Suns-Spurs Rivalry Defined by Mutual Respect
In truth, it's nothing short of a mutual admiration society.
That much was clear not long after the Suns' Game 1 win at US Airways Center, when Suns coach Alvin Gentry (right) came across to Spurs coach Gregg Popovich in the tunnel as he left his postgame press conference. As Gentry stood talking to his family, Popovich -- who would return to his dry, sardonic ways once he addressed the media minutes later -- couldn't pass up a chance to rib his old friend.
"Alright Alvin, you won," Popovich bellowed with a huge smile. "You don't have to gloat about it."
They hugged. They chatted. As the basketball world waited and the anxiety levels of the respective media relations representatives rose, the blithe Gentry and Popovich were like Sam Malone and Norm catching up on a Tuesday night at Cheers.
All that was missing was the bar stools.
"It's always weird coaching against friends or people you've known for 20 years, but it's ... fun to do it because he has done so well, and it's great to see that," said Popovich, whose usually-stoic face has beamed every time he has been asked about Gentry in this series. "We go way back. There's a respect [there] ... I'm thrilled that they've done so well, and he's done a hell of a job."
Considering the often-testy history of this matchup and the fact that the Spurs have eliminated the Suns in four of their past five postseasons, the mood of the moment is counter-intuitive to say the least. But it has everything to do with the many connections between the two teams, and it starts at the top.
Phoenix general manager Steve Kerr -- who has spent recent days repeatedly referring to Popovich as "the best" while simultaneously heaping endless praise on his own coach -- played four of his last five seasons under the Spurs coach (ending in 2003). Asked Tuesday if his Suns could be dubbed "Spurs West," Kerr grinned and nodded in agreement.
It continues with Gentry, who first came across Popovich in the early 1980s when they were college assistants trying to move up in the coaching world. Popovich was at the Air Force Academy under then-head coach and current Cleveland assistant Hank Egan, while Gentry was with his alma mater, the University of Colorado.
"I used to go down and watch the Denver Nuggets, because Larry [Brown] had the training camp at the Air Force Academy," Gentry said. "That's where I first met Pop."
Brown would continue to connect the two men, as he hired both as assistants at Kansas in the mid-'80s in what was their first experience working side by side. After winning the national championship in 1988, Brown took the San Antonio head job and took Gentry and Popovich with him.
Gentry would be the first to run his own team, as he was hired as Miami's head coach in 1994. Popovich's incredible Spurs run began two years later, but their paths would cross again in 2000.
"I went back [to the Spurs] as an assistant coach after I got fired [as head coach] in Detroit," Gentry said. "I worked [with Popovich] for six weeks, and then the Clippers hired me [as the head coach]."
But after the Spurs disposed of Dallas in the first round last week and Phoenix downed Portland, Popovich went to work plotting his first move in what would be a debut face-off against his old friend. So, he sent Kerr and Gentry a case of wine from his vineyard in Oregon, with a note attached.
"He said, 'I appreciate your friendship and everything but I'm going to try to kick your ass,' and he knows I feel the same way," Gentry said of the note. "It's all about the competition. But when it's over, it's over. There are no ill feelings or anything like that [between the teams]. Believe me, if there were any ill feelings I don't think we'd be talking right now considering what they've put us through the last few years."
It was the second time Kerr had received this sort of gift from Popovich.
"He gave me a bottle [of wine from his vineyard] years ago [leading into a playoff series between their teams], and I vowed only to drink it after we beat him," Kerr said. "So I haven't had any yet. Hopefully at some point we'll be able to enjoy that."
Yet in terms of this series and what it means to both coaches, Gentry clearly has more to gain from advancing. While the Spurs have won four championships under Popovich, Gentry had just one winning season out of seven during his head coaching jobs with Miami, Detroit and the Clippers and had been to the playoffs just once (a five-game, first-round loss to Atlanta in 1999 while with the Pistons).
But after taking over for the fired Terry Porter midway through last season, Gentry has proven to be a perfect fit for these Suns. They went 18-13 under him to finish the 2008-09 campaign, then went 54-28 this season to earn the third seed this season.
It has been the unexpected extension of an entertaining era, with the Suns continuing to play the fast-paced offensive style created by former coach Mike D'Antoni while improving enough defensively that they just might be darkhorse title contenders.
"Alvin has done everything that we needed to do as a team to evolve," Kerr said. "We're still true to our roots, but we've evolved as a team and I think Alvin deserves the credit for that evolution.
"He was here the last five years [as an assistant under D'Antoni and Porter], when we were so good and yet we needed a little something more. He knows our team better than anybody. He knew the improvements we had to make, and he's done a great job making them."
Hugs and boxes of wine aside, Gentry has every intention of besting one of his best friends. Before Game 1, he took exception with the notion that his team is playing with house money, saying, "We're not happy just being here, so anybody who thinks that, you can erase that from your thought process right now."
Not surprisingly, Popovich knew that side of Gentry as well.
"It's in his blood," he said. "He loves the Os and Xs. He loves the competitiveness. ... Alvin has always had that ability to develop relationships and get along with people. When you combine that with his love of the game, he's a natural."
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