors’ locker room. “They were like, ‘OK, you’re going to use our time to give a shout out to Anthony?’ Steve said, ‘That’s okay, we’re going to kick your guys’ butt next year anyway.”’
The Warriors served as a kind of finishing school for Gentry. He takes over the Pelicans with fresh memories of his best NBA season.
“Let’s say we didn’t win – I would still say it was the most enjoyable year that I have had in 27 years in the league,” Gentry says. “It was the way Steve ran things, the way he empowered everyone.”
He watched how Kerr convinced Andre Iguodala to come off the bench while also keeping two-time All-Star David Lee on the bench throughout the season without incident.
“Steve is an unbelievable communicator,” says Gentry. “He knew exactly when to push buttons. He knew when to get on them, and he knew when to say, ‘Hey, don’t worry about it, guys, that’s a bump in the road, it will be OK.’ During our timeouts Steve said, ‘I don’t ever want guys to feel the pressure.’ So there were so many times where there were jokes being thrown out.
“We had music every single practice. The players could have their own playlists put out there, and we started having these things where the coaches could do it. And then we had this joking thing where the weight trainers and [Andrew] Bogut and all of those guys said, ‘Well, what about the white guys?’ So then we had White Guy Wednesday. It was a real fun type atmosphere where everybody blended in and knew that the next guy had your back. I couldn’t wait to go to practice every day. We had good hard practices, and then almost to a man every guy stayed and worked on his game afterwards. That’s the kind environment we want to try to create in New Orleans.”
And then, amid all of these comparisons with Garnett and Nash and the great players of the last four decades, Gentry comes out with this alternative view of his emerging relationship with Davis: “The one thing I have tried to do is not to compare him or overpower him.”
He has been conscious of reaching out to Davis often enough, but not too often. He has been focused on pushing his new young star without overdoing it.
“As coaches we have to really keep in perspective who guys are,” Gentry says. “And I said that. I said, ‘Anthony, I want you to be the player you can be.’ I said, ‘There’s no extra pressure on you, and we are not going to put any extra pressure on you. We want you to just get better and continue to try to improve your game and be who you are, and if you do that I’m going to be more than satisfied.”
It is like driving a car with one foot on the gas and the other on the brake.
“That’s exactly what it’s like,” Gentry says. “That is exactly right. There has got to be a state of equilibrium, where you’re not above the curve and you’re not below the curve. You’re staying right on the curve. You’re becoming exactly what you should become. And you’re not having these expectations where you should be averaging 40 points a game and 20 rebounds. You’ve got to become the best player that you can possibly become.”
This is a young, talented team that learned to compete and overcome myriad injuries while reaching the playoffs last year for coach Monty Williams. Now it is up to Gentry to take the Pelicans further and higher as soon as possible – but not too soon. Twenty-seven seasons of experiences have taught him how to engage this prodigy for whom he has been waiting his entire life. Gentry knows how to do the work, but he can’t say how long it is going to take. That is the question that keeps the job interesting after all these years.
By Ian Thomsen
First appeared on NBA.com Global