It's an early Wednesday evening in New York, and the crowd at
The Shark Bar on the Upper West Side is starting to swell. In
the dining area toward the back, Nets guard Kendall Gill,
wearing blue jeans, a designer sweatshirt and a black cap,
lingers over a plate of catfish as a stream of friends and
well-wishers flows past his table. "I love New York," says Gill,
the only player on either the Nets or the Knicks who lives in
Manhattan. "I just feel at home here. The whole vibe is totally
A man named Gill eating catfish at a place called The Shark Bar?
Sounds like a fish story. Then again, so does a tale in which a
supposed malcontent picks up good vibes amid smokestacks and
swampland in East Rutherford, N.J. But it's true: Playing out of
position at small forward for the dismal Nets, the 6'5",
216-pound Gill has found his NBA home at last.
Gill, 28, is putting up the best numbers of his seven-year
career. Through Sunday he was averaging 22.1 points, 10th best
in the league, along with 6.6 rebounds, 4.1 assists and 1.8
steals. In a measure of Gill's value to New Jersey,
coach-general manager John Calipari chose not to deal him before
the trading deadline last week, even though the team's
nine-player swap with Dallas on Feb. 17 left it overloaded with
shooting guards: Gill, Kevin Edwards, Jimmy Jackson and Kerry
Kittles. "Kendall's one of the most professional guys I've been
around in many years," Calipari says. "Trading him would have
sent a bad message."
Considering that Gill has been released back into the NBA water
three times--twice by the same team--Calipari's decision to keep
him this time is telling. Gill, after all, was widely considered
the master malcontent, the walking symbol of Generation X
self-absorption. When the Nets acquired him from the Hornets in
January 1996 for guard Kenny Anderson and forward Gerald Glass,
his reputation was not lost on his new teammates. "The first day
he got on the plane, he had on these bracelets that looked like
handcuffs, and he was carrying a metal briefcase," recalls
forward Jayson Williams, now one of Gill's closest friends.
"From all the stuff I'd heard about him, I thought maybe he had
Instead Gill has exploded the popular perception about him by
willingly switching positions, showing up early for practices,
working harder than ever to improve his outside shot and taking
the rookie Kittles under his wing. "I never deserved that
malcontent label, but that's what I got," says Gill. "There were
a lot of terrible, incorrect things written about me, but all
that did was make me stronger and make me a better person."
Gill didn't enter the NBA with a negative image. Drafted out of
Illinois with the fifth pick in 1990 by the Hornets, he was
billed by some as "the next Michael Jordan." Like Jordan, Gill
had the size to cover most other guards, the graceful moves of a
ballerina and a penchant for highlight-reel dunks. But his image
took a hit during a nasty contract dispute in Charlotte and then
got worse after his September 1993 trade to Seattle, where he
would clash for two seasons with coach George Karl.
According to Gill, Karl branded him unworthy of the seven-year,
$26 million contract he had signed with the Hornets and accused
Gill of demanding guaranteed playing time as part of that deal.
Gill also says Karl tried to embarrass him by repeatedly
scratching him from the starting lineup right before game time,
calling him Pretty Boy in front of the other Sonics and saying
on his radio show that Gill was "overpaid." Karl admits to the
last charge, adding that he regrets making the statement, but he
denies the others, saying only that he and Gill had
For Gill, who grew up in a suburban Chicago household headed by
two loving parents--Rudy, a technical maintenance supervisor at
Inland Steel, and Linda, a district manager for IBM--then
breezed on to stardom at Illinois, Karl's hard-edged treatment
cut deeply. He says he became so upset about his conflict with
Karl that he couldn't sleep at night. Eventually their
falling-out began to affect his play. "I was in a fog, just
running around on the court," Gill says. "I remember one time we
had a fast break against Atlanta, and I couldn't even dunk the
"After a while I just didn't want to play. You know it's bad
when you say to yourself, Man, I wish I could get hurt so I
wouldn't have to play. That's the way I was."
The nadir for Gill came in April 1995 when, angered at his
deteriorating relationship with Karl, he took a medical leave
for five days. At the time, Gill told the media he was suffering
from clinical depression, though he now attributes the move to
exhaustion. "I had to take a leave because I hadn't slept for
four days, and I was afraid that when I saw [Karl], it was going
to become physical," Gill says. "I talked to my father, who
said, 'Son, you've got to take a step back.'"
For two years, Gill says, he lived with the anguish of the
Seattle experience bottled up inside him as he bounced first
back to Charlotte in June 1995 and then on to New Jersey seven
months later. But last December, the day before Seattle made its
annual trip to East Rutherford, he uncorked his feelings to some
of the writers who cover the Nets. In a New York Times story,
Gill blamed Karl for his woes in Seattle and said the Sonics'
coach was "the only person in the world I have a serious dislike
The next night Gill played as if he was unleashing all his
demons. He drove to the basket with purpose. He calmly sank
crucial free throws. He played torrid defense, twice blocking
Gary Payton's shots. At one point he raised his arms in
jubilation in front of the Sonics' bench. Gill scored 11 of his
team-high 24 points in the fourth quarter and lifted the Nets to
a 110-101 upset. It was clearly a catharsis, but in perhaps the
most telling sign of Gill's recovery, he chose not to dwell on
it. "It's over with now," he said afterward. "I wish George Karl
and all my friends on the Sonics a lot of luck."
Gill credits his refreshed outlook to maturity and to his latest
change of address. Once in New Jersey, he says, he felt as if he
was finally out of the shadow of his past and free to start
over. Excited about playing in the New York area, he rented an
apartment near Times Square so he could better take advantage of
the city's culture and nightlife. Although he suffered a broken
finger after just 11 games with the Nets, finishing him for
1995-96, he knew he was in the right place. "I began to get my
freedom again," he says. "I felt the love of the game coming
When Gill returned to his native Chicago last off-season, he
played basketball in the park with friends for the first time in
years. He watched videotapes of his college games, spent three
days working on his release with noted shot doctor Buzz Braman
and suited up in a summer league with several NBA players. "It
was like a rebirth," he says. "That's why I'm having the best
year of my career."
Other than a few more wins, Gill says he has everything he
needs. Whether he is dancing to Latin music at a club, visiting
friends at a coffee shop or sitting on the terrace of his
12th-story apartment looking out over the Hudson River, he is
thriving in the big city. "I love watching people: I can sit for
three or four hours and just watch," Gill says. "I love hailing
cabs, I love being able to dress the way I want, I love people
being mean to me sometimes. I just love New York."
He downs the last of his catfish, surveys the frenzied Shark Bar
scene and smiles. For a change, Kendall Gill feels like a fish
COLOR PHOTO: MANNY MILLAN Along with 22.1 points per game, Gill has provided stability and leadership. [Kendall Gill in game]
FOR THE WEEK OF FEBRUARY 17-23
By turning down a trade to Utah for center Greg Foster, guard
Jamie Watson and possibly a No. 1 draft pick, Mavericks point
guard Derek Harper dealt a blow to the Jazz's bid for a title.
Harper, 35, makes his home in Dallas and has been promised a job
with the Mavericks when he retires. He would have been the ideal
backcourt complement to John Stockton and Jeff Hornacek.
With an 85-79 loss to the Pistons on Sunday, the Bullets are
0-17 against teams currently in first or second place in their
Why did G.M. Ernie Grunfeld boast to the New York Post that his
Knicks can dethrone Chicago? When shown the tabloid's headline
last Friday--beatabull--Michael Jordan, who has used far less
provocative remarks for motivation, promised that he will keep
Grunfeld's words in mind when the teams meet on March 9.
"I've been to three county fairs, four dog shows and three
tractor pulls, and I ain't never seen anything like this."
--Denver trainer Jim Gillen, on the pregame scramble after two
Nuggets were swapped for two Pacers three hours before the teams
played in Indianapolis on Feb. 20.