Suns News

All Smiles

EVENTUALLY, THEY WOULD START A FAMILY.

But at first, Nikki Gugliotta couldn't even get her future husband's attention.

"I would see him walking to class and I would always smile at him," says Nikki, who was one year ahead of Tom when he arrived on campus at North Carolina State. "And he never smiled back at me. Not one time. And this was like two or three times a week I would pass this guy."

These days, Tom and Nikki are happily married with one daughter, Greer. They've lived a typical NBA life together, hopping around from city to city while Nikki also managed to establish herself as one of the nation's best athletes in her particular sport - cycling.

Now, their path has led them to Phoenix, a place they both say has more to offer them - both professionally and personally - than any place they've been before. With the help of old friends like Rex and Bridget Chapman, they've almost settled in.

The weather's great. And so is the team. Ten years after they met, things finally seem to be working out perfectly for Tom and Nikki. Of course, if Nikki hadn't gotten Tom's attention back in 1989, who knows where they'd be right now?

Certainly, it wouldn't be together.

Despite those blank stares Tom repeatedly gave Nikki when he was a new guy on campus, she kept flashing those friendly smiles, hoping he'd finally acknowledge her existence. A cross country runner at the time, Nikki had seen Tom milling around the athletic dining hall, so she knew he was an athlete of some kind.

"He always had a baseball cap on," she says. "Now that I know him better, I know he just rolled out of bed and threw on a baseball cap. But I thought he was a baseball player or something. So I was thinking, 'Oh, that baseball player. He's so rude. He never even smiles. He's so unfriendly.'"

After nearly a semester of passing Tom on the sidewalk, Nikki realized he was a basketball player. She had a friend that would sleep out at the box office in order to get great seats to some of the Wolfpack's key Atlantic Coast Conference match-ups, and she found herself sitting directly across the bench at one of the early-season games.

There was Tom, a skinny 6-7 freshman at the end of the bench.

"He sort of caught my eye, and I caught him looking at me a couple of times," she recalls.

And then& And then it finally happened.

"He smiled," she says.

Nikki was thrilled. She had to find a way to meet the guy - because Tom apparently wasn't going to take the initiative himself. Even today, he's still the laid-back kind of guy that his high school and college coaches describe him as. He's soft-spoken, yet well-spoken.

At the time, Nikki was taking a journalism class. And, being the outgoing, innovative person that she is, she decided she'd do her final project on the cute guy on the end of the bench.

"I was just trying to figure out a way I could get his phone number, basically," she says. "So I asked him if I could do the story. He said it was fine and I got his phone number. I called him that night - and not for an interview."

Tom and Nikki pretty much hit it off and decided to meet at a party later that week. From there, they started dating. For the record, Nikki did interview Tom and she eventually turned in the assignment. Maybe it was the subject matter, or maybe Mrs. Googs should have been a journalist - either way, things worked out.

"I got an 'A' and I got the guy," she says. "So it was a win-win situation."

When Tom and Nikki finally got together, neither of them could have forecasted their future athletic success.

At the time, Tom was a gangly 197 pounds. He wasn't highly recruited out of Walt Whitman High School in Long Island. Attracted to his height and all-around play, a few mid-level Division I schools came calling, but none from conferences whose basketball traditions were as rich as the ACC.

"Everybody thought I was in over my head when I went to play in the ACC," Tom says.

Nikki, who was a successful cross country runner at N.C. State, would go on to win a world championship in the duathlon - an event that combines running and biking. These days, running is no longer in her regimen, but she's a world-class cyclist whose hopes of competing in the 2000 Olympics are anything but unrealistic. And, of course, she's a mom.

But let's start with Tom.

His high school coach, Tom Kenny, says he always thought Googs could be an effective college player. Of course, nobody could have predicted the late growth spurt that would ultimately allow him to blend his guard-oriented talents with his big-man abilities.

"He was slight," says Kenny, who took over the head coaching duties at Walt Whitman from Tom's father, Frank, when Tom was a sophomore. "At the end of his junior year, he may have topped out at 6-2. Then, he goes away to Five-Star camp and he's almost 6-6. The day that camp ended, I had seven or eight phone calls."

Although Tom and his father listened to the offers, they wouldn't accept any of them. Frank Gugliotta had coached at a Long Island summer camp with then-N.C. State Head Coach Jim Valvano, and he was convinced his son could compete at a higher level than where the other offers were coming from.

"My father just called him and asked him to take a look at me," Googs says. "He told Coach V that he thought it would be worth his time to come take a look at me and see if I could do well in his program."

Jimmy V made a trip to Long Island to see Tom.

"I was a little nervous," Googs admits. "But he was known for taking guys that weren't very heralded and giving them a chance at working on their skills."

Vinny Del Negro, Chucky Brown, Sidney Lowe and Derek Wittenberg were other lesser-known players who went to N.C. State and flourished. Coach V told Googs he would be given the same opportunity, provided he worked hard.

Thanks in part to his father, Googs was offered, and accepted , a scholarship to play in the ACC. At the start, however, he couldn't enjoy his college experience as much as he would have liked. His father had been diagnosed with lung cancer and died just four days before the youngest of his three sons was to begin practicing with the Wolfpack.

Understandably, Tom missed the man who taught him most of what he learned about the game. He missed him terribly. Fortunately, across from the bench, he spotted his future wife smiling at him from the stands that season. Other than that, Tom's freshman campaign wasn't one to remember.

"He spent way more time on the bench than on the court," Nikki recounts.

Fortunately, all of that changed during his sophomore season. Valvano, who resigned before Tom's junior year, sat down with Googs after his freshman campaign and shared some words that changed the current NBA star's life.

According to Les Robinson, who took over the program after Coach V left, Valvano issued Googs a challenge. On the one hand, Robinson says, Coach V knew Tom could be a good player. On the other hand, Tom needed a push - a change in attitude if he was ever going to succeed in the ACC and beyond.

Googs remembers when Coach V sat him down.

"I wasn't ready to play," says Googs, who had grown another couple of inches during his freshman season, but hadn't yet filled out. "Seeing that, Coach V took me aside and said, 'If you make a commitment to getting in the weight room and working out and developing your body to be able to compete in the ACC, you might be able to end up playing this game for a living one day.'

Googs hit the weight room. So hard, in fact, that people thought he was on steroids.

"He was an animal," Nikki says, looking back at Tom's summer of 1990. He added 20-25 pounds during the offseason by working with N.C. State's strength coach. And it was all solid weight, muscle. So, when Tom showed up to play for Robinson, things were different.

Googs went from starting zero games as a freshman to starting all but one as a sophomore. And he didn't miss a start for the Wolfpack after that. Along the way, he saw his scoring average climb from 2.7 points a game as a freshman to 22.5 as a senior.

"That junior year," Robinson says, "he came into his own. He was shooting the three, and he had some unbelievable games. His senior year we had freshman guards. He had too much put on his shoulders. Here was this 6-9 guy bringing the ball up the court. But he did it when he had to."

By the end, Googs was a lottery pick. He was taken sixth overall by the Washington Bullets, now the Wizards, in the 1992 NBA Draft.

He and Nikki, who married shortly after college, were off to Washington, which wasn't terribly far away from where Tom grew up in Huntington Station, New York. Although Googs got out to a quick start in the NBA, averaging 14.7 points and 9.7 boards and being named First-Team All-Rookie, the Bullets didn't fare very well as a team.

"We were unfortunate to play on such a bad team," says Suns guard Rex Chapman, who lost a total of 118 games in two full seasons alongside Tom in Washington. "But he's always been a tremendous player, even from day one. You knew that he was going to be a tremendous player in this league."

Googs, like any young, nanve rookie, thought he would stay with his first team for an extended period of time. But Tom was traded twice in a span of three months during his third season in the league.

"I was hoping that I'd be there in Washington and that we'd have a great team eventually," Googs says. "I think when you come into the league that's how you're programmed to think almost, that if you're a high pick you're going to be there a while and they're going to try to build around you.

"Unfortunately, things didn't work out like that."

Tom, who was involved in the trade that sent Chris Webber to D.C., had to relocate to the Bay Area during the middle of the season. Just a few weeks after Nikki had packed up and gotten all of the cats, dogs and necessities to California, Tom found out he was headed to Minnesota.

Neither of the trades were very much fun for the Gugliotta's, obviously, but leaving Washington seemed the hardest. Tom felt like he left Washington "with a footprint on his butt," Nikki says. The couple felt like the Bullets wanted Chris Webber much more than the Warriors desired Googs.

So, in that respect, the Timberwolves trade wasn't much of a surprise.

At least, Tom was wanted in Minnesota. The headaches, however, were unwanted.

"Being traded twice in one year is certainly hard," Googs says. "It was tough, and I got a big dose of reality in what the NBA was and I saw the ugly side of it. You're a property and you can be dealt and waived and whatever they want to do.

"So, it's tough, especially for a young player who thought he started off doing real well, to be traded like that. But it was good for me too, because now I look back on it and feel there are not too many things that can faze me anymore about playing in the NBA because I got hit with that early."

This time around, the recent free agent had a choice where he wanted to play, which was something different for him and Nikki. The decision to leave friends and teammates is always a tough one, they admit, and the hurried signing period for free agents after the lockout added another dose of stress for them both.

But Tom says he had been looking forward to being a free agent ever since he was tossed around like a deed from team to team several years ago. And in signing with Phoenix, it was obvious that money wasn't the main reason he desired a new contract. Googs could have signed in Minnesota for several million dollars more.

"I knew when I had this opportunity, I didn't want money to be the reason why I left or stayed in a place," he says. "I wanted to go to a place where it was the best all-around situation. There is a sense of loyalty here. Probably more than most organizations. Of course, it's a business first. But maybe there's only two or three organizations that have that certain level of loyalty."

The Gugliottas have pretty much settled into their new hometown now. They've got a place to live, and just about everything is in order. The team got off to a nice start and the sunny weather has held up - just like it always does. In Minnesota, it's a little colder right now.

"You're inside for at least six months out of the year there," says Nikki, whose cycling workouts are much easier to get done here. "I'm also able to take my daughter swimming and outside for walks. That is the number one best thing for me.

"The one thing I told Tom was that if we had to move again, it better be somewhere good - like, say, Phoenix would be great. So, if you have to move and you have to be somewhere in the winter, I cannot imagine a better place to be. And the people here just love their Suns and it's really exciting,"

Tom has repeatedly told Nikki he's also certain they made the right choice.

"He just told me a couple of nights ago after the last home game that he's so glad we're here," she says.

Nikki, who manages to balance being a mom with keeping in excellent shape for cycling, plans on entering several races this year in order to find out if she has what it takes to make the 2000 Olympic cycling team.

In 1994, Nikki won a national title in the duathlon in Ohio before heading to Australia six weeks later to compete in the world championships. The day before the race, she found out Tom was traded to Golden State. Somehow, she still managed to win the race. Since bringing Greer into the world in March of 1997, Nikki has given up competing in duathlons to be a full-time cyclist.

Last year, Nikki beat, among others, a cyclist from the 1996 U.S. Olympic team to win the Colorado State Road Race. Since then, she has joined the Atlanta-based Cox Enterprises racing team. If she establishes herself as one of the top six or eight cyclists in the country this season, she will likely compete in the five Olympic qualifying races next spring and summer.

Some of her events this year will take place during the NBA season. Nikki's mother has agreed to help out with Greer, and Tom will also be filling in when he can, as well. That's a role he's familiar with, since he was able to spend lots of time at home with his daughter last season when he missed a few dozen games due to ankle surgery.

Along with rehab, the NBA lockout also allowed Googs to watch his daughter grow up.

"I was home to see her first steps and the first time she crawled and all the new things she was learning," he says.

On occasion, when Nikki left town for races last year, Googs was all alone with Greer. And, just like Nikki will tell her hubby this season, Tom told his better half to go out and win and not to worry about anything else. And the amazing thing was, Nikki hardly ever got an emergency call asking for advice.

"I was gone for a week and Tom was Mr. Mom and he did a fabulous job," Nikki says. "He had a ball. They both had a ball. I was jealous. I called back just sick because I was missing my little girl and he was telling me how great she is and how much fun they were having and I wanted to kill him."

Nikki might feel the same feeling this season, when Tom won't be able to spend extensive time with his daughter for the first time in her short life. Nikki is prepared, though. In addition to some of her other friends, Bridget Chapman has already mothered at least two babies to toddlerhood. And the advice she and other mothers give, Nikki says, is to make like you're a single mom and not expect anything.

"They were right," she reports just a few games into the 1999 season.

Nikki did say that Tom has been running home as quick as he can after every Suns practice and every game to be with his daughter, however. No more hanging out with the guys during the season. Being a father makes jocks assume more responsibility, reorganizes their priorities - changes their lives.

As if being a new player in a new system in a new town on a team with high expectations isn't enough.

"It's the ultimate responsibility," Googs says of fatherhood. "You're responsible for another human being, how they grow and develop, what they learn. It's a serious dedication, but it's worth everything. All the little things you have to sacrifice, you don't even miss anymore. Just the way she is, she brings joy to your life no matter what kind of day you're having.

"When you go home and see your child playing and learning and experiencing new things it brings a smile to your face."

Looks like smiling got a lot easier for Googs.

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