It's an early Wednesday evening in New York, and the crowd at The Shark Bar on the Upper West Side is starting to swell. In the dining area toward the back, Nets guard Kendall Gill, wearing blue jeans, a designer sweatshirt and a black cap, lingers over a plate of catfish as a stream of friends and well-wishers flows past his table. "I love New York," says Gill, the only player on either the Nets or the Knicks who lives in Manhattan. "I just feel at home here. The whole vibe is totally me."
A man named Gill eating catfish at a place called The Shark Bar? Sounds like a fish story. Then again, so does a tale in which a supposed malcontent picks up good vibes amid smokestacks and swampland in East Rutherford, N.J. But it's true: Playing out of position at small forward for the dismal Nets, the 6'5", 216-pound Gill has found his NBA home at last.
Gill, 28, is putting up the best numbers of his seven-year career. Through Sunday he was averaging 22.1 points, 10th best in the league, along with 6.6 rebounds, 4.1 assists and 1.8 steals. In a measure of Gill's value to New Jersey, coach-general manager John Calipari chose not to deal him before the trading deadline last week, even though the team's nine-player swap with Dallas on Feb. 17 left it overloaded with shooting guards: Gill, Kevin Edwards, Jimmy Jackson and Kerry Kittles. " Kendall's one of the most professional guys I've been around in many years," Calipari says. "Trading him would have sent a bad message."
Considering that Gill has been released back into the NBA water three times—twice by the same team—Calipari's decision to keep him this time is telling. Gill, after all, was widely considered the master malcontent, the walking symbol of Generation X self-absorption. When the Nets acquired him from the Hornets in January 1996 for guard Kenny Anderson and forward Gerald Glass, his reputation was not lost on his new teammates. "The first day he got on the plane, he had on these bracelets that looked like handcuffs, and he was carrying a metal briefcase," recalls forward Jayson Williams, now one of Gill's closest friends. "From all the stuff I'd heard about him, I thought maybe he had a bomb."
Instead Gill has exploded the popular perception about him by willingly switching positions, showing up early for practices, working harder than ever to improve his outside shot and taking the rookie Kittles under his wing. "I never deserved that malcontent label, but that's what I got," says Gill. "There were a lot of terrible, incorrect things written about me, but all that did was make me stronger and make me a better person."
Gill didn't enter the NBA with a negative image. Drafted out of Illinois with the fifth pick in 1990 by the Hornets, he was billed by some as "the next Michael Jordan." Like Jordan, Gill had the size to cover most other guards, the graceful moves of a ballerina and a penchant for highlight-reel dunks. But his image took a hit during a nasty contract dispute in Charlotte and then got worse after his September 1993 trade to Seattle, where he would clash for two seasons with coach George Karl.
According to Gill, Karl branded him unworthy of the seven-year, $26 million contract he had signed with the Hornets and accused Gill of demanding guaranteed playing time as part of that deal. Gill also says Karl tried to embarrass him by repeatedly scratching him from the starting lineup right before game time, calling him Pretty Boy in front of the other Sonics and saying on his radio show that Gill was "overpaid." Karl admits to the last charge, adding that he regrets making the statement, but he denies the others, saying only that he and Gill had "philosophical differences."
For Gill, who grew up in a suburban Chicago household headed by two loving parents—Rudy, a technical maintenance supervisor at Inland Steel, and Linda, a district manager for IBM—then breezed on to stardom at Illinois, Karl's hard-edged treatment cut deeply. He says he became so upset about his conflict with Karl that he couldn't sleep at night. Eventually their falling-out began to affect his play. "I was in a fog, just running around on the court," Gill says. "I remember one time we had a fast break against Atlanta, and I couldn't even dunk the ball.
"After a while I just didn't want to play. You know it's bad when you say to yourself, Man, I wish I could get hurt so I wouldn't have to play. That's the way I was."
The nadir for Gill came in April 1995 when, angered at his deteriorating relationship with Karl, he took a medical leave for five days. At the time, Gill told the media he was suffering from clinical depression, though he now attributes the move to exhaustion. "I had to take a leave because I hadn't slept for four days, and I was afraid that when I saw [ Karl], it was going to become physical," Gill says. "I talked to my father, who said, 'Son, you've got to take a step back.' "