Legends Spotlight: Kendall Gill

January 24, 2018

By:Hemda Mizrahi - Rebound Magazine
Editor: Excell Hardy Jr.

HIS BIG Return on Court and Realizing His Pre-basketball Sports Ambition

After 15 years in the NBA, Kendall Gill is fulfilling a dream that is coveted by former pro athletes across any sport, the opportunity to play again at an elevated level. Having participated in the inaugural (2017) season of the BIG3, a 3-on-3 basketball league founded by Ice Cube and entertainment exec Jeff Kwatinetz, he affirms that next year will be his final year of competing. “I’ll be 50 and the grind of training is hard. Although I have a supportive wife who understands that athletes only have a short amount of time to do what they do as professionals, the time has come to devote energy to my family. I tapped into the place I was in high school and college, when I was trying to prove myself, and came full circle to how I became successful. The formula has always been hard work and focus. In the NBA I was mostly a starter, whereas in the BIG3 I played as a reserve. I wasn’t used to it, but I came in late, after the rotation was already established.”

Gill is referring to his disappointment at not being selected in the draft, followed by elation after Corey Maggette and Coach Drexler asked him to join Team Power three weeks into the season. In true pro form, he transmuted the highs and lows of the pick into being thankful to have his shot, upping his performance goals. “Getting selected later made me hungrier for the next season. As a reserve, you can watch and see what’s going on before you get on the court, but you have to be ready right away. You don’t get to ready yourself by running up and down the court. Hopefully next year I’ll be drafted and be there from beginning so that I can get a starting position. I didn’t feel satisfied with the way I played. I want to be one of the best players in league, so I’ll put work into changing my game.”

Gill’s fulfillment of his first pro sport ambition, that of becoming a boxer, might offer him the firmest footing for his jump at being one of the BIG3’s best in 2018. As a child in urban Chicago, he was fascinated with boxing. “I studied martial arts six years before basketball but my passion was fighting. I wanted to be Sugar Ray Leonard or Muhammad Ali. When I moved to the suburbs with my family, my exposure changed. Suburban kids played basketball.” Preserving the vision of his younger years, Gill geared up to try his hand at pro boxing during his transition from the NBA. “I would pop tapes while on flights [to and from games] to get ready. I studied Muay Thai boxing and Mixed Martial Arts during the summer, and already had a network of trainers, promoters, and other people whom I had come to know from going to fights.”

While Gill loved his time in the pro ring, he says that it was “hard and painful,’ sharing, “The guys didn’t take it easy on me at the gym. They had the perspective, ‘We’re going to show you that you don’t play basketball, you box.’ This is how they eat and feed their families. They take it like war, and have the instinct to hurt you before you hurt them. As a fighter, you really need to know how to win. You can’t have off days, mentally or physically. You have only one night to prove yourself; otherwise you’ll lose and might get hurt. As a player, I wasn’t on point during every game. Getting hurt wasn’t in my thought process. Now I understand the mindset of a Kobe Bryant and a Jordan. Pro basketball was like kindergarten compared to the physical toll of being a fighter. I’m done fighting professionally. I had four fights and was aiming for a fifth to test my skills, but the person I wanted to fight passed away. I decided to focus on sparring. I landed in the right long-term career as basketball player.”

Even with a shift away from the pro boxing arena, Gill is known for his exacting workouts, which include runs followed by two hours of continuous movement at the boxing gym. He’s found a sweet spot in assigning space for both the sport that became a career and the one that he practices as a lifestyle. “I box in the morning and play basketball at night. The [boxing] trainers are good to me and I get tough love from my sparring partners. I’m friends with all of them. They knew I was serious when I would get beat up in the ring and come back.”

Gill’s diet serves his goal of contributing his all both in the ring and on court. It’s another example of how boxing training strengthens his performance in basketball. “Even as a pro player, I didn’t know how to eat for maximum potential. I ate a lot of fast foods and didn’t drink enough water. I had no idea that I was dehydrated and how that affected me. With boxing, I [learned to] eat clean, oatmeal with egg whites for breakfast, a gallon of water a day, a protein shake with seaweed that includes 92 minerals and vitamins. I have beans with broccoli or a salad for lunch, and fish or another protein with rice and vegetables for dinner. I snack on fruit and limit my meat intake to about once a day.”

Both these training and nutrition regimens are reasons that Gill states he was “irritated” when he didn’t initially get drafted for the BIG3. “I did both boxing and basketball training camps beforehand and performed better than some of the other players. It’s not anyone’s fault because they didn’t know what I had done to prepare.” Based on the results of the inaugural season, he suggests that assigning a general manager rather than a team captain to select players would make for more equitable and competitive picks. “The top two teams drafted players with an intent to win and stuck with them. The teams that didn’t do that and gave preferential treatment to their buddies were not as successful.”

Gill names “Joe Smith, a former Number 1 pick in the real NBA draft,” Etan Thomas, Earl Boykins, and Smush Parker as players he was impressed with who did not make the draft. He’d also like to see Stephon Marbury, Lamar Odom, Gilbert Arenas, Paul Pierce, and Kevin Garnett back on court. “It will be great for fans if they join. They are such a supportive fraternity.”

When asked about the experience of playing in front of his hometown crowd and teaming up with Chicagoland pros like Corey Maggette and Paul McPherson, Gill replies, “It was great. When your name is announced and fans still remember you and take pictures, and you replicate a move you used to do in the NBA…it was just like being back again, like getting a chance to relive my childhood. At the start of the season, lots of guys were in shape, but not in pro shape. As the season progressed, players got better and better, getting their timing back. I learned that guys at this stage can still play high-level basketball. I didn’t think they were going to be as physically gifted as they are. Some were in their early to mid 30s; many were in their late 30s and could get it done. I was the oldest player in the league, a special accomplishment at 49.”

Gill’s sons, Kota and especially Phoenix, gained a new level of regard for their dad. “Phoenix lives, breathes and eats basketball. He appreciated that Dad was with other pros. I play in the over 40 league and with college players, but it’s the first time that he saw me in uniform in a professional setting. He understood that what Dad is talking about really works.”

Gill is also glad to pass on the wisdom of his experiences to the next generation of NBA players. “The difference between being in the NBA and being retired is like leaving your parents’ house for first time. You need to grow up because the NBA takes care of you. You’re riding on private plans and are told where to be. There’s no reason not to save a ton of money. When you are secure after you retire, you can pursue what you want without worrying about bills. But when you’re in the NBA, be a ball player. You’ll have plenty of time to do whatever you want to do outside of basketball. Sometimes you can get into trouble when you distribute your attention to different things. It will take you a year or two to get used to being out of the NBA. Don’t do anything the first year or two out if you don’t know what you want to do. Take time to travel and research. You’ll need structure, something that can hold your interest. For some guys that can be golf and seeing things they’ve never seen, being exposed to other cultures.”

Gill has been a member of the National Basketball Retired Players Association (NBRPA) for over four years. “I still wanted to belong to a fraternity through which we could share information and help one another in different circumstances. It’s good to have a network of guys and resources and that’s what the union provides, like health insurance and career transition services. Sometimes you feel isolated in retirement and don’t know where to go. You might think, ‘I’m done, no one is thinking about me anymore.’ Being a part of the Association is like still being in the NBA family.”

Portioning his time between competitive athletics and other pursuits, Gill has also served as a TV analyst for the Big Ten Network, NBA TV, and Chicago Sports Network. In this role, he applies the same success mantra of hard work and focus. “I review websites and watch ESPN and NBA TV everyday to see what’s going on so that I can reference it in my shows. I’m not physically with the game but am using my eyes and mind.” It’s this versatility that we’ll be observing as we follow Gill’s next shot at the BIG3. Maybe we’ll see moves that are new to his basketball repertoire. As he attests, “I’m tired but still have enough in the tank to go all out.”