Jeff Van Gundy had a front row seat to Michael Jordan’s brilliance.
Since the 1989-90 season, Van Gundy has been a fixture in the NBA. He spent 11 years as a head coach and is now part of ABC’s lead broadcast team with Mike Breen and Mark Jackson. And his coaching career will forever be connected to Jordan, who constantly stood in the way of Van Gundy’s Knicks.
Van Gundy’s first win as a head coach came against Jordan’s Bulls during the famed 1995-96 season when Chicago set a then-record of 72 wins. His Knicks also defeated Chicago in the final game of the ’96–’97 season, preventing the Bulls from being the only team to ever post 70 wins in back-to-back years.
ESPN’s 10-part documentary The Last Dance premieres on Sunday, and Van Gundy took time to speak with Sports Illustrated about Jordan, Scottie Pippen, Dennis Rodman and Phil Jackson, sharing his vivid accounts of coaching against the men behind the Bulls’ dynasty.
Justin Barrasso: ESPN is showing two versions of the Bulls documentary–an unedited version on ESPN, replete with a vernacular that is common during games but shielded from the viewers, and another on ESPN2 with some of the more adult language edited out. In order to receive the full Michael Jordan experience, don’t you need to watch the unedited version?
Jeff Van Gundy: I think the essence of Jordan is the same with or without the inflammatory vocabulary that may be in there. Every family is going to have to make that decision for themselves, and you would like to see kids be able to understand what a great competitor and player he was. I think either way is fine. I didn’t know they were doing that, that’s terrific.
Barrasso: You started on the Knicks staff in the ’89-’90 season, so you witnessed Jordan’s ascent from scoring champion to Finals MVP. That ’90 season also stands out because you were a part of the staff on a Knicks team that knocked out Larry Bird and the Celtics in a first-round, five-game series, winning the finale at Boston Garden.
Van Gundy: That was my first year in the NBA, and it’s one of the great road wins, to me, in playoff history. To win a deciding game on the road in Boston Garden against Bird, [Robert] Parish, [Kevin] McHale, [Dennis Johnson] and Reggie Lewis.
Barrasso: My father brought me to the Garden for that game, and we were both devastated when Maurice Cheeks dismantled the Celtics.
Van Gundy: Maurice Cheeks played all 48 minutes that game in his mid-30s. Patrick Ewing, [Charles] Oakley, those guys played a phenomenal game.
Barrasso: I know we’re supposed to be discussing Michael Jordan and the Bulls, and we’ll get there, but the Celtics beat the Knicks in the first two games, and simply destroyed you in Game Two, 157-128.
Van Gundy: Think about that. We scored 128 and lost by 30. Come on, man.
Barrasso: Your first year as a head coach was ’95-’96, the year the Bulls won 72 games and their fourth title.
You replaced Don Nelson as head coach for the final 23 games of the season. You lost to Philadelphia in your debut, but your first win came two nights later at Madison Square Garden against the Bulls. That was a commanding 32-point win against a team that had won 54 of its first 60 games. Do any particular memories still resonate about that night?
Van Gundy: As you said, we lost to an awful Philadelphia team on the road in my first game, and then I think we were playing the third game of those NBC tripleheaders on Sunday, I think at 5:30. We jumped out to a big lead, then they came back and got the lead. And again, you win in the NBA with great players. It’s hard to imagine how good Ewing was in his prime. He was just an amazing competitor and player. Derek Harper was phenomenal that night. And we made a bunch of threes—Harper made a bunch, and [John] Starks and Charlie Ward made a couple—the three-point shot, even then, was a big equalizer.
The Bulls obviously were dominant that year, they won 72, but that night, when we got it rolling in the second half from the three-point, we were able to beat a great, great team.
Barrasso: If only it were always that easy.
Van Gundy: You know what it is? That is the difference between the NBA and college basketball: trying to win a series. That’s why you see so very few upsets in the NBA playoffs. In the NFL, you’ll see upsets. It’s one game. In the NBA, you’re not going to see as many upsets. You can win one, two, three, but it’s tough to get that fourth game.
Barrasso: Your Knicks lost in five that year to the Bulls in the conference semis. How did you prepare for a team that included Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, and Dennis Rodman?
Van Gundy: They were a really well put together team. I think [former Bulls GM] Jerry Krause has never gotten his due from their players, which is odd because basically all of those players—not Jordan, because Rod Thorn drafted Michael Jordan—were acquired by Jerry Krause. It was always weird to me that they never wanted to give Krause his due.
They were big—Pippen, Rodman, [Toni] Kukoč. They always had three centers to use fouls against other teams’ high-quality inside players. And they surrounded Jordan with guys like John Paxson, B.J. Armstrong, Steve Kerr—they always had a guy that was really a specialist from a shooting standpoint, and it was all driven by Jordan and their defense. Jordan was always putting your defense in a compromising situation, and an underrated aspect of those teams, particularly Rodman, was the number of second shots they were able to create.
Defensively, they were also vastly overlooked. When you talk about those Bulls teams, first thought is Jordan, second is Phil Jackson and the triangle. I thought Phil Jackson never got the credit due to him as a tremendous game coach, but also a tremendous defensive coach.
Barrasso: History is always repeating itself in the NBA. In the 1960s, coaches were envious of Red Auerbach because he had the privilege of coaching the legendary Bill Russell. Were coaches around the league jealous of Jackson because he had Jordan?
Van Gundy: I don’t think people were envious in that way. There are players that have gone into the Hall of Fame without great coaches next to their name. But there has never been a great coach go into the Hall of Fame without their name attached to great players. It’s just how it is. People say it’s a players’ league for a reason—it’s true. The best players usually win. And the best players help coaches develop coaching legacies.
Phil Jackson, yes, he was blessed with some enormously talented teams in his day, and he came through. Every time he got to the Finals in Chicago, he won it. When he got there with L.A., he won it every time except twice, [against] the Celtics and the Pistons. My point is, he came through, and that’s hard to do. Yes, he coached Jordan and [Kobe] Bryant and [Shaquille] O’Neal, three of the top-10 players to ever play this game, but it’s one thing to have great players. It’s another thing to win when you have great players.
When you’re a coach, we’re always watching other coaches, and I thought what he did so well was the way he paced his teams incredibly well, both physically and mentally, to play very good basketball in the playoffs.
Barrasso: What made Jackson so effective as a coach on a team with such overwhelmingly strong and different personalities?
Van Gundy: When you’re coaching, what you’re looking for is committed players—and strong-minded, committed players who have an opinion are a good thing. They care about trying to find the best solutions to whatever issues you have. Weaker-minded, less-committed players may want to speak, but you’re not going to listen to them as much because they want the path of least resistance. So strong-minded, strong personalities, as long as they’re committed to winning and to the team, that’s a benefit.
Barrasso: Another memorable moment in the Bulls-Knicks rivalry is the end of the ’96-’97 season, when the Knicks went to Chicago for a victory in the final game of the season, preventing the Bulls from reaching 70 wins.
Jordan’s trash talk is notorious. Was he still talking trash on the rare occasions when he would lose?
Van Gundy: Everybody says Jordan talked a lot, but I was unaware. When you’re coaching a game, I didn’t hear him much. It might have been player-to-player, but it wasn’t loud. The one thing he did exceptionally well is he knew exactly how to manipulate, as much as he could, officials. He was tremendous at that. Sometimes befriending them with humor, other times attacking them with very pointed words. I think he did that well.
That game you’re talking about in ’97, that year we split the regular season games with them. As far as when I was a head coach, that was, by far, our best team. Against their defense, you needed wing players who could go and get their own shots, because they were so long, so active and so disruptive. That was the year we added Allan Houston, and he gave us that big wing guy who could go get a shot.
Barrasso: Does Scottie Pippen receive the right amount of greatness for his legendary career? Or is his legacy hurt by the fact that he never won a title without Jordan?
Van Gundy: I know a lot of people talk about legacies in sports, but if I was a player, I wouldn’t listen or worry too much about how other people view your own legacy. I would concern myself with whether I prepared, practiced and put the team first.
With Pippen, I go back to the Bulls the year we beat them in ’94, the first year Jordan was playing baseball. I don’t think the triangle was ever run better than in that year, and I think Pippen had a really strong case to be MVP that year. He was a remarkable player-leader that year, obviously harmed a little bit when he went AWOL in the playoffs.
Barrasso: That happened at the end of Game Three against the Knicks, when Phil Jackson drew up a play for Toni Kukoč to take a game-ending shot, which he hit and the Bulls won, and Pippen made the decision to sit out instead of inbounding the ball. Could you argue that he was justified in believing he deserved that shot?
Van Gundy: You don’t owe a player a last shot, that’s ridiculous. It’s OK to think you deserve it, you think you deserve a lot of things, but you have to go out and play to win the game. But my point is he was very good. In Portland, those Mike Dunleavy teams, they had a great team the year  they lost to the Lakers and Pippen had a phenomenal year. I don’t think Pippen’s lack of a championship without Jordan lessens anything, but I do think how well he played outside of the Bulls makes people understand just how good he was. He was the best help wing defender I’ve ever seen in the NBA. Such great anticipation, knew when to help and when not to help, he could be very disruptive off the ball—the guy was an elite off-the-ball defender.
Barrasso: For a league as colorful throughout its history as the NBA, which also employed World B. Free and a host of other characters, is Dennis Rodman perhaps its most unique personality?
Van Gundy: Well I think he worked really hard at that. Dennis understood all this branding way before most in professional sports, and he knew if he was just a good offensive rebounder—and he was an underrated passer, as well—that very few outside of Detroit or Chicago would have known about him. He had that nickname, “The Worm,” he started dressing up and doing some spectacular things to draw attention to himself, and that’s what made him more noticeable. I think he knew what he was doing. He knew being different would make him a lot of money, and he was proven right in that regard.
Barrasso: This documentary is a time capsule for the NBA. What do you think viewers will be most surprised to learn about the league as a whole? And having already had a front-row seat to the Bulls’ dominance, what are you looking forward to seeing most in the documentary?
Van Gundy: I lived it. And fans, if they watch closely, they’ll see how little room Jordan had on the floor. The three-point shot was in less use and there was less three-point shooting. If you look at how tight the spacing was in the triangle, and how much physical contact was allowed, people will be amazed. Everyone thinks they know how good Jordan was, but until you go back and actually study him, you’ll never understand what a great, great player he was. He shot over 50% a lot of times through the physical contact he had to play through—if that happened in today’s game, you’d be absolutely living at the free throw line.
That’s why I have no doubt, if you dropped him in at his prime, in today’s game, he would average north of 40 points a game. He would be either living at the line or his variety of shots would just be too hard to handle. If fans watch the game footage closely, the amount of contact that was allowed then versus now, you’re going to be even more astounded at Jordan’s efficiency from a scoring perspective.