For the Knicks, Jeff Van Gundy's Shadow Still Looms Large

It's been almost two decades since Jeff Van Gundy last coached the Knicks, but they've never been able to replace what went missing when he walked out the door.
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You want a coach to have a passion for the game and a competitive desire for it. We’ve lost the work ethic. We lost our signature, defensive rebounding, and we have to get back to that.

It may be 24 years since New York Knicks President Ernie Grunfeld said these words, but they might as well have been uttered after any of the countless coaching changes that have been made in the two and a half decades that followed. 

These are the things you say, after all, when you make a coaching change. So when Grunfeld made the decision to axe Don Nelson, his hand-picked replacement for the abruptly departed Pat Riley, he didn't go off script.

Except back then, amidst the greatest period of success the franchise has had since the championship years, the words actually carried meaning, as did Grunfeld's lament that "we’re not the same as we used to be." Those Knicks were coming off 35 playoff victories in the previous four seasons, more than any team in the league other than the two franchises that had split the previous four titles. Winning was a thing that happened. Regularly.

That's what made the first two-thirds of the 1995-96 season such an anomaly. Mired in a 4-9 slump and sitting with a record of 34-26, New York sat in a three-way tie for third in the East. What would count as a modern day dream was a legitimate nightmare at the time.

Enter Jeff Van Gundy, the diminutive New York assistant coach of seven years who actually preceded his mentor Pat Riley by not one but two coaching regimes. Maybe the universe required a wild card like Nelson to slot in between Riley and Van Gundy, if only because such a direct transition would have been too much to handle. One was Armani, Rolex and GQ, while the other was the YMCA, Hair Club for Men and the discount rack at JC Penney.

What possessed the Knicks brass to hang onto Van Gundy even after they fired Riley's predecessors Stu Jackson and then John MacLeod is unclear. Perhaps they saw in him what fans see now when they envision their ideal image of a Knicks head coach all these years later. 

Gritty. Unapologetic. Curt. Passionate..oh so very passionate. Dedicated. Relentless.

And of course, sleep deprived.

Van Gundy while coaching Team USA, still with bags under his eyes.

Van Gundy while coaching Team USA, still with bags under his eyes.

Now, Van Gundy is in the news again, praising New York's hire of his one-time assistant Tom Thibodeau. Even as the organization tries mightily to turn over a new leaf, it's hard not to look back and pine for what was. As the Knicks try yet again (13th time is the charm!) to find a head coach that will embody the leadership ethos that Van Gundy emitted every hour he was at the job, his best achievements seem oddly close in the rear view mirror, perhaps a testament to just how unique those glory days were. 

And were they ever glorious (and boy, were there a lot of hours). 

Over the parts of seven seasons he was here, Van Gundy was an integral part of so many memories forever etched in the minds of Knicks fans everywhere. Winning 57 games in the 1996-97 season, tied for the third highest total in franchise history. The devastating suspensions handed down in the 1997 playoffs against Miami, the ones that prevented arguably the best team of the Ewing era from taking one more shot at Jordan's Bulls. Allan Houston's miracle shot, the four-point play, and the improbable Finals run as an eighth seed in 1999. The final showdown with Riley and the Heat in 2000 in what turned out to be Ewing's swan song as a Knick. There were many more - triumphant accomplishments that would be deserving of a parade for the current Knicks, but were taken for granted as business as usual back then.

And of course, there is the moment in the 1998 playoffs that Van Gundy became seared into New York lore as the guy who literally would not let go no matter how much you kicked him when he was down.

It's all part of a tapestry that has since cemented Van Gundy into that rarified New York air usually reserved for champions. He is without question the most beloved New York coach or manager in any sport who never won a title. You don't get to a place like that without earning it. 

That they've failed so spectacularly to find a suitable replacement since he left has to be considered karmic retribution. Remember that this organization begrudgingly watched Van Gundy lead the Knicks to the playoffs six times in six tries - something only superseded by Joe Lapchick and Red Holzman, who coached in a league with eight and 18 teams, respectively -  while seemingly trying to replace him at every turn. Their much publicized love affair with Phil Jackson reeked of more desperation than a high schooler pining after a head cheerleader who didn't know he existed. That Van Gundy didn't dump his ungrateful lesser half earlier remains a minor miracle. 

Finally though, he knew when enough was enough. He left on his own accord with a record of 10-9 at the beginning of the 2001-02 season, and the Knicks descent into the abyss would begin in earnest.

Little did anyone know at the time that Van Gundy would depart with more playoff wins on his watch (37) than days the Knicks would spend above .500 (36) from the moment they sunk below that mark less than a week after he left until the beginning of the 2010-11 season, eight and a half years later. 

Saying it's been a long 18 years since his resignation is an understatement if there ever was one, making it tough to blame those of us who still reminisce about the little coach that could. 

Tom Thibodeau may - we hope - bring the team back to those highest of heights. Even if he does, it's tough to imagine that he, or any coach, could take the place that Van Gundy occupies in the our hearts.

That's why, when I think of the words "Knicks coach," he will always be the first image to pop into my mind, hanging on for dear life by a thread, because he didn't have it in him not to.