HoopsHype.com Columns

That's right, Van Gundy's a catch
by Tim O'Sullivan / May 21, 2003

With a rising trend towards hiring former players as coaches, why has Jeff Van Gundy's name come up for every NBA coaching vacancy? How can multi-millionaire seven-footers who drive platinum-plated Escalades look up to a 5-foot-nothing workaholic who drives a Nissan? What kind of owner would hire this man? An owner who wants an intelligent, hard-working, media savvy proven winner with a coaching pedigree, that's who.

Van Gundy was notorious for his obsessive coaching style during his six-plus years as the Knicks head man. What, do you think those saddle bags beneath his eyes came from worrying about male pattern baldness? All right, so maybe some of the eye baggage can be blamed on hair loss, but most of it came from 15-hour work days and the relentless pursuit of the all-important "W."

Van Gundy did what most NBA coaches can only dream of, he got his team to overachieve. The 1998-99 Knicks were the only No. 8 seed in NBA history to advance to the Finals. Pulling of a playoff upset is extremely difficult,
but Van Gundy managed to do it three times in one playoff run. He also guided the Knicks to an upset win against Miami in the first round of the 1998 playoffs. Granted, the Knicks run to the 1999 Finals came in a strike-shortened season and if New York had played an 82-game schedule, they may have ended up with a higher seed and a better relative record than 27-23, but probably not. Larry "Chronic Back" Johnson, Kurt "Square Wheels" Thomas, Marcus "MASH" Camby and Allan "No D" Houston were only giving so much in the regular season.

In his first full season as the Knicks head coach, 1996-97, Van Gundy led the team to a 57-25 record, a 10-game improvement over Don Nelson's record the previous year and the third-most wins in Knicks history. Van Gundy
finished with a 248-172 record in the regular season (a .590 winning percentage), a 37-32 post season record (.536) and led New York to the playoffs in all five of his full seasons, not to mention leading the team to a first-round win in the 1996 playoffs after being the head man for just 23 games.

Coaching is in Van Gundy's blood. His father, Bill, has been prowling basketball sidelines for four decades. His brother, Stan, was a head coach at Canisius, Fordham, Lowell (Mass.) and Wisconsin before leaving college for the NBA and joining Pat Riley's Miami Heat staff. But Jeff Van Gundy's coaching pedigree doesn't stop there.

After one year of coaching in high school, Van Gundy was a graduate assistant under Rick Pitino at Providence when the Friars made their improbable run to the Final Four in 1986-87. After that, he was a full-time assistant at Providence the next year and at Rutgers the following year before finally leaping to the Knicks on July 28, 1989. There, he learned from Riley, one of the all-time coaching greats.

Van Gundy's time away from the game and his stint as a TNT commentator is also a plus. First, he had to leave the Knicks, he had whipped them into as much overachieving as was possible, and he was going to give himself a nervous breakdown if he kept whipping. Every lazy defensive stand and offensive breakdown by New York became a personal attack to Van Gundy. Resigning after 19 games in 2002 was like self defense.

Working for TNT, Van Gundy has continued to display the dry, self-effacing humor that made his players able to tolerate the constant pushing and demands. While Van Gundy was good with the media before joining the herd, he should be even better now that he has been on the other side of the looking glass. And viewing the league as an objective journalist is beneficial for any coach, just ask Doc Rivers.

When someone or something becomes as hot as Van Gundy has become, there is always the concern that it is simply a trend, a fashionable flash in the pan. Trust me, Van Gundy is not trendy or fashionable, he's just a good
coach. Soon, fans in some NBA city (to quote Spinal Tap, "Hello, Cleveland!") will be lucky enough to watch the short, balding, rumpled, toy-dog coach in all his obsessive, overachieving glory.

Tim O'Sullivan is a staff writer at the Concord (NH) Monitor and a regular contributor to HoopsHype.com

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