Flagstaff Offers Nostalgia to Suns Coaches, Benefit to Players

Kenny Gattison recalls his own memories as a player training in Flagstaff, as well as why the location helps athletes get ready for the season.
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When the Suns arrived at Northern Arizona University for training camp, Head Coach Jeff Hornacek wasted no time pointing out his first memory of the place.

“Coming in this gym, first thing we did was look over at that far basket, ‘cause that’s where [assistant coach] Kenny Gattison blew his knee out in training camp,” Hornacek said. “We had to make sure he was alright with that.”

To his credit, the former NBA forward is just fine returning to the scene of his first major injury in pro sports.

“They’re very fond [memories],” Gattison laughed. “I remember that experience of going up there and training in the mountains my first year. My second year we had practice and I tear my ACL, and I came back the third year…it’s a good memory but there’s some not so good memories about Flagstaff.”

Somewhere between the two lies the assistant coach’s memory of first camp roommate, Suns Ring of Honor member Alvan Adams. An 11-year veteran at that point, Adams enforced his well-earned preferences upon the rookie while in Flagstaff.

He taped up the drapes,” Gattison laughed. “He didn’t want any light coming into the room, ‘cause we were going through those two-a-day [practices]. He’s like, ‘rookie, be quiet. Don’t turn on the TV.’ So I spent a whole lot of time down in the lobby sitting by myself. He wouldn’t let me talk, he kept the room dark, I couldn’t turn on the television, and I had to get his coffee in the morning.”

Fellow assistant coach Mark West was also a member of the Suns when they came to Flagstaff every fall in the late 80s and early 90s. Like his former teammates and current coaches, he appreciates what the memories he associates with the two-hour drive up the I-17.

“For me, coming to Phoenix and then going up there, that’s where it kind of all started,” West said. “That’s where we put some great teams together from the beginning. It brings back some fond memories. We’re definitely coming full circle with that.”

The Suns are hoping their next great era of basketball can find its foundation up north. Flagstaff’s function goes beyond nostalgia. The 7,000 feet worth of altitude forces a level of conditioning unavailable anywhere else in the immediate vicinity of Phoenix.

Hornacek said that most of the team was out of breath after the contact scrimmage at the end of Monday’s second practice.

“Guys seemed like they were running through mud a little bit,” he said.

The Suns head coach was quick to blame the altitude, not the players’ effort, which he has praised repeatedly through the first 24 hours of camp. Gattison said before camp that not holding back would be key to overcome – and eventually benefit from – Flagstaff’s thinner air.

“When you go in altitude the first couple of days, you really have to go as hard as you can for as long as you can,” he said. “The guys that try to pace themselves and say ‘I’m not going to go hard’, it takes them longer to adjust.”

The threat of altitude’s effect was repeatedly stressed during last month’s informal workouts. And while such cautions from coaches are commonplace, Gattison insisted that early struggles at higher locations are a real factor.

“Because you’re in phoenix training, playing or wherever guys are coming in from, unless they’re living different, they have no idea what it’s going to be like,” Gattison said. “You really think you’re in shape and can run all day. After a three-man weave the first five minutes of practice, you’re going to get this burning in your side. That’s going to be lack of oxygen. You’re going to get close to passing out. By day two, you’ll feel better.”

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