NBA vet: 'Boxing causes too much pain'

CHICAGO -- The first question for every professional athlete who leaves his longtime best sport to test the waters of another sport is this: Is this for real, or just a self-serving stunt?

When it's a stunt -- such as when Joe Louis entered the wrestling ring, or when 7-foot-7 Manute Bol rode a horse, or when the NFL's William "The Refrigerator" Perry boxed -- we'd rather avert our eyes. The dignity lost performing such antics far outweighs whatever is gained.

But for anyone who's serious, there's the inevitable follow-up question: Is he any good?

Michael Jordan's foray into baseball in 1994 stands as the prime example of such experiments. And, for some people, the answer to the question was no.

Now comes Kendall Gill, the 15-year NBA veteran swingman who's trying his hand at another sort of swing: boxing.

And we have to ask, as Chicago Sun-Times columnist Rick Telander did on the night of Gill's first professional fight, "Good God, why, Kendall?"

Just as MJ leaned on the nostalgia of his days as a Little Leaguer to bolster the credibility of his choice, Gill recalls his childhood as one of rapt fascination with pugilism.

"I've been a boxing fan forever," said Gill, 37, whose last NBA stint was 14 games in 2004-05 with the Milwaukee Bucks. He owns an entire library of fight films, he said, and watches one fight every night before going to bed.

"It's something I've always wanted to do."

Also, Gill has long been a fitness fanatic and said boxing has put him in the best physical condition of his life.

There's no doubting he's fit. His workout on this lazy Saturday afternoon shows off his grace and quickness. The fluid economy of his movement as he punches the heavy bag or does his rounds against the punch mitts speaks volumes about his natural ability as well as his practiced commitment.

Even though Gill stands 6-5, he's no Ed "Too Tall" Jones, the former Dallas Cowboys star and former boxer who was hell-bent but too long and lumbering to make good. The one-two punch of Gill's length and agility has so far -- in three pro fights as a cruiserweight -- proven his best asset.

Wearing basketball shorts, a pair of talismanic Air Jordan boxing shoes and, throughout his workout, a pylon-orange winter cap a la Bill Murray's Steve Zissou, Gill declared, "I'm in better shape than I ever was in the NBA."

Still, like Jordan, he has something in mind with this experiment other than sweet childhood memories and intensive physical training.

Kendall Gill has demons that need exorcising.

In Jordan's case, in addition to dealing with the death of his father, the fallout from his gambling problems and the 24/7 press coverage he lived with for more than a decade, Jordan also felt as if he had nothing left to prove on the basketball court.

Gill isn't like Mike in this regard -- he still has plenty to prove.

At the outset, he took up martial arts nine years ago, after taking a beating in a street fight outside of a Chicago nightclub.

"I fell on the ground and didn't know what to do -- I took a lot of blows I shouldn't have," Gill said of the incident. "After that, I said it would never happen to me again."

Gill also has long fought against a reputation he had around the league for being soft.

"The rap with Kendall was that he was too sensitive," said Chicago Tribune columnist Sam Smith.

A longtime boxing writer, Smith later covered the Chicago Bulls, including Gill's brief tenure with the team.

"It's an interesting transition for him to go from a guy who's seen as soft into a sport like boxing, where you can't fake aggression," Smith said. "Nobody in sports has courage like a boxer."

Gill continued training in jujitsu and Muay Thai, a style of fighting seen in Ultimate competitions, for most of the rest of his NBA career, working out and sparring in the offseason.

His turn to boxing came on the heels of another sort of blow.

After three consecutive seasons playing with different teams, Gill, then 34 and on the downslope of his career, was traded to the Bulls in 2003.

What at first had seemed to Gill like a fresh start (as well as a homecoming to this Chicago native) turned into yet another disappointing one-year stint. Gill ended the season on injured reserve, having missed 25 games to both an Achilles strain and recurring migraine headaches. Given Gill's age, injuries and limited production, the Bulls did not re-sign him for the following season. Clearly, no one was surprised by what was looking more and more like a final push toward retirement -- no one, that is, but Gill.

Suddenly boxing looked a lot more attractive.

"At first he came in just a couple days a week," said Gill's trainer, Michael Garcia. A former featherweight contender, Garcia, 37, now co-owns JABB Boxing Gym in Chicago, where Gill trains. "Then it was three days, then four, and he was asking for more and more help.

"From the very beginning, you could see the guy was serious."

There's no missing his resolve. Working the mitts with Garcia, Gill's punches sting and pop. He's got the exceptional reach you'd imagine of a guy who's 6-5, but he strikes as quick as a cobra. Gill leans in for the attack, clearly relishing going on the offensive. Quite a departure for a guy better known for his defense.

Yes, Gill is serious about boxing, but not wholly committed. He and his managers haven't yet matched him up for a fourth fight. Maybe in January, Gill says. He's got business to take care of, a new house to move into, the holidays to get through … but the truth is, he's not ready to give up on his chances in the NBA.

So much still to prove, so little time left to try.

Though he had averaged a respectable 13 points per game over 15 years, Gill's career never quite lived up to the promise of his being chosen fifth overall in the 1990 draft.

A gifted natural athlete known for the extra practice time he put in, Gill had trouble following through consistently on that talent and hard work. George Karl, who coached the Seattle SuperSonics when Gill played there from 1993 through the 1995 playoffs, often benched Gill after questioning his intensity, focus and aggressiveness. And Karl wasn't the last coach to so question him.

"When he came into the league, he fancied himself another Michael Jordan," Smith said, "but he couldn't sustain through an entire game the way Michael did."

To make matters worse, Gill might have been one of the unluckiest players of all time in terms of where he spent his 15 seasons.

He was drafted by the two-year-old Charlotte Hornets, a team in the thick of expansion turmoil. Still, he earned a spot on the All-Rookie team, and looked to be part -- along with Larry Johnson and Alonzo Mourning -- of the league's most promising young trio. But the chaos endured, and Gill demanded to be traded. He landed with the already dysfunctional Sonics, where his relationship with George Karl quickly turned ugly.

In a 1996 interview with New York Times columnist Selena Roberts, Gill said of Karl, "He used to call me 'Pretty Boy.' I guess he thought I had a pretty-boy game.

"It was awful in Seattle," Gill said. "George is the only person in the world that I have a serious dislike for."

In 1995, Gill was shipped, via Charlotte, to the New Jersey Nets, where he played on one of the most underachieving teams in NBA history: the Nets of the John Calipari-Stephon Marbury era. Despite his great stats with the team over five seasons (twice averaging more than 20 ppg and finishing once within the league's top 10 in steals), he wasn't able to parlay them into a contract extension once management got serious about improving the team.

So on to the Miami Heat, where Pat Riley had gone to lose his magic touch. From there Gill went to the Minnesota Timberwolves, where he spent the 2002-03 season. Then he moved on to Chicago, where Gill played his last full NBA season with the then god-awful Bulls, who were still reeling through their post-Jordan upheaval.

What long ago seemed like a career headed for superstardom had somewhere along the line become star-crossed.

Gill doesn't seem bitter about his experience. Just wary. Garcia told the story of his discussion with his trainee once Gill decided he might have what it takes to fight professionally.

"He doesn't have to be here, ya know?" he said. "He doesn't need the money. He's already a high-status guy. He's already in great shape. What does he need with the headache?

"But it's his passion," Garcia explained. "But right up front, he said he doesn't want to make a fool of himself -- he wants to do it the right way."

In the dark corner of the gym, Gill moves around the ring, his orange cap fairly glowing. A couple of rounds pass. After throwing so many punches, Gill is tired, but the encouragement he gets from Garcia, as well as the gym regulars standing ringside, lifts his spirits.

As Gill falls back into the stiff posture he learned from martial arts, his trainer reminds him to dip and roll his shoulders as he advances. Gill takes direction well, learns quickly and tries hard not to be an easy target.

Despite the obvious time and effort he's put into boxing, Gill hopes to make a comeback in his first career choice, basketball.

"I'm stronger now than when I played before," Gill insists. "I can jump just as high as ever, and I'm faster now -- my reflexes are still there."

As a result of his boxing training, a regimen under which he runs five miles every morning and no longer lifts weights, Gill went from over 230 pounds at one point to just under 200. (He fought his first three fights at cruiserweight and has no plan to move up in weight class.) No doubt he's strong and fast, maybe enough to scratch out one more season on the hardwood. Maybe.

In early December, he worked out for scouts from the Dallas Mavericks and the Los Angeles Lakers, and he is waiting to hear whether he'll get picked up by either team.

His chances are less certain in terms of boxing. Gill admits he's got a small window of opportunity -- and that opportunity itself isn't the stuff of dreams but of hard, cold reality.

"I won't stay in it long," he said. "Boxing causes too much pain to stay in long."

In his second fight, against Jason Medina, Gill faced the only experienced fighter he's seen so far, other than in sparring sessions.

"After the first round, I was so drained and felt so beat up, I didn't know how I'd ever come out for the second bell," he said.

Gill admitted Medina tagged him good to the body and head. "He hurt me, no question," Gill said.

Gill won a four-round unanimous decision, but he recalled feeling pain for a week after the bout and wondering if maybe it was a good time to call it quits. Even his parents, he said, wanted him to throw in the towel on his new job.

But Gill stuck with it, and he said, "I passed the test."

Such tests, despite Gill's sense of triumph, tend to need passing more than once or twice.

So he returns to the gym day after day. He spars in the mirror, goes at the speed bag and works on his fight game like there's no tomorrow. By night he's back on the parquet, scrimmaging with the college guys, whose ranks sometimes include his old Flyin' Illini teammates as well as former Bulls guard Jay Williams and even the master himself, Jordan.

In 1998, three years after leaving the NBA to test his skills on a baseball diamond, Jordan had this to say about his baseball experiment: "I remember . … being amazed at how much my life had changed. I had no fear. Just a warm feeling.

"It turned out to be one of the best times of my life. I was learning, experiencing the game .… I was just happy to be a part of the team. There were a lot of things that felt good. The camaraderie was unbelievable compared to the NBA. … Everything was purer, more genuine. Even the relationships had a purity and innocence to them.

"I wouldn't change anything about that experience."

Having made his stand, MJ still had a couple NBA years left in him. While even in the throes of his boxing diversion, Gill hopes he does, too.

Regardless, Gill isn't likely to hang his head. Boxing will hold his attention for a while -- through four or five more fights, maybe -- until something else sparks his competitive fire and drives his need for respect.

For Gill, as for many athletes moving on in years, personal ambition never ages, and there's more than one way to find redemption.

Teri Berg is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. She can be reached at bergteri@yahoo.com.