By Brad G. Faye, Suns.com
Posted: Sept. 4, 2011
Posted: Sept. 4, 2011
While his work ethic and team-first attitude helped center Joe Kleine to a 15-year career in the NBA, it's his fun-loving personality off of the court that many Suns fans will remember him for best.
But while he was known for his ability to joke around with teammates and the media, Kleine took the game of basketball as serious as anybody. And according to the former University of Arkansas standout turned University of Arkansas assistant coach, he appreciates having had teammates in Phoenix who did the same.
Suns.com recently caught up with Kleine to ask him about those mid-1990’s Suns teams that featured Ring of Honor members such as Charles Barkley and Dan Majerle, and also to see what the Olympic gold medal winner has done to keep busy since calling it a career.
Suns.com: You started your career in Sacramento and played for a few teams during your NBA career. What were your best memories while playing with the Suns?
Joe Kleine: I think my first two years here were some of the years I was most proud of, but were also some of the toughest at the same time. We had very good teams those first two seasons I played here, but we fell to Houston both times when I feel we shouldn’t have. I like the resiliency we had on those teams and they were teams filled with good guys who were fun to be around.
It was fun because we did things the way they were supposed to be done. We were very serious about what we were doing and worked very hard, but had a lot of fun doing it. There wasn’t a way to not have fun with that group. I think what was important was the fact that we didn’t care who got the credit, we just wanted to win. It was also a good group because while we didn’t take ourselves too seriously, we took the team very seriously.
Suns.com: Fans remember those teams well with great players like Charles Barkley, Dan Majerle, Kevin Johnson and Danny Ainge. Are you still in touch with any of those guys?
Kleine: I still keep in touch with a lot of guys from those teams and cherish the friendships I was able to make with guys like Dan (Majerle) and Charles (Barkley). I’ll go golfing with Dan from time-to-time, Charles is more of a guy I’ll take for dinner. (Laughs) I guess Dan is more of a golf date, Charles is more of a dinner-and-a-movie date.
Suns.com: Hate to put you on the spot, but if you had to choose a favorite teammate, who would it be?
Kleine: Favorite has to be Dan. Dan and I are still very good friends to this day. He’s the godfather to one of my kids, and I’m the godfather to one of his so we’re obviously very close.
Suns.com: Speaking of Dan, you’re also involved in the restaurant business, correct?
Kleine: I’m partners with a friend of mine, we own a franchise of barbecue restaurants out of Memphis called Corky’s. We have two restaurants now and I recommend the ribs and chicken combo to anybody who can make it out.
Dan seems to be doing very well. He took me to the new place in Scottsdale right when he had opened the restaurant, and I really like what he’s done. The one downtown is the one I remember from my playing days, but he’s really expanded. I’ve also been to the one out in Chandler too, but haven’t made it out to Goodyear yet.
Suns.com: Other than Dan’s restaurant, what else do you remember about the city and what do you miss the most?
Kleine: The thing I love the most was the weather and the climate. The people too were very friendly and very helpful. My family and I felt at home instantly in Phoenix and I think that’s also a credit to the Suns who went out of their way to make new players feel very welcome. The thing I miss the most is hanging out with the guys like Dan and Charles. You miss that camaraderie.
Suns.com: In 1998 you were able to capture a championship playing with the Bulls. Having played with a number of teams who came close and then playing on a team able to win it all, what would you say is the difference between the two?
Kleine: It’s a turnover here, a missed rotation there… It’s very small the margin between winning and losing, but the difference is that the teams who win can do those small things consistently without lapses. The Bulls were very good down the stretch, both at execution and on defense. Championship teams know how to get defensive stops in the fourth quarter when they need to either extend leads or shorten leads. Smart players know who’s hot and know where to get the ball. Championship teams know how to do those things better than the runner-ups. When you look at the small margin in which a lot of games are won, you realize that it’s just a matter of a few possessions.
Suns.com: A lot of people will say that Michael Jordan is the greatest NBA player of all time, but having also played with Larry Bird in Boston and Charles Barkley in Phoenix, would you agree with that assessment?
Kleine: Michael was the best. He was amazing and physically never broke down. He had one injury very early on in his career, and mentally, everybody already knows how tough he was. I think that's what set him apart. Larry was great and could be mentioned right up there with him were it not for the injuries later in his career.
Magic (Johnson) won five, and I think he’s right there with Michael. I think Michael’s the best, but I think Magic is closer in my opinion than a lot of people think. He won five rings in an era without expansion. I still think what Michael did was amazing and he can’t be touched, but Magic is right there.
Suns.com: You’re doing some assistant coaching work now with the University of Arkansas Razorbacks. How did you get involved in coaching?
Kleine: I can't ever remember not being involved in basketball. I was doing color commentary for the Razorbacks for a while and was involved in my son’s high school program, and was able to strike up a few good relationships. Things just kind of evolved from there.
We had a disappointing finish this last season but I'm enjoying it. A big part of it obviously has to do with my love for basketball, but a lot of it also has to do with the people I get to work with.