Open any page of the NBA Register, the league’s biographical encyclopedia.
You’ll find there’s rarely a need to go all the way to six degrees to find a connection with new Pelicans coach Alvin Gentry.
After all, when your first season in New Orleans will be your 28th in the league; when you’re part of the Larry Brown coaching tree with ties to, among others, Gregg Popovich, Mike D’Antoni, Doug Collins, Doc Rivers and even Press Maravich, your first college coach at Appalachian State; and you’ve worked for nine franchises, including the then-Hornets a decade ago, it doesn’t take long to connect the dots to just about every player, coach and executive, past and present.
“If you stay in the NBA for a long time, you’re going to make a lot of career moves,” said Brown, whose mark of being the coach of nine NBA and two ABA teams is unsurpassed. “You’re also going to have your ups and downs, and maybe sometimes you’re not treated fairly. But from the time Alvin started with me at Kansas (in 1987), he’s been bright, loyal and he cared about the players. That’s how you keep getting your chances.”
And it’s a reason why, around the league, it’s hard to find detractors of the good-natured, even-keeled Gentry — even among the ones who fired him.
“We were in a tough spot a couple of years ago, but that was more on us than Alvin,” said Phoenix Suns president of basketball operations Lon Babby, who dismissed Gentry from his previous head coaching position in 2013. “He’s one of the most likable, amiable people you will ever encounter in your life, which is why he was beloved in the Phoenix community and still is. He never burns a bridge, and he’ll have a big smile on his face on the way in and on the way out.”
Brown, who helped Gentry get into coaching at Baylor in 1980 and gave him his first NBA job in 1989 when Brown and his then-assistant made the move from Kansas to the San Antonio Spurs, agreed.
“Alvin knows that, in order to be successful, everybody has got to be connected,” he said. “Some coaches struggle with ownership and general managers, but the good ones know that you’re all attached at the hip. Alvin has the ability to make everyone in the organization feel that they’re important to him, because he never lets his ego get in the way.”
ESPN analyst Amin Elhassan experienced that touch first-hand during Gentry’s time in Phoenix. Elhassan went from film assistant to director of pro personnel in his six years with the team, which coincided with Gentry going from assistant to head coach.
“If you didn’t like Alvin, it says more about you than it says about Alvin,” Elhassan said. “One of his great strengths is letting everyone in the organization know that his opinion is valued, and it is not attached or detached according to your station. Now, in the end, he’s going to make his own decisions. But you knew that your ideas always got a fair shake.”
The Phoenix situation marked the fourth time Gentry had been fired, which hardly makes him unique in a league where longevity is in short supply. It is significant that, among black coaches, Gentry is now tied with Bernie Bickerstaff for the second-most teams coached, one behind Hall of Famer Lenny Wilkens.
But, as was the case after his stints with Miami, Detroit and the Los Angeles Clippers, Gentry didn’t remain unemployed for long.
Rivers hired Gentry as his associate head coach with the Clippers in 2013 and, with Gentry installing his motion-based, up-tempo offense, the Clippers led the league in scoring. Moving to Golden State this season as associate head coach under rookie coach Steve Kerr, the Warriors had the league’s best record and No. 1 offense.
On Sunday night, Golden State meets Cleveland in Game 5 of the NBA Finals, with the teams tied at 2. Gentry, who has never been part of a team that has gotten this far in the postseason as either a head coach or an assistant, is remaining with the Warriors through the Finals before officially joining the Pelicans, a request his new team was gladly willing to accommodate.
“This is the closest I’ve come to a championship,” said Gentry, who otherwise has declined to talk about his new job until he is formally introduced in New Orleans, including a request to be interviewed for this story. “Nothing is going to deter from my having all of my energy directed toward that.”
Kerr, who was general manager of the Suns during part of Gentry’s time in Phoenix, credited Gentry’s presence as a key factor in the Warriors being two victories away from their first title in 39 years.
“He’s been huge for me, given that this is my first year,” he said. “I had to feel the game; I had to feel the rhythm. To have him next to me each game and before and after every practice, to offer advice and words of wisdom was great. And he does it Alvin’s way, which is always with a smile and great vibe about it.”
Gentry’s style with the Pelicans will be a contrast to buttoned-down Monty Williams, who emphasized discipline and defense. Ultimately, Williams’ belief in defense first made his relationship with General Manager Dell Demps untenable since Demps wanted to build a roster based on offense. Even the Pelicans making the playoffs this season didn’t fix things.
Also, Williams reported directly to vice president of basketball operations Mickey Loomis instead of Demps. Gentry will report to Demps, who also has control over personnel decisions.
Demps conducted the coaching search, beginning and ending it with Gentry. Demps also engineered the hiring of assistants of Darren Erman and Robert Pack.
But to Babby, Gentry will have no problem accepting lines of authority.
“Alvin understands the business,” he said. “So he understands the relationship with the front office, with the owner, with the business side of things, with the marketing partners, with the season-ticket holders and the community as a whole. There’s no aspect of this he hasn’t had experience with. And he uses that experience to create tremendous good will for himself and the team.”
That Gentry, 60, has waited this long to get his shot at an NBA title — he was an assistant under Brown at Kansas when the Jayhawks won the 1988 NCAA championship — and that his record as a head coach is 335-370 has been used as knocks by critics of his hiring when higher-profile possibilities, such as Jeff Van Gundy and Tom Thibodeau, were available.
But it also has been pointed out that, of Gentry’s first four times as a head coach, only his stint with the Clippers came when he actually started the season in the position. Also, Los Angeles improved from 15 victories to 31 in 2001, Gentry’s inaugural season, and it took another three seasons after his departure in 2003 for the team to make the playoffs.
“You should always look on every job as a great opportunity,” Brown said. “But we all know that it doesn’t always work out that way. Alvin is fortunate this time to be inheriting a playoff team that’s been molded by one of the most-caring guys around in Monty Williams. And he’s going to be coaching the best young player in the league, who also happens to be an unbelievably quality kid.”
Indeed, in Anthony Davis Gentry will be coaching a player who made first-team All-NBA in just his third season and who is considered the heir apparent to LeBron James as the league’s top player.
Helping convince Davis to sign the max contract extension he is expected to be offered July 1 will be among Gentry’s first duties with the Pelicans. Using Davis’ already-prodigious offensive skills even more was Gentry’s prime point of emphasis when he interviewed for the job.
Also, while guard Eric Gordon has the choice to opt in for a $15.5 million contract, it’s worth noting that Gentry was the Phoenix coach when the Pelicans matched a $58 million offer sheet to Gordon from the Suns. At the time, Gordon said, “My heart is in Phoenix.”
On the night of Gentry’s hiring, Gordon tweeted that he was looking forward to “continuing to build a winner here in NOLA.”
Brown, who first met Gentry when, as coach of the Denver Nuggets, he gave Gentry a tryout at the behest of his first cousin, David Thompson, said he sees Gentry’s relationship with players as a key asset.
“The things that bode well for you as an NBA coach is that you can convince your players that you can care about them and that you can help them get better,” he said. “Alvin has the ability to let his players do what they do best. Now, over the course of an 82-game season, there are going to be days when you walk through the dressing room and hear things said about you and you know you just have to keep walking. But no matter what’s going on, they’ll know Alvin cares about them.”
Gentry certainly has the ability to relate to those less than half his age — down to an eclectic choice of music from the 1950s to the latest releases, with all of his iTunes selections displayed on his screen saver. And for listeners of any generation, Gentry is considered one of the NBA’s top storytellers.
“The thing about older coaches being out of touch with today’s players isn’t true about Alvin,” Elhassan said. “Alvin is always evolving and always willing to learn. He has this remarkable thirst for knowledge. He lives with such energy and curiosity of a man much younger. I imagine it comes from being a big-time family man, because he wants to stay in touch with what is going on with them culturally.”
Gentry, who has an adult daughter and two teenage sons, met his wife of 25 years, Suzanne, when she was director of corporate sales for the Spurs.
But, Elhassan added, that ability to connect isn’t limited to players.
“It’s rarely a case when a player or anybody else has to introduce Alvin to something,” he said. “He’s the kind of guy who can walk up to speak to you for five minutes and, in those five minutes, he’s going to find a commonality between you and him. It may be a movie he’s enjoyed, a food you like to eat or somewhere you’ve been on vacation. And it’s not just, ‘Oh yeah, I like that movie,’ but ‘they originally wanted this guy to star in it’ and so on. He has a remarkable memory about everything.”
Gentry’s not all fun and games.
“Alvin’s serious about his job and serious about his work,” Babby said. “The players know that, and they respect him for that. But he also has the ability that, no matter how serious the situation, he can break the tension with a smile, a quip or a funny story.”
It’s only when Gentry’s tendency to joke around with players erodes the lines of authority that his coaching style becomes a detriment. That was the case with Detroit 15 years ago when, according to columnist Mitch Albom, he deferred too much to his players and rarely imposed discipline.
“Alvin didn’t yell enough at us,” then-Pistons player Christian Laettner said at the time. “If I had one criticism of him, that would be it.”
Joe Dumars, whose playing career with the Pistons ended the season before with Gentry as his coach, declined comment about that aspect of Gentry’s character. But in Albom’s column, Dumars, then Detroit’s vice president said, “You could see little things. When winnable games were lost, when players’ body language slumps, when they lose home games they absolutely should win, then you say, ‘There’s a problem going on here.’ ”
Gentry took his share of the blame for what happened.
“Did we lose because of something I didn’t do?” he asked. “I don’t know. Ultimately, the coach is responsible if you don’t get over the hump.”
Gentry’s first time as a head coach came in a midseason takeover with Miami in which the Heat went 15-21 and missed the playoffs. He was one in a long line of Clippers coaches whose chances for success were limited by the ownership of Donald Sterling.
And with Phoenix, which reached the 2010 Western Conference finals under Gentry, things went south after the Suns traded Steve Nash and lost Amar’e Stoudemire to free agency, leaving the team with nine new players and no go-to scorer. Gentry was fired in January 2013 with the Suns 13-28.
“Making a change is always difficult, especially when you’re talking about such a likable person,” Babby said. “Alvin created a great working environment where everybody is loose and having fun.”
And that’s why, Babby added, it’s no surprise Gentry is again a head coach.
“You see what Alvin’s done with the Clippers and Golden State,” he said. “Wherever he goes, Alvin is going to be a great coach and a great communicator.
“A person like Alvin always lands in a good spot. New Orleans is very fortunate to have him.”