The internet is filled with hundreds of thousands of nostalgic tales, but that’s to be expected. As a wise man once said, “Nostalgia is a mild form of depression,” and everyone can get a little blue when thinking back to 1997. With the summer sun shining, however, we’re in a cheery mood. And with the NBA having settled down after a busy first few weeks of offseason transactions, we thought it best to highlight some random NBA players who may have done their best work a decade or two ago.
This isn’t a list of your “Top 12 File Sharing Services of 2002” or “27 Ways Britney Ruled the VMAs.” No, this is …
Random Players, NBA Edition
We start with Tom Gugliotta.
The Phoenix Suns were supposed to be great, and Tom Gugliotta wasn’t ever supposed to be anyone’s consolation prize.
After an incredibly wacky 1996-97 season, the Suns entered 1997-98 with five major assets in hand. They had a warm climate and a gem of a player’s coach in Danny Ainge. They featured Jason Kidd at lead guard, and the recently acquired Antonio McDyess at big forward. The seemingly superfluous Steve Nash was the NBA’s second-biggest bit of trade bait, after Mitch Richmond.
They also had cap space for the summer of 1998, heaps of it, with the knowledge that they’d be able to surround Kidd and McDyess with all manner of high-priced free agent talent. A Scottie Pippen here, a Vlade Divac there. Perhaps an Ike Austin coming in off the bench.
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The problem for the Suns is that there really was no summer of 1998 for the NBA, as the league’s owners locked out the players until the first week of January in 1999. Nash was dealt for a pick that turned into Shawn Marion, no troubles there, but Ainge had to wait until late January of 1999 to execute a plan that was by then two years in the making — and he had but a few days to pull it off.
Divac, shockingly at the time, went to the Sacramento Kings after flirting with the Seattle SuperSonics. Pippen engineered a sign-and-trade to join some other greybeards with the Houston Rockets. Ike Austin went to Carl’s Jr. and apparently never came back. McDyess, to the surprise of the entire league, re-signed with the same Denver Nuggets team that he engineered a trade away from just 16 months earlier.
The Suns still had one more pop at a home run, though, and they got it with Tom Gugliotta.
Seemingly in his prime at age 29, Googs had made the All-Star team as a member of the Minnesota Timberwolves in 1997 before an injury-plagued 1997-98 season (he played at an All-Star level but missed 41 games) scuttled a return engagement to the midseason classic. With the Wolves ready to handle the power forward reins to Kevin Garnett full time, they had no room to financially compete for the services of Gugliotta, and the Suns pounced on their opportunity.
They would be getting a star who had averaged 20.6 points and 8.7 rebounds with 4.1 assists the year before, making more than half his shots. He was athletic enough to finish on the break while still versatile enough to run a pick-and-pop game with Kidd. This was their guy, and with other veteran helpers on hand to sop up minutes (Clifford Robinson, Danny Manning, Luc Longley), the Suns rolled over their cap flexibility to the summer of 1999.
The Suns would go on to produce a top five offense and a 27-23 record during the lockout-shortened season, with Gugliotta averaging a team-leading 17 points per contest. With that cap space on the docket, the team’s ears perked up when the John Gabriel-led Orlando Magic signaled that they thought its current roster had gone as far as it could go. The Magic would be rebuilding under rookie head coach Doc Rivers, and the Suns pounced in time to snag star guard Penny Hardaway in a sign-and-trade deal.
It wasn’t Kidd, McDyess, Vlade and Pippen, but a core of Kidd, Googs and Penny was still pretty fearful. Shaquille O’Neal even put down his animus toward Hardaway long enough to call the loaded Suns the Los Angeles Lakers’ top expected rival in the West, regardless of the fact that the defending champion San Antonio Spurs were standing right there.
The Suns did improve in Gugliotta’s second season, and though the forward started every game he played in, one frightening incident in the second month of the season cast a pall on the entire season.
Just hours after a 17-point, 14-rebound appearance against the West’s best club in the early-going of the season (the Portland Trail Blazers), Gugliotta collapsed on the Suns’ team bus while talking on a cell phone with his wife Nikki. He had recently begun taking an over-the-counter nutritional supplement that was used as a sleep aid that went by the name of gamma butyrolactone, or GBL.
From an account a few months after the incident, penned by Gugliotta, at ESPN the Magazine:
After the game, I showered, had a soft drink, filled the dropper in the GBL bottle to 5 milliliters and took the stuff. I got on the team bus and called my wife, Nikki. As I talked, it felt like low voltage electricity was going through my body. I heard a humming noise in my head. The skin on my face started twitching. I was feeling a little loopy and queasy. That's how I imagine an OD would feel — like I took a drug, but skipped passed any buzzed feeling and went straight to sick.
Nikki says I started babbling. I could tell I was passing out, and didn't want her to hear, so I tried to cut off the cell, but I guess I dropped it. Still on the line, Nikki heard my teammates yelling for an ambulance. The trainer started slapping my face, but my eyes kept rolling back and my chin dropped to my chest. Luckily, there was still an EMT crew around. As they were taking me from the bus to the ambulance, I started foaming at the mouth and shaking. That's what GBL can do to you. It knocks you out and slows your breathing, sometimes to the point of stopping it. That's what happened to me.
Nikki was aware that her husband had been taking the supplement in attempts to get better rest. She immediately called the wife of Suns teammate Rex Chapman, who then called Chapman on the bus to ask the medical personnel to rifle through Gugliotta’s duffle bag in order to find the supplement’s label. The antidote the EMT staff gave Gugliotta saved his life, due to some quick thinking on his wife’s part.
The scare happened just days after Ainge was fired after a 13-7 start to the season. Suns front office and ownership were worried about a supposed country club culture that was taking hold, and hardass Scott Skiles was given his first head NBA coaching gig. Gugliotta eventually returned to the lineup and the Suns ended up winning 53 games, and they did topple the defending champion Spurs in the first round.
Those Spurs were playing without an injured Tim Duncan, though, and the eventual champion Lakers bested the Suns in five games in the conference semis.
By then, however, Gugliotta was in street clothes. He tore his ACL, meniscus, and MCL in a game after teammate Randy Livingston fell into his leg with a month left in the regular season. Gugliotta missed the playoffs and lost his spot on the 2000 Olympic team. Between that injury and the 1998 lockout (which saw NBA players rightfully refuse to play for the NBA-associated Team USA in that year's FIBA World Championship), Googs lost out on chances at two different gold medals.
With Robinson and Marion established at the forwards, Gugliotta would come off the bench in 2000-01, but he made fewer than 40 percent of his shots from the field. Kidd was traded following that campaign, and Hardaway never recovered from his own knee woes.
Gugliotta’s contract became a millstone as he worked through his early 30s. The Utah Jazz, sensing some Phoenix desperation, dealt Keon Clark’s Last Good Chance to Phoenix at the 2004 trade deadline to score Googs’ expiring contract, nabbing picks that would later turn into Kirk Snyder and Gordon Hayward. Ainge, now running the Celtics, signed Gugliotta as a free agent in 2004, but after a rough half-season he was shipped to the Atlanta Hawks in 2005 with Gary Payton (!) and a first-round pick that would weirdly later return to Boston (via the Hawks, Lakers, and Suns) as Rajon Rondo (!!) in Boston’s odd re-acquisition of Antoine Walker (!!!).
Tom Gugliotta retired that summer after playing for seven teams. For a while there, though, he was a cornerstone on one of the great “what could have been?” teams of its era.
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