Posted: Tuesday October 25, 2005 11:48AM; Updated: Thursday October 27, 2005 5:55PM
"Because if you don't pass the ball five or six times a possession," says Gentry, "you're not playing the right way." Gentry, like virtually every NBA coach, has a deep and abiding respect for Larry Brown, but can't resist taking a gentle swipe at Brown's mantra.
Oct. 3: Westin, Tucson
I traveled with the team to camp at the University of Arizona. After check-in, tradition calls for the team dinner, a low-key affair. But one thing surprised me: The extent to which D'Antoni and assistant general manager Dave Griffin stressed keeping appointments with doctors, trainers and the community relations people. Missing a mandatory appearance can cost a player as much as $20,000.
Oct. 4: McKale Center, University of Arizona
After the first session of two-a-days, the assistants called me over for a kind of shooting initiation. I made 10 in a row from the foul line. "Hey, I'm an old white guy," I say. "Of course I can shoot." But Weber instructs me to shoot on the move, and, after I miss two in a row, he brings over his patented heavy ball, instructing me on how to follow through.
"You should listen to Phil," says Gentry. "He has taken many an average shooter and turned him into a below-average shooter."
Oct. 5: McKale Center
Steve Kerr, the TNT commentator and now a Suns' advisor, visits practice, and for reasons that escape me I bet Gentry $20 that Kerr, shooting cold in street clothes, can't make five-of-10 3-pointers.
"You so lost that bet," says Gentry.
I talked Kerr into it and he promptly rolled up his sleeves and drained five of his first eight from the left corner, costing me 20. (I tried to recoup my money the next day by betting that Kerr couldn't make six-of-10 free throws left-handed. He made eight.) "Your per diem management," says Gentry, "is in shambles."
Oct. 6: Westin
At the morning meeting before practice, Mike says, "Today, we'll run St. Agnes." The coaches all laugh. St. Agnes is a run and shoot drill favored by Weber, the most common target for the insults of his colleagues. It's a running joke that D'Antoni puts St. Agnes on the schedule but never gets to it. "It's like that fifth guest on the old Johnny Carson show that they never had time for," says Gentry.
Oct. 7: Westin
Suns' majority owner Robert Sarver almost runs over Gentry in the breezeway outside the hotel.
"Go ahead," says Gentry, "I always wanted to own an NBA team."
"Not today you don't," rejoined Sarver.
It was a great line that masked a serious situation. The Suns has just discovered that an Arizona team doctor had examined Amaré Stoudemire's throbbing left knee and determined that he could be out for nine months. (At this writing, Stoudemire, who had arthroscopic surgery on Oct. 11, is expected to be out until February.)
Oct. 8: McKale Center
Veteran NBA referee Jack Nies was waiting in the classroom to deliver the annual mandatory preseason rules discussion. The session provides welcome relief since the early days of camp were such an unceasing immersion into one's own team.
Nies ran video to highlight the difficulty of making the borderline calls (block-charge, for example) and also to go over the NBA's new areas of emphasis, traveling being one of them. "You won't be able to hop, then take two steps this year," says Mies.
Vince Carter, say a half dozen voices at once.
A discussion about flopping (deliberately falling down so as to draw a charge) came up. The Suns aren't known to do it much (a cynic might say you have to guard people before you can flop) and hate it when others do. "Jack, it's hard to get that charging call if you don't accentuate the fall," says Mike. "That means that certain guys -- let's say Ginobili -- really accentuate and always get it." As if by magic, a clip from the 2005 Finals comes on the screen, and everyone howls when the Spurs' Manu Ginobili draws a charge on Detroit's Lindsey Hunter, recoiling so forcefully that it looks as if he's been propelled from a catapult.
The climax to my week was the game-conditions intrasquad scrimmage before some 7,000 fans at the McKale Center. (It finished in an 83-83 tie.) I've seen hundreds of games from press row but watching it just a few feet closer to the action is a completely different experience. You really feel the ebb and flow, the changes in momentum, the disappointment when a stratagem fails and the elation when something works. One of my most vivid memories was watching point guard Steve Nash wave to his adorable twin daughters in the stands, then, when play resumes, immediately hit a driving layup. That ability to turn it on is something that stamps the great athletes.
A few days ago I got an e-mail from Gentry. "We really miss your input on the key decisions," he wrote. "Like what time to go to Starbucks and where to have dinner."