WHY ALVIN GENTRY? WHY NOW?FIRED PISTONS COACH PAID PRICE FOR A SINKING TEAM

ANOTHER Detroit Pistons coach was fired, and the rumor mill is running rampant. But before we get into conspiracy theories, ego theories, or does-Grant-Hill-still-love-Detroit theories, let’s remember one simple fact: Bill Davidson owns the team.And if he didn’t want the coach fired, the coach would still be here.In other words, it’s the boss’s call. Davidson, 77, the powerful yet nearly invisible white-haired owner, lost patience with the Alvin Gentry era. He said, “Let’s move on.” It’s the Godfather nodding his head. Nobody talks him into it. Nobody talks him out of it.

Translation: Good-bye, Alvin. Monday morning, Gentry looked up from the film he was watching in his office at the Pistons’ practice facility, film for Wednesday’s game against Denver, and Rick Sund, the Pistons’ general manager, walked in.

Alvin said, “Hi, Rick.”

Rick said, “Alvin, I’ve got some bad news . . .”

So much for the Denver film.

Gentry was stunned. “I knew there was a possibility I wouldn’t be back next year unless we did well in the playoffs,” he said from his home Monday night,
“but I thought they’d wait until the season was over. I am shocked that I was let go now.”

Which brings us to the obvious question: Why let a head coach go with 24 games left in the season? Why let a head coach go if only to replace him with an assistant coach, George Irvine, who is not a long-term option? Why rock the boat now?

Answer: Because the boat was taking on water. The boat had lost 11 straight road games, the boat had collapsed in too many fourth quarters. And the boat, based on the disinterested look on the players’ faces, was in danger of sinking beneath the surface of the playoffs.

In a case like that, you either bail water or you bail out. The Pistons chose to bail out.

There goes Gentry, into the good night.

Was Gentry just too nice?

Now, ask me if Alvin knows his stuff, I’ll say yes. Ask me if he’s a good guy, I’ll say he’s a wonderful guy. Principled, honest, genial. But none of that really matters. The truth of the Detroit Pistons is this:

If Grant Hill isn’t going to coach this team, someone has to.

And Gentry didn’t do it enough.

Here’s the deal: on most National Basketball Association squads, the star player has such an ego, there is little room left for the head coach’s personality. The star sets the agenda. In best-case scenarios, this can work
— Michael Jordan with the Chicago Bulls, Magic Johnson with the Los Angeles Lakers — because the star is also the most inspirational player, and the guy who keeps the others in line. The coach need only push the right buttons, draw the right plays, keep the atmosphere right, and count on his key guys to get it done.

Gentry wanted to coach that way here — let the star rule, and make sure the machine is well-oiled. But Hill is not that kind of player. He won’t be your policeman. He won’t be your butt-kicker. He is almost too deferential to the coach, perhaps harking back to his formative years at Duke, under Mike Krzyzewski, who held the reins tightly and rode his horses to glory. Coach K wanted control. His players couldn’t imagine it any other way.

So Hill deferred to Gentry, as he deferred to Doug Collins before him — only, unlike Collins, Gentry deferred too much in return. According to Pistons players, Gentry threatened benchings, but rarely followed through. He became the parent, repeating the warning, “If you do that one more time, I’m going to spank you.”

But the spanking never came.

“Alvin didn’t yell at us enough,” Christian Laettner said. “If I had one criticism of him, that would be it.”

I know, I know. That sounds crazy. But that’s the great NBA paradox. Players are always demanding “respect” from the coaches. But if the coaches yell too much, they choke them, and if they don’t yell enough, they get ignored.

And that poison, unfortunately, had entered the Pistons’ bloodstream. They weren’t listening to Gentry. They didn’t take his warnings seriously. Some players mouthed off to him, others followed, and that can singe your kingdom faster than a dragon.

“You could see the little things,” said Joe Dumars, the Pistons’ new vice president, who struggled personally with the decision to let Gentry go, partly because last year at this time, Dumars was playing for him. “When winnable games are lost, when players’ body language slumps, when they lose home games that they absolutely should win — then you say ‘There’s a problem going on here.’

“You see it in the players’ faces. Kind of a blank expression.”

Coaches call that the good-bye look.

The coach always pays the price

Now, in fairness to Gentry — who departs with a 73-72 record — he took over a team from Collins in the middle of the ’97-98 season. The next year was strike-shortened, and several key Pistons — especially Laettner — were injured. This year, he was burdened with a double-whammy: the retirement of Dumars and the loss of Bison Dele for nothing. Despite that, Hill, Jerry Stackhouse and Lindsey Hunter are having career seasons, and Gentry still had the Pistons in line to make the playoffs.

On the other hand, that line was tilting backward.

“Did we lose because of something I didn’t do?” Gentry said. “I don’t know. Ultimately, the coach is responsible if you don’t get over the hump. But I thought I put us in a position to win. Somewhere along the line, the players have to get the job done.”

He’s right. But if they don’t, you can’t fire the whole team. So the coach becomes a target. And the target gets hit.

Now, a lot of folks are speculating how much this has to do with Hill’s impending free agency. Some say this was done to please him. Others say this was done to clear the decks, let him hand-pick a new coach as a means of enticing him to stay in Detroit.

Baloney. Hill didn’t ask for this. And if he wanted to pick his coach, he could have done it this summer. Gentry’s contract was up.

But you’re right if you think this had something to do with Hill. The Pistons’ front office wants desperately to make the playoffs and give Hill a chance to win something here in the post-season, so he doesn’t see the Pistons uniform as synonymous with defeat.

Ironically, no one has more to do with this than Hill himself. Meanwhile, since Chuck Daly, the Pistons have ping-ponged on coaching styles, from heavy discipline (Ron Rothstein) to player-friendly (Don Chaney) to heavy discipline
(Doug Collins) to player-friendly (Gentry.) It’s not an accident that the last guy to strike the right balance, Daly, was the guy who won the Pistons two championships.

And the guy who ultimately let him go — Bill Davidson — is still pulling the strings, looking for the right replacement.

Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or albom@freepress.com. Catch “Albom in the Afternoon” 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760).

THREE HOOPS COACHES FIRED

Detroit Pistons: Fired Alvin Gentry, left, with 24 games left in the NBA season. The Pistons are 28-30 and struggling to secure a playoff berth. Assistant coach George Irvine becomes the interim coach.

Eastern Michigan: Fired Milton Barnes after four seasons, despite winning records in three of those seasons.

Western Michigan: Fired Bob Donewald after 11 seasons, after back-to-back losing records.

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