CHICAGO — “F—, yeah!”
The poker faces that filled the ballroom inside the Hilton Chicago didn’t apply to the one slapping high-fives with his competitors in the NBA’s drawing room for the “Zion Lottery” Tuesday night, as Alvin Gentry exclaimed with unbridled jubilation, initially jumping up before the winning four-number combination was revealed to belong to the New Orleans Pelicans.
Numbers that changed the life of a franchise with seemingly the worst luck in keeping superstars, numbers that granted Gentry a new lease on life as a head coach, digits that revived basketball in the Bayou.
“Sorry,” said Gentry, ever the Southern gentleman, apologizing for the profanity but not the joy of getting the No. 1 overall pick in the draft.
That North Carolina drawl seeped through unashamedly, all the way to the last hand he slapped, and it didn’t matter that it belonged to Rob Pelinka. The GM of the Los Angeles Lakers was moments away from experiencing a little luck of his own as his team rose to fourth, but the Pelicans’ 6 percent odds produced a combination quicker than the Lakers’ 2 percent.
The awkward look Pelinka wore underscored the gravity of the moment in a tension-filled room with so many knowing the lottery balls were likely to change modern NBA history because of Zion Williamson.
It made no matter to Gentry that Pelinka, the executive trying to acquire the Pelicans’ current franchise player, Anthony Davis, was feet away from him. Gentry is too proud to squirm, and at 7:39 p.m. ET, he was too damn happy to smother his joy.
You would too, if you went from having half a franchise player in your building to possibly two.
“[Pelicans executive vice president of basketball operations David Griffin] took me in a conference room after his introduction [in April] and said, ‘We’re gonna win the lottery,’” Gentry told Yahoo Sports. “Everything after that was, ‘After we win the lottery …’ He said it so much, you start to believe it.”
Gentry’s eyes brightened even more when discussing Davis, the player with the standing trade demand who made the season so awkward. But Gentry also believes Davis can be lured back into the fold — hence his smirk of sorts at Pelinka.
“Everyone knows we’re back in the game now,” Gentry told Yahoo Sports. “I’ll tell [Davis] we’re building something special here, and it won’t be one year or two years. This will be something sustainable.”
Even though the year took away a good portion of Gentry’s finely coiffed hair, he said if Davis wants back in, “We’d put all that other stuff to the side. He’s still our player. Until July , he’s still our player.”
Gentry is the ultimate NBA lifer who doesn’t look like one, a 64-year-old who had no qualms leaping off those old knees when he realized his luck turned Tuesday night.
“I’ve been at this 32 years. I’ve never started a season without a job. Even when I was fired from jobs, I had one to start the next year,” he said without a hint of anger or regret.
One year ago, the Pelicans smothered one of this year’s conference finalists, the Portland Trail Blazers, in the first round in a surprising sweep. Gentry had every reason to believe things were trending upward before all hell broke loose.
“It’s been a crazy year. We started out 4-0, then 7-2 with our starters …,” Gentry said of facts long forgotten in the aftermath of Davis’ trade request. It was an optimism that had little to do with the collegiate phenom he’d long heard about because Williamson played high school ball 30 miles from Gentry’s hometown of Shelby, North Carolina.
But fortunes change in an instant, and hope can appear or dissipate just as quickly. So Gentry held firm on the Pelicans competing down the stretch and not tanking.
“Jrue Holiday isn’t wired that way, Elfrid Payton isn’t wired that way,” Gentry said. “You play hard and compete hard. You play to increase [lottery] odds? I’m not wired that way.”
It’s that approach that’s gotten Gentry to where he is today after head-coaching stints with Miami, Detroit, the L.A. Clippers and Phoenix.
“For me, from an Alvin Gentry standpoint, he was with us in Phoenix when we won and went to the conference finals [in 2010],” Griffin told Yahoo Sports. “He was our head coach. He was ‘Fearless Alvin’ because he knew the front office was with him. He knew he was doing his job in lockstep with his front office.”
Ever fearless, Gentry didn’t profess to know where exactly Williamson would fit but noted today’s game is more positionless and worrying about the exact fit comes at a later date — like October.
Gentry clutched a black-and-white tie that came courtesy of Jeff Cohen, a Cavaliers executive who wore it during two of Cleveland’s three lottery-winning moments this decade. On his way to Chicago, Griffin, the former GM of the Cavs, poached it and gave it to his head coach for good luck.
“Alvin can be better than he’s ever been,” Griffin told Yahoo Sports. “He comes with this every day with a perspective of intellectual curiosity and wanting to be better. And that’s why he’s lasted as long as he has. I’m really grateful for Alvin, that this happened, because it jump-starts things a little bit.
“And on the flip side, I can say I’m not as happy for Alvin because we better win now.”
Griffin wouldn’t play mind reader with Davis, but did offer a glimpse of his optimism by saying, “Elite players want to play with elite players.”
Ever the optimist, even the good-natured Gentry found himself thrown off by Griffin’s confidence when Griffin took over the team.
But Griffin started to make requests of ownership regarding the training staff and team needs, and all were met by owner Gayle Benson, whom Gentry affectionately calls “Mrs. B”, proclaiming her dedication to the franchise and not relegating it to stepchild status to the NFL’s New Orleans Saints.
Griffin’s leadership and lottery confidence permeated the franchise, and Gentry believed so much that right before team representatives and select media members were pulled into the ballroom — sequestered with no phones, no tie to the outside world and no clock — that all he needed was a sheet of paper and a pen.
Following small talk with Knicks executive Allan Houston and Pelinka, among others, he wrote in capital letters: “THIS IS OUR MOMENT!”
When the TV announcement of the results commenced, Gentry took almost a maniacal satisfaction in watching the hope dissipate for those who desperately wanted what he already knew was his: Knick fans in a bar delirious at seeing Patrick Ewing’s reunion result in a top-four appearance, and even a smiling Kyle Kuzma sitting on the dais when the Lakers leaped from the 11th spot to the final four.
Everyone watched stoically, but Gentry kept his standing stance to ensure the envelopes hadn’t gotten switched during the commercial break, and the tension eventually dulled between him and Pelinka, who exchanged jokes during the five-minute intermission.
“And the No. 1 pick goes to the New Orleans Pelicans,” announced NBA deputy commissioner Mark Tatum.
Griffin, who won a championship with the Cavs in 2016, held an angel figurine from a contest for Pelicans fans to determine which lucky charm he’d carry with him.
“This woman from Metarie, it was her lucky angel,” Griffin said. “When I won [the lottery with Cleveland] in 2014, I had my grandmother’s angel on my shoulder. So it was like literally the universe doesn’t make mistakes.”
The coach and executive reunited after glad-handing and chest-bumping like high schoolers in the hotel hallway, with Gentry regaining control of his cellphone, which had received “only” 33 text messages.
One came from Saints executive vice president and general manager Mickey Loomis, which caused Gentry let out yet another hearty laugh in a night full of them: “Before he plays for you can he play tight end for us?”
F—, yeah, indeed.
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