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Fran Blinebury

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Suns coach Alvin Gentry has plenty to smile about since he team is one win away from sweeping the Spurs.
D.Clarke Evans/NBAE via Getty Images

The 'Alvin effect' is taking the Suns to new heights


Posted May 8 2010 8:11PM

SAN ANTONIO -- Alvin Gentry might as well be that pair of sunglasses that Steve Kerr spent so much time searching for all over the house only to eventually find them sitting on top of his head.

After six years as an assistant coach with the Phoenix Suns, Gentry was like a piece of furniture or the wallpaper -- comfortable, familiar, maybe too much so.

"I know, I know," said a laughing Kerr, "he was standing right there in front of me."

Now Gentry, 55, stands in front of a Suns roster that has coalesced around this head coach with the sunny personality and the steely resolve to make a stunning run through their half of the Western Conference playoff bracket. The 3-0 series lead Phoenix holds over long-time nemesis San Antonio is in part due to timely shooting and surprising defense, but just as much the result of the scars Gentry wears from past experiences.

Two years ago, when Mike D'Antonio left the Suns, Kerry passed over Gentry and hired Terry Porter. When that didn't work out after just half a season, Gentry finally got the job and now they're rolling with a 35-9 record since Jan. 28 and one win away from the West Finals.

"We're not here without Alvin," said two-time MVP point guard Steve Nash.

"Alvin has made us who we are," said forward Amar'e Stoudemire.

It's a feat that's been accomplished not by trying to re-invent the game with a catchy slogan and style or come up with a fancy new way to draw the Xs and Os, but by going back to the drawing board with his own principles.

"A couple of years ago, I told my wife,'If I ever get another chance to be a head coach again, I'm gonna do it exactly the way I think it should be done,' " Gentry said. 'I'll take suggestions, but I'll do it my way. The first thing is, I'm not really going to give a crap if the players like me or not, as long as they do what I ask them to do.' "

What sounded like the credo of an iron-fisted martinet was really just Gentry getting back into touch with himself after experiences with Miami, Detroit and the LA Clippers, where he dealt with rosters and organizations that were full of flaws by often holding back his true self.

"To be honest with you, I did," he said. "I think I spent too much time trying to please everyone rather than just coaching. So this is one of those times that I told Steve when we got together, 'I'm wide open for suggestions and I may do everything that you say and I may do nothing that you say.' I told him you've just got to understand that going in. I decided I was going to coach fearlessly, just make guys accountable."

Being accountable, to Gentry, is what it's all about. That means every player and every coach and every link in the chain of the franchise being accountable to everyone else simply by doing your job. It sounds simple and it is, as long as the coach is willing to demand the same level of accountability from stars such as Nash and Stoudemire as the players at the end of the bench.

"It's got to start with Steve and Amar'e," Gentry said. "If not, then I think you lose credibility when you go to the next guy and tell him he has to do something better. Those guys understand that.

"Hey, I think I've got a great relationship with the guys on this team. But they know that I'm not afraid to tell them if they're not getting the job done. That's what you're supposed to do."

The irony is that the temperamental Stoudemire, who's been coddled and tip-toed around by previous coaches in his eight-year NBA career, has matured and blossomed under Gentry's tough love. According to those close to the Suns, Gentry has probably yelled more at Stoudemire in 1 seasons than all of his other coaches combined.

Yet Stoudemire says Gentry is like "a father figure" and calls him "a players' coach." It's counterintuitive.

"Yeah, usually when they call you a players' coach, they mean you're a pushover," Gentry said. "But I think players really want to be coached and they want to be held accountable."

Stoudemire says his relationship with Gentry "could definitely have an effect" on his decision to opt out of his contract this summer and whether to re-sign with the Suns.

Gentry cut his teeth in the NBA as member of Larry Brown's staff in San Antonio, where one of his peers was Gregg Popovich, now the four-time championship coach of the Spurs. The joke is that Brown played the role of "The Godfather" and Popovich clearly established himself as Michael, totally committed to the cause.

"I'm Sonny," Gentry said, chuckling along with the analogy.

The "family" method with Brown and Popovich has always been to play the right away and stay true to your core values.

"He'll forever be my favorite coach," said 37-year-old Grant Hill, who was a budding young superstar when Gentry coached him with the Pistons. "I always felt like he didn't get a fair shake.

"He's the one who recruited me to come to Phoenix and I'm so happy I came and that he's been given this opportunity...It's about relationships with him. He can get on you and it's nothing personal. That's an art form, especially when you have egos and personalities of today's professional athletes. But you always know where he's coming from and that's coming from an honest place."

That honesty has produced a Suns team that goes 10 deep and created an atmosphere where the starters are both pushed and supported by the reserves. It created a circumstance where second-year guard Goran Dragic could score a mind-boggling 26 points in the final 13 minutes of Game 3 as Nash and Stoudemire cheered like teen-agers from the sidelines.

"The Alvin effect you'll see mostly in the bench," Kerr said. A year ago people were calling Goran Dragic and Robin Lopez flops and now they're saying they're our starting point guard and center of the future. Alvin is responsible for giving those guys the trust and allowing them to develop. The byproduct of a deeper, stronger bench is it allows us to play better defense because we can play more players, play shorter stints.

"It's easier to hold players accountable when you play 10 guys and you can take guys out when they're not being accountable."

After a recent practice, Stoudemire was sitting on the courtside press table, chatting with a couple of writers, when Gentry strode up and yelled out: "All right, star, it's over for you."

When told that Stoudemire was singing his praises, the coach waved his hand and grinned.

"OK, go ahead. Take 15 minutes then," Gentry said grinning.

There's nothing more comfortable than being yourself.

Fran Blinebury has covered the NBA since 1977. You can e-mail him here and follow him on twitter.

The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.

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