From Knocking Down Jumpers to Knocking Out Opponents
Feb. 6, 2007
Kendall Gill is in the best shape of his life.
That says a lot for the 38-year-old former basketball standout at Illinois, who retired in 2006 after 15 seasons in the NBA.
From his playing weight at 216 pounds, Gill has slimmed and sculpted his body down to 195 and feels he could return to professional basketball and be better than he was in his prime. And all because he has finally found spare time to chase his childhood dream.
Now, instead of knocking down jumpers, he's knocking out opponents.
A product of the southside of Chicago, Gill has turned in his Air Jordan basketball sneakers for a pair of Air Jordan boxing shoes. For the past three years, the former NBA star has trained to become a professional cruiserweight boxer.
Until of course Gill moved with his family to suburbia.
Although Gill was born and raised in Chicago, he spent his adolescent years in Olympia Fields, Ill. He says he was a fortunate one; an All-American kid, who lived with both of his parents, a dog, and the white picket fence outside. He is humble when he speaks of his upbringing and notes that he was fortunate enough to have a lot of support around him as a young boy.
As an aspiring young athlete, Gill looked to the great Chicago Bear Walter Payton and read about the career of arguably the greatest boxer of all-time - Muhammad Ali. But Gill is quick to point out that those sports idols were just that. He couldn't touch them or talk to them, which is why he stands grateful today of the men that helped raised him.
"When I moved to the suburbs, everybody was playing basketball and there were no opportunities for boxing," Gill said. "They didn't even know what boxing was. So I just started playing basketball from that point and happened to get really good at it."
Indeed he did.
And no matter where Gill's travels took him, he says that people still stopped him to talk about the famed "Flying Illini" squad.
"People still talk about that team to this date. No matter where I am, a guy on the street will always stop me and talk about that 1989 team," he said. "I was in Japan once and some guy said `Hey, Flying Illini!' when he saw me. It was a very special time for me that I will always remember. All of my teammates are still very close. We are good friends and still keep in contact with each other. To this date, that 1989 season and `Flying Illini' team was the most special moment I have had in basketball."
As a senior in 1990, Gill led the Big Ten in scoring with 20 points per game, was named first team All-Conference and All-America honoree, and was a finalist for the Wooden Award. He left Champaign a graduate in speech communications, a three-year starter, and the seventh all-time leading scorer in school history.
Gill also talks about his memories of competing in the Big Ten, which he feels began to grow into a basketball powerhouse during his career at Illinois. Indiana captured the NCAA Championship in 1987 and both Illinois and Michigan represented the conference in the Final Four two years later with the Wolverines eventually winning the 1989 national title.
"When I played, the Big Ten was starting to come around as a top conference for basketball," said Gill. "People knew (the Big Ten) as a football conference, but we had teams like Michigan, Purdue and Iowa that were strong on the court. I felt like I was in the best conference in the country and was competing against the best players. I remember playing outside the conference and feeling that nobody could beat us."
Gill's successful college career positioned him as a top-five selection in the 1990 NBA Draft. He was taken fifth overall by the Charlotte Hornets - a second-year expansion team at the time. In his first season, Gill averaged 11 points and 3.7 assists per game and was named first team All-Rookie. The following year, he averaged over 20 points per contest for the Hornets.
"I still wonder why I was taken fifth in the draft by Charlotte, because everything I was hearing was that I would go third to Denver," Gill recalled. "My agent thought it was Denver, I thought it was Denver, and when Denver's pick came around, I almost stood up. With Charlotte, I knew they already had Rex Chapman at the two-guard as well as Dell Curry. But I was just glad to be on the East Coast and somewhat close to home. It was less than two hours away by plane which was nice."
Gill was able to enjoy that short plane ride for just one more year. He played a third season in Charlotte before he was traded to the Seattle SuperSonics.
In Seattle, Gill played two seasons under George Karl before he was traded back to Charlotte in June 1995. Reunited with his old ballclub for just half the 1996 season, Gill was then sent to New Jersey where he settled in and found his swagger immediately. During the 1996-97 campaign, Gill led the Nets with 21.8 points per game and then finished eighth in the league with 1.93 steals per contest the following year.
He captured the NBA steals crown the next two seasons with an average of 2.68 in 1998-99 and 1.56 in 1999-2000. He matched the league's single-game record with 11 steals and added 15 points and 10 rebounds in a win over Miami on April 3, 1999.
Gill stayed with New Jersey until he relocated as a free agent with the Miami Heat in 2001 and the Minnesota Timberwolves in 2002. In 2003, Gill returned home to play for his friend Bill Cartwright as a free agent for the Chicago Bulls. It was a brief, yet memorable homecoming for Gill, as he now had an opportunity to play basketball on the high school, collegiate and professional levels in the state of Illinois.
"It was a great opportunity to wear the Bulls jersey, but I wish my homecoming was a little better," Gill said. "I came to play for my close friend Bill Cartwright and when he was fired in 2003, it took the steam out of me."
Instead of opting for a leisure career in golf or for the sandy beaches in the Keys, Gill took to the shores of Lake Michigan for early-morning runs with the Chicago skyline as a backdrop.
He began training at JABB Boxing Gym in Chicago, under former featherweight contender Michael Garcia. Gill, who trained daily, was more than just an avid boxing fan who would watch a fight from his library of legendary boxing matches before he went to bed.
He was a fighter, and he wanted to be the best.
He also continued to enjoy taking part in martial arts, practicing in jujitsu and Muay Thai to quicken his speed and hit the ring to spar and quicken his punch. As of February 2007, he had won all three of his bouts as a fighter and climbed to No. 449 in the world rankings of 745 cruiserweights. But Gill doesn't know if he'll see a fourth fight. He said he was recently offered a fight in Las Vegas, but turned it down noting that he does not have a lot of interest returning to the ring unless he was a part of a top-card billing.
"Boxing takes a toll on the body," he said. "Basketball doesn't even come close to boxing as far as conditioning goes. It's a brutal sport and you have to train yourself hard. I have a whole different respect for boxers."
And now he also has a different outlook on life.
Gill married last August and welcomed his first child to the world on Oct. 28. He notes that basketball was long the priority in his life, but now it is family.
"I always wanted to wait until after my basketball career was over because you need to devote time to your kids," he said. "You're always on the road with basketball and focused on the task at hand. After 15 years of professional basketball, it was just a perfect time for me."
Another priority for Gill remains his love of boxing, and while he currently serves as a Chicago Bulls pregame and postgame analyst for Comcast SportsNet Chicago, he is looking to become a boxing promoter.
"I want to be in the sport for the long term," said Gill. "Boxing is my life."
Maybe, but he was pretty successful on the basketball court as well.