When Alvin Gentry and the Phoenix Suns decided that they’d had enough of each other last week, all signs pointed to either venerated longtime assistant coach Elston Turner or longtime Phoenix Suns legend and assistant coach Dan Majerle taking the job. Certainly not Director of Player Development Lindsey Hunter, who was just a few years removed from playing and without the longtime bench status earned by those two Suns fixtures.
Somewhat out of nowhere, Suns GM Lance Blanks chose Hunter. And almost immediately – as in, minutes after rumors spread about Hunter’s ascension – reports out of Phoenix indicated that both Turner and Majerle had stormed out of Suns practice, frustrated at losing out to someone with significantly less coaching experience. On Wednesday, Majerle went on record with his frustrations with the Suns franchise, and their choice of a new head coach. From the Arizona Republic’s Paul Coro, who has done fantastic work in covering a failing franchise:
“It’s been a hard pill to swallow,” Majerle said. “The first thing that disappoints me is usually in a situation like this, the lead assistant gets the job 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 and a half years. I coached the summer leagues. I didn’t need a favor. Picking Elston would’ve been the easy thing to do.”
“I love Phoenix,” Majerle said. “I love the fans. I love the Phoenix Suns. Being head coach here would have been a dream come true.”
It’s true that Majerle could have lived a less-hurried life as a Phoenix celebrity in the days since his 2002 retirement. He owns a restaurant in the area and could have had it easy as a local broadcaster or possibly a talk radio host. Instead, he grabbed the clipboard over five years ago and worked the assistant trenches while paying his dues. It’s understandable that, after keeping quiet on Sunday following the Hunter hire, he would lash back at the Suns after they stupidly dismissed Majerle’s viability as a head coach as merely a “popular” hire.
Elston Turner’s frustrations run deeper. The longtime head assistant on Rick Adelman’s staff at various outposts, he was denied the chance to leave the Suns in 2011 by Phoenix brass when Adelman was hired by the Minnesota Timberwolves. Adelman wanted his number two by his side up north, and the Suns refused to let Turner out of his contract. Thinking that this was a sign that Turner would be first in line should Gentry step aside, he hung in there.
Only to be passed over by Hunter, who wasn’t even on the Suns bench for the 41-game Gentry tenure.
Turner has left the Suns, but not after attempting to come back to the team in an assistant’s capacity on Tuesday. In a meeting with Phoenix brass, as Elston tells it, team reps told him they prefer that he walk away with full pay, instead of earning it while helping the neophyte Hunter in his first season.
“The whole meeting had a dark cloud hanging over it,” Turner said. “It just gave me the impression that roles may change. Instead of viewing me as an asset, it made it seem like they couldn’t use my experience or they would have to try to work me in. The whole tone was negative.”
Turner, 53, said the time away made him feel like he had an obligation to return to players, fans and basketball.
“I owed the players a chance to help them get better and I’m sure they’d welcome the most qualified coach,” Turner said. “I felt an obligation to the paying customer to give them the best product possible. And I love the damn game.”
When he mentioned wanting to stay, he said one executive asked him, “Well, why would you?”
It’s one thing to have frustrated backups playing for your squad; they can shoot for stats, disrupt team chemistry, or talk endless about dirty laundry off the record to media.
Assistant coaches? They don’t really hold the same sway. For the Suns to be fearful enough of the passed-over Turner’s presence to pay him (remember, the Suns franchise is notoriously cheap) to go away smacks of insecurity. There can’t be a whole lot of usurping going on if Hunter has already been selected, y’know? What’s Turner going to do, refuse to come into a coach’s huddle?
For literal decades the Suns have been trying to drive away the whiff of the “country club” atmosphere in Phoenix, going through coach after coach in attempts to find the requisite hardass to put the team over the top. It’s very much possible that Turner and Majerle were part of a problem we know nothing about, though we still think the team’s 26-win pace under Gentry far exceeds what the team’s front office should have expected of this year’s team.
Perhaps, even, Hunter is a gem that deserves the quick move to the top of the line. It’s very possible Lance Blanks and Suns President Lon Babby – guys who were giving the fist-bumps and actually go to practices that we aren’t privy to see – spied something in Lindsey that we haven’t. From our side, we can relay that Lindsey Hunter was a very smart player, and he’s played under some fantastic head coaches.
Hunter could be the one. Still, it’s hard to see those potential ends justifying these means. There’s no excuse for the ham-fisted way the Suns have handled this.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to hoist a club sandwich at the 19th hole in Thunder Dan and Elston Turner’s honor.