Suns Throwback: Kenny Gattison
by Matt Petersen

With the present Suns’ players enjoying their offseason, decided the summer time is a great chance to catch up with former players for a weekly #SunsThrowback edition of Phoenix basketball history. How does it work? Basically we get their memories going just enough to do what they do best: tell us their most memorable stories from their playing days.

This week's guest is former Suns forward and current assistant coach Kenny Gattison, who talks about youth pick-up games with Michael Jordan, how a football taught him how to rebound and the realities of Hurricane Katrina.

On football being his first and only love as a kid…

I was a football guy. From the time I could sit up and watch TV, I watched football. Nobody quite knows the story because basketball worked out [for me]. I wanted to be the tight end for the Dallas Cowboys. Back in those days, you had NBC, so you got your regional games. You got the Redskins or the Cowboys and I happened to like the Cowboys colors, so I was a Cowboys fan for the longest time.

There was a tight end back in those days that played for Philadelphia. Harold Carmichael. He was pretty tall, about 6-7. Turned out to be a really good tight end. I always watched him.

Football was my first love, so that’s what I did. I think I started playing football when I was seven. As soon as I reached the age I could play organized football, the first couple of years the helmet was so big it fell over my eyes and I couldn’t see what I was doing.

On football drills that helped his eventual basketball game…

I would throw the football up on the roof of the house. Because it's oblong, you don’t know where it’s coming off. I would always be in a ready position so when that ball came off the house, I would have to dive and bring it in before it hit the ground. I made drills myself.

On how basketball ultimately entered into his life…

The only reason I got picked to play basketball at the park was because they needed 10. ‘Aw hell, somebody’s gotta take Kenny. He’s the 10th one. Growing up, everybody was bigger so I had to be that 10th guy. They picked me and told me to stay out of the way. ‘You get the ball and pass it to me.’

I’ll never forget, after football season in the seventh grade, I’m on the bus and I’m going home. I’m like, ‘golly, I’m the only one out of all the guys [here]. Where are they at?’ The next day I asked ‘where’d you guys go to?’ They went ‘basketball practice.’ ‘Basketball?’ There ain’t nothing home to do, I guess I’ll go over to the basketball gym.

This is the honest truth of how I made the basketball team in the seventh grade. Back in those days, however many jerseys the school had, that’s how many players there were…there was one jersey left. There was one spot left on the team. The coach, he says ‘okay, Kenny. You and Bobby play one-on-one, full-court. Whoever gets to five first gets the jersey.’

We never got to five. I just came from playing football so I was in shape. He was out of shape so he just quit. I got the jersey.

On catching up on the basketball basics…

In between classes, during lunch, I never ate lunch…I would go to the gym for that lunch break and I’d be in there by myself, just working out with basketball. Back in those days I would just tape up my right hand and practice the whole day with my left hand. Lay-ups, reverse, dunks. I had never worked at basketball, so I was so far behind I had to put in the extra work. Shooting, everything, the basic fundamentals I had never worked on in my entire life.

That’s the mistake guys make. They think they get better playing. You don’t get better playing. You get better in the gym by yourself working on the fundamentals. When you don’t have good fundamentals and you continue to play, you’re just building bad habits.

On pick-up games with Michael Jordan…

I have never called him Michael in my life. He’s ‘Mike.'

We would go out to the park in the summertime. Mike would bring his guys. Me and my guys would go there. Low and behold, it turned out to be some damn classic games. We’ve always played against each other. My guys, we lived down in the city. He lived out in the suburbs. We’d always go to Empie Park and we played.

It was like any other pickup game. We argued about fouls and everything. This guy traveled. We’re trying to win.

You could see this thing in Mike. The seed was planted. Somehow, someway, he always won. We would beat them sometimes, but somehow, someway, all the close games…he ended up winning them. Even when it got to high school – close games, last-second shots – he always ended up making them.

On why basketball won out over football…

I played football so long and dedicated so much of my time to it, I honestly got sick of it. Football became boring…I knew I was burnt out on football. To go somewhere and play football, and that’s what I had to do every day for eight hours…I was burnt out.

On Mark West and picking Old Dominion as his college…

At that Five Star camp in 1981 is where I met Mark. I’d enver herad of Old Dominion in my life. I see Mark at Five Star camp and he’s got this ODU t-shirt on. It says “ODU basketball.” I’ll never forget it. He was a counselor.

You know how college kids are. Guys playing college basketball, stars of their college team, they were loud, boisterous, braggers. Mark was studious. He was carrying around business book in between sessions.

Mark and I became good friends. I told him ‘look, I don’t know what Old Dominion is, but I like you.’ We had six [official college] visits. ‘I’ll use my very last visit to come spend a weekend with you, but I’m playing ACC basketball.’

I got there at night and the campus was just beautiful…I realized it was right on the ocean just like I grew up. Only five hours from home.

On his reaction to getting drafted by Phoenix…

Where is Arizona? Phoenix?! I was a football guy. Still am to this day. Phoenix? It’s gotta be close to Dallas or somewhere over there. I had to get a map out and I’m like, ‘good Lord, who plays out there?’ Then I look at the roster – Larry Nance, Walter Davis – those were some North Carolina, South Carolina guys. I watched those guys play.

On his rookie training camp with Alvan Adams as a roommate…

I was 22. I think Alvan might have been 33 or 34. I didn’t know him. We get to Flagstaff and they go ‘Gattison, you’re rooming with Adams.’ The first thing he says ‘Good Lord, why you gotta put me with a rookie?’

Alvan goes ‘I’ve got three rules. Be quiet. No light. Have my coffee in the mourning.’

We’re going two-a-day [practices]. The first thing Alvan does is get a role of tape from Proski and he taped up the curtains so no light came in the room. In between practices he went to sleep. I’m 22 years old. I was just sitting in the lobby rocking in the chair watching TV or something.

On tearing his ACL during training camp of 1987…

Just a freak accident. We were scrimmaging and I got a breakaway dunk. Dunked the ball, came down, turned to go back up…ACL snapped. Not a sole was around me. Tore up everything in there. I remember Proski saying ‘Hell, rook. What’d you do?’ I said ‘Proski, I think I stepped on a twig or something down here.’ I got up and walked over and he said ‘well, there ain’t no twigs in here.’ Doctor Emerson was there and he grabbed my knee and that whole thing moved.

On being reunited with Mark West after the Cleveland trade…

The day of the trade, we were having lunch together. Mark said ‘something’s going on. My coach just told me to not even come to the arena.’ We had no idea it was going to be to Phoenix. He just thought he was going to be traded somewhere. Boom.

On Kevin Johnson, the player and person…

You saw it athletically at first. KJ was real quiet. He wasn’t a real vocal leader. You could see the explosiveness, his athleticism. Just physically. I think KJ was one of those type guys where he didn’t try to take over the game like some of these new-fangled point guards. They try to take over the game from the start to the finish. He did it in his own little subtle way. Even in practice. He would take over and there was nothing nobody could do about it.

On his time with the iconic 1990s Charlotte Hornets…

Because we were an expansion team, we got Kendall Gill, Larry Johnson and [Alonzo Mourning] in three consecutive years with high lottery picks. Then we had myself, Dell Curry, Muggsy Bogues. We had Hersey Hawkins. Next thing you know, boom. We won 50 games, right there in the hunt.

Of course, you get caught in that era where – I don’t care how good your team was – with Mike playing with the Bulls, you’re playing for second place.

On his best Hornets teammates…

It ain’t the size in the dog. It’s the fight in the dog. Pound-for-pound, Muggsy was the toughest guy I ever played with.

Alonzo Mourning was the fiercest competitor I ever played with in my life.

Larry Johnson – the most loyal friend you’d ever want.

You’ve got to throw Dell Curry in there. Dell and I were like brothers playing together.

On what he learned from playing for expansion teams Charlotte and Vancouver…

Certain guys had the luxury of playing on championship-caliber teams. They can see how championship-caliber teams are built and the level of consistency. I didn’t have that luxury. I think I played in the Eastern Conference semifinals. But from playing on two expansion teams, I knew what kind of player you cannot win with. From playing on bad teams and coaching bad teams, bad players all have the same traits. Great players all have the same traits. Through my playing and coaching experiences, I know a dog when I’m standing beside one. There’s certain players in this business you cannot win with.

On being an assistant coach in New Orleans when Hurricane Katrina hit…

There is nothing you could see on TV, there is nothing on a documentary that can do justice. Everybody always has something to say – until it happens to them. It’s just human nature. Why didn’t they leave? Why didn’t they do this? It’s bigger than that.

What you see, even in the United States: the rail of humanity is covered with grease. By that I mean, that storm comes through Atlanta, through Louisiana, and in a matter of 48 hours, it’s like a third-world country down there.

That’s how frail humanity really is. It takes 24 hours for any place to turn into a third-world country.