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Lindsey Hunter had staying power as an NBA player, sticking around the league largely as a reserve point guard for 17 seasons as a product of Jackson State. Now he's looking to prove he can stay in the league as more than just interim head coach of the Phoenix Suns, a promotion that didn't go over well with some in the Suns' organization.
"I've been hated on my whole life," Hunter told Yahoo! Sports. "Why should it be any different now?
"I don't care. But if people aren't hating on you that means you're not making an impact. Prominent people in our country were hated on because they made an impact."
Since the 2011-12 season, Hunter has gone from scout to director of player development to his current gig. He replaced Alvin Gentry, who was fired as head coach on Jan. 18 after a 13-28 start. Phoenix had three assistant coaches hoping to replace Gentry in longtime NBA assistant Elston Turner, ex-Suns star Dan Majerle and Igor Kokoskov. To Hunter's surprise, he was a candidate, too.
Hunter, however, appears to be receiving growing respect after a rough start that included Suns players favoring Majerle, according to a past report in the Arizona Republic. Center Marcin Gortat says practices are more intense now.
"We are cutting all of the b.s. we had [offensively]," Gortat said. "When coach is talking and people are talking, we are definitely cutting that [out]. We are getting better at that right now. But there are still a lot of things we got to work on."
Said Jared Dudley: "It's more disciplined, a tighter ship."
Hunter has taken the lead on the defense while Kokoskov is in charge of the offense. With no training camp or much practice, Dudley said Hunter can't put his stamp on the team and break bad habits.
"No situation will ever be ideal," Hunter said. "But what are you going to do? You go in with your hardhat on and go to work."
This wasn't Hunter's first shot at a head coaching job. The Orlando Magic were so intrigued by Hunter that he interviewed last summer for their top spot despite a lack of coaching experience (Hunter started his front-office career with the Chicago Bulls in 2010 when he became a player development assistant). He was brought back for a second interview before the Magic hired Jacque Vaughn.
"That was great preparation for me, perfect preparation for me," Hunter said.
Two days after Gentry's firing, Suns general manager Lance Blanks hired Hunter, believing he "fit the situation best."
"People that know me well know nine times out of 10 that I am going to do what I believe to be right and stand on my principles," Blanks said. "With no disrespect to other people who are deserving, and you can argue that other guys were as or more deserving, once it was clear to me in the evaluation process there was no doubt in my mind that this was the right person at this time."
Majerle quit after Hunter's promotion. Turner took a day off to think about things before Suns management decided it was best to part ways. Turner was under the impression that if a new coach was ever needed he would be the front-runner after the Suns blocked him from interviewing with the Minnesota Timberwolves about a possible assistant job.
Turner, a 15-year NBA assistant, has interviewed for several head coaching jobs and was a finalist twice without a breakthrough. Turner described Hunter's hiring as "more of a placement than a qualification."
"Sometimes what they do is not popular," Turner said. "Not only not popular, but no logic. I've been around long enough to always know to expect the unexpected in pro sports. I learned that as a player. But still when the unexpected happens there is a feeling that goes along with that."
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Hunter understands the frustration from Turner and Majerle, but, "I don't feel guilty," he said. "This is what we all work for. We never know how it's going to come or when it's going to come. The thing we have to do is prepare the best we can for when it does come."
Hunter said he received 102 text messages after he became interim coach. Texters included one of his ex-coaches, Larry Brown, as well as former teammates Rip Hamilton, Rasheed Wallace and Grant Hill. He also talked to Boston Celtics coach Doc Rivers and Golden State Warriors coach Mark Jackson, both former point guards who landed coaching jobs without experience.
"He's a guy who doesn't think he knows all of the answers," Jackson said. "He loves the game. He has been around some great minds. He is going to be just fine. I think it's great that he has the opportunity."
Hunter played in 937 regular-season games and on two NBA championship teams before retiring late in the 2009-2010 season. His coaches included Hall of Famers Phil Jackson and Lenny Wilkins.
In his debut, Hunter led the Suns to a 106-96 victory over the Sacramento Kings. He's 3-4 – with victories over the Los Angeles Lakers and Clippers – heading into Tuesday's game at Memphis.
There will be a strong list of coaches available this summer, including Nate McMillan, Mike Brown, Stan Van Gundy and Avery Johnson. Hunter plans on keeping them at bay.
"You got to fight," Hunter said. "No matter what, you have to battle and people have to know that win, lose or draw they have something on their hands. That's the way I approach this thing and that's the reason why they chose me."
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