SACRAMENTO, Calif. – The change was handled so poorly that Phoenix management, the very people who decided it was time for Alvin Gentry to decide to leave as coach, seemed caught off guard when it happened. Gentry and the Suns “mutually agreed to part ways” last Friday, the front office that obviously didn’t have a next step ready interviewed candidates, and Lindsey Hunter was named successor on Sunday in a move so outside the box that players didn’t hide their surprise.
Gentry was out, Hunter was in after working the first half of the season as the player development coordinator sitting in the second row of the bench, and welcome to the statement about so much more than the coach. The front office appeared to get lost while handling its own decision. Sorry, while handling the mutual decision.
Lead assistant Elston Turner has not yet rejoined the team after being passed over. One of the other assistants, Phoenix icon Dan Majerle, essentially quit on the spot. When Hunter was asked Wednesday night when he learned what his staff would be for his debut, he said, “Probably the same time you found out.” Wednesday night.
Majerle didn’t mince words about leaving the Suns — who drafted him with the 14th pick in 1988 and saw him play eight of his 14 seasons in Arizona — and being passed over for the interim gig. He vented to the Arizona Republic‘s Paul Coro:
“It’s been a hard pill to swallow,” Majerle said. “The first thing that disappoints me is usually in a situation like this, the interim gets the jobs and that is Elston (Turner) with his 14 years of experience. Once he didn’t get it, I thought I deserved it. The thing I keep hearing management say on the radio is that hiring me would’ve been the popular and easy thing to do. I earned it. I deserved a shot if it’s not going to be Elston. I coached 5 ½ years. I coached the summer leagues. I didn’t need a favor. Picking Elston would’ve been the easy thing to do.”
Majerle told the team he did not want to return as an assistant under Hunter and received his full salary while Turner is still weighing his future, although he has not participated in the past three practices and did not join the team for Hunter’s first game as coach Wednesday night in Sacramento.
“They talk about integrity,” Majerle said. “To skip over two qualified people didn’t make sense. They chose Lindsey, a guy not even on the coaching staff and who they told us was only there to help us. I think they had their minds made up already before the interviews. I was going to lay low and not comment but I heard people from the organization get on the radio and say I would’ve been the popular and easy thing to do and that’s a slap in the face.”
Majerle said he felt bad to leave the players, who he felt had worked hard despite the losing. He discovered that he had a passion for coaching in the past few years, saying it put the competitive fire back in him. He said he would have stayed with the Suns as an assistant for his career if the head coach opportunity never came.
“I’m loyal to a fault,” Majerle said. “I’ll do anything for the Suns. It was a kick to the stomach when I got passed over. I heard that they wanted discipline and accountability and that’s what I’ve been all about since I was a player. Everyone in that organization knows that. There’d be no doubt that I’d hold players accountable.”
Finally having a game was just what Phoenix needed, especially after the anomaly of a six-day break since losing to the Bucks in the Gentry farewell, the reports that veteran big man Jermaine O’Neal had a confrontation with GM Lance Blanks (later denied by O’Neal) and patching together a staff for the rookie coach Hunter. It was especially good for the Suns, too, because it ended with a 106-96 win over the Kings at Sleep Train Arena, a positive start for Hunter with a lot of input from carry-over assistant Igor Kokoskov.
The last few days had been, Hunter said, “a whirlwind.”
“I would say ‘interesting,’ ” said swingman Jared Dudley, one of the veterans who had seen a lot but never anything like this.
“It’s something we haven’t dealt with,” Dudley said. “I don’t think most teams have. Not only did your head coach leave, your head assistant and second assistant left, and the guy whose leading you was a great player, played a lot of years, who wasn’t involved in the coaching and now all of the sudden has the job. The guys were a little taken aback. That being said, he played 17 years. He has the respect. He’s done a good job so far. No matter who the coach is, you’ve still got to play hard and execute. Players have to do their job, and we haven’t done that this far this year.”
Hunter does have the invaluable experience of a long NBA career as a point guard. And he is ready with the comeback of why such a novice on the bench, without ever really part of the sideline strategy, could be prepared for this. He referenced Celtics coach Doc Rivers going directly from broadcasting to coaching, which is true, and that worked out. He cited Pat Riley for the same path, which is not true, Riley having been a Lakers assistant first. He did not name Warriors coach Mark Jackson as additional evidence, but could have.
Now Hunter gets not only a losing team, but a losing team in the middle of a season, without the chance Rivers and Jackson had to ease into the job with a training camp and the chance to implement their own system. This is work on the fly with a roster that hasn’t rebounded much, hasn’t defended at all, and, as Hunter admitted, must have their heads spinning after the recent turbulence.
“The guys have been through a lot and I’m very conscious of that, so I really want to create a positive environment and try to get their spirits up a bit,” he said. “Going through a tough stretch like we’ve done, it’s tough. Hopefully we can renew a little bit of energy and get the guys going in a positive direction.”
Hunter said there’s no mandate from management to take minutes from veterans in favor of playing youngsters more. The theory that Kendall Marshall, the seldom-used lottery pick, would have new life at point guard under Hunter was quickly disproved – Marshall was the only Sun who didn’t play Wednesday.
There will be a sorting out of some kind, though, as the new coach gets experience on the fly. Maybe at some point there will be signs of stability in Phoenix, too.