Tom Gugliotta was manning an entrance at America West Arena on Sunday, handing out programs to fans who had come for a Phoenix Suns free-admission intra-squad scrimmage. Among the many who were more interested in shaking Gugliotta's hand than in getting a handout were two men and a little boy. "Welcome to Phoenix, Googs," one of the men said, pumping Gugliotta's hand. Then he turned to his friend and said, "Boy, he really saved the Suns'...." At that point the man realized that the boy was listening intently, and he swallowed the word he was about to say, which almost certainly would have rhymed with gas.
Almost any word he could have chosen to end that sentence would have been accurate. Gugliotta, a versatile 6'10" forward, saved Phoenix's hopes for championship contention by signing with them as a free agent. After having seen its title hopes apparently erased by the defection of free-agent forward Antonio McDyess to the Denver Nuggets, Phoenix may have improved itself by landing Gugliotta, who at week's end was leading the Suns with 18.2 points and 11.3 rebounds a game. No less an authority than Utah Jazz power forward Karl Malone has given his stamp of approval. "I don't think they lost anything," he says. "Googs is a well-rounded forward who can do a lot of things. Antonio is a talented player, but I don't think they lost one step by getting Googs."
Although Phoenix, 5-4 through Sunday, has been inconsistent, Gugliotta has been solid. He opened the season with 24 points and 17 rebounds in a win over the Clippers and followed that with 29 points and 13 rebounds in a victory over the Nuggets that matched him up against McDyess, who had 28 points and seven rebounds. Gugliotta may be a better fit for the Suns' offense than McDyess because he's a superior passer, ball handler and outside shooter, while McDyess is the more powerful inside player. "You have to love Googs's game," says Phoenix point guard Jason Kidd. "We like to play up-tempo and get good ball movement, so we need big people who are comfortable with the ball in their hands the way he is. Once we all get more used to each other, we'll show people a lot more than we have so far."
Gugliotta has already shown quite a bit, not just on the court but also in the current SI swimsuit issue. He posed with his wife, Nikki, a cyclist who hopes to make the U.S. Olympic team in 2002, on a boat off the Virgin Islands, but he stopped short of showing as much as the photographer wanted. "They asked me about wearing a Speedo," he says, "but that's where I draw the line."
That picture would have raised even more eyebrows than Gugliotta's rejection of the Minnesota Timberwolves' seven-year, $86.7 million contract offer did. That deal with his old team would have paid Gugliotta more than he could have made with any other club, but he passed on it to accept a six-year, $58.5 million contract with the Suns. He denies rumors that he left Minnesota because he had a poor relationship with Timberwolves point guard Stephon Marbury. "There were some moments of frustration," Gugliotta says. "It wasn't really directed at Stephon, just at the whole situation. He's a young point guard, and that's the toughest position to learn in the NBA. There were some decisions he made on the floor that I didn't agree with, but there were no personal issues. It's not like we ever got into any arguments or anything like that."
In fact, one reason Gugliotta left was that he wasn't sure Marbury would re-sign with the T-Wolves when he becomes a free agent this summer. "There was no way for me to know what Stephon was going to do," he says. "They've offered him an extension, but he hasn't signed it. Even if he stays, with the money he, Kevin Garnett and I would have been taking up under the salary cap, how were they going to sign other good players? Free agents want to play in Phoenix, but not everyone wants to play in Minnesota."
But for all the reasons Gugliotta passed up the more lucrative offer, the main one is simple: He's not greedy. Fans are used to hearing an athlete say, "It's not about the money," but they aren't used to an athlete actually meaning it, which Gugliotta does. He realized that he was choosing between the penthouse and the...penthouse. "I look at it this way," he says. "Unless they figure out a way for humans to live about 400 years, I'm not going to be able to spend the money I have now."
With money a lesser concern, winning became a greater one. In Gugliotta's six NBA seasons, with the Washington Bullets, Golden State Warriors and Timberwolves, his team has finished with a winning record only once: last season, when Minnesota was 45-37. That's why, when he was deciding between the Suns and the T-Wolves, he was more interested in comparing the numbers in the won-lost columns than the ones behind the dollar signs. Gugliotta decided that Phoenix—coming off a 56-26 season with a veteran core of Jason Kidd, Danny Manning, Luc Longley, Rex Chapman and Clifford Robinson—was more capable of contending for a title right away. Even if Marbury were to stay with the Timberwolves, there was what Gugliotta calls "the timing issue." Garnett, 22, and Marbury, 22, are perhaps not yet mature enough to take a team deep into the postseason, and Gugliotta, 29, feared that when they were ready, he would not be able. "In six years, when Kevin and Stephon are just getting into their prime, I'll be in my mid-30s, probably near the end of my career," he says. "That wasn't the most important issue, but it was a factor."
There's probably nothing Gugliotta can say to keep Minnesota fans from feeling jilted and expressing their displeasure by booing him when the Suns visit the Twin Cities on April 28. But like everyone else, they will just have to accept the fact that there are two things they'll never know: how far the Garnett-Gugliotta-Marbury triumvirate could have taken the Timberwolves, and what Googs looks like in a Speedo.