This is his game. That's what the world doesn't understand, may
never understand, because the big chance dropped in his lap, and
he was handed a team fat with talent, and there he was, suddenly
transformed from faceless third assistant to millionaire leader
of men. Yes, the question lingers: Has there been any coach
luckier than Jeff Van Gundy? A man with no portfolio, no storied
past, no shoulders for god's sake, yet now he's lording it over
Madison Square Garden, striding before tycoons and stars, folding
his arms, pursing his lips, leaving Pat Riley in tears, waving
Pat Ewing goodbye, piloting one of the NBA's most prized
franchises, the New York Knickerbockers, for going on five years
already. And he fell into the job--didn't he?--like some yahoo
striking oil in his backyard. The guy must spend each night
counting his blessings, thanking the deity in charge of such
No. This is his game, though he never played it very well. His
game, because he has never known anything, other than family,
that he cared about more. His game, because nothing--not his big
brother's bruised ego, not the supposed wisdom of his elders--has
ever convinced him otherwise. Sons of coaches, Van Gundy will
tell you, are "the biggest assholes to deal with," and coming up,
the son of a small-college coach, he was a classic. As an
eighth-grader in Martinez, Calif., Van Gundy began playing summer
league with his brother, Stan, a high school star. Early in their
first game together Stan was running downcourt, hearing his
little brother "jump my ass about something he didn't like, for
taking a bad shot or not playing defense," Stan recalls. "It just
pissed me off: Who the heck is he? He'd never even attended a day
of high school. But it was his show: I'm taking control. He's
always had that attitude."
He doesn't show it much. Van Gundy will say all the right things,
and mean them: I had incredible mentors. I got unbelievable
breaks. I'm amazed that I'm coaching the Knicks. But pat answers
don't necessarily make him a predictable man. To get what he
wanted, Van Gundy made sacrifices that few others would dare even
consider. Imagine you're a 5'9", 150-pound senior coming out of
Brockport High in upstate New York in 1980, one of those
floor-burned hustlers with no hops and no quickness; you're a
B-plus student, and you eked out 1,040 on your SATs, but, thanks
to basketball, you get accepted by Yale. So what if the Elis'
coaching staff cuts you after watching you play pickup, before
fall practice even begins? You're in, and this is Yale, you fool:
Ivy League prestige, a lifetime of connections. You don't do what
no one in the history of higher education has done. You don't
transfer after one year from Yale to Menlo Junior College in
Menlo Park, Calif., because you're sure you need to play college
ball somewhere, anywhere, to be a coach.
"I thought he was insane," says Van Gundy's wife of 12 years,
Kim, who met Jeff in high school. "I mean, do you know anybody
who does that? How do you explain that?"
October 30, 2000
About as easily as you explain Van Gundy's bizarre summer of
1999, after the Knicks became the first No. 8 seed to reach the
NBA Finals. Talk about lucky: In the end it all hinged on guard
Allan Houston's last-second runner that bounded twice off the rim
before dropping to eliminate Riley's Miami Heat in Game 5 of the
first round. Had Houston missed, New York would have been
finished, and Van Gundy, for one, is "absolutely" sure he would
have been fired.
Time after time that season he had seen his face plastered on the
TV screen while pundits said his job was in peril. Garden
president Dave Checketts, who'd demoted close friend and general
manager Ernie Grunfeld to special consultant over dessert one
evening that April, assured Van Gundy, who had one year and $2
million to go on his contract, that he was in good shape. Then,
during New York's second-round series against the Atlanta Hawks,
the truth emerged: Checketts had interviewed former Chicago Bulls
coach Phil Jackson, revealing himself to be someone quite capable
of patting Van Gundy on the back, then shoving him into a ravine.
By the time the postseason run was over, though, and New York
had fallen to the San Antonio Spurs in five games in the Finals,
Van Gundy had become a Big Apple hero, his name chanted by the
Garden crowd. His return was assured in everyone's mind but his.
"You get to a point where you believe in yourself," Van Gundy
says. "And in your mind--you never say it--but in your mind?
F--- it. If you don't want me, somebody else will. And I'll go."
He sat at home in Chappaqua, N.Y., for two weeks, thinking about
quitting. He came close. It sounds absurd. Walk away from the
Knicks? The way he'd walked away from Yale? Van Gundy's stubborn
belief in himself had a way of propelling him in some odd
directions. "I was thinking, What is best? Maybe it's best for
me and the team to get a fresh start," he says. "Did I want to
continue? Was it worth it?"
Sure it was. That season had hardened him, and Van Gundy had
learned the ultimate NBA lesson. "Trust," he says, "all comes
back to contract." When they finally met two weeks after the
Finals, Checketts offered Van Gundy a long-term extension, which,
after negotiations were complete, wound up guaranteeing him $14
million over four years. Van Gundy spent last season becoming
richer and more entrenched, guiding the Knicks as far as the
Eastern Conference finals. Since the summer New York has taken on
a different look: smaller and softer. When Ewing, Van Gundy's
staunchest ally when the coach's job was on the line, was traded
to the Seattle SuperSonics on Sept. 20, a franchise long
dominated by the glowering big man fell fully into the hands of
the hangdog little one.
In talking to Checketts that day 15 months ago, the 37-year-old
Van Gundy insisted on one thing: He had often heard Checketts use
the phrase great young coach to describe him, and Van Gundy
wanted him to stop. It made him uncomfortable. Drop it, he said
to Checketts. Drop the young.
He hears what people say. Raccoon eyes. A kid in his father's
suit. He reads the stories in the papers, every word. He is not
one of those coaches who pretends that the gibes slide off his
back; he knows who said what and when and where, and he remembers
it all because it hurts. Yes, he wants to shout, just once, Yes,
my scalp resembles a scorched field, and my skin looks like skim
milk under the arena lights, but can we move on now? Can we get
But the one-liners aren't about to stop, are they? There was the
one Kim saw in the Chicago Tribune calling him "a sad-eyed
mortician...who appears to have inhaled too much formaldehyde."
People aren't quite so harsh when they meet him; no, they simply
ask, "Do you have fun? You don't look like you're having fun."
But he knows what they really mean. They mean he looks sick;
they mean he looks as if he's come down with something you'd
want a second opinion on--or worse. By midseason, as Florida
coach Billy Donovan puts it, "the guy looks like he was run over
by a truck." They mean Van Gundy looks like death out there.
In another time no one would notice that much. But this is the
era of perception and image, a time when coaches all seem to be
angling for the same trifecta: the Armani wardrobe, the book on
leadership, the motivational-speaking gigs. It doesn't help Van
Gundy that his boss is the tall and handsome and well-turned-out
Checketts, or that his primary mentor was the tall and rugged and
well-turned-out Riley, or that the NBA's current genius is the
tall and imposing and well-turned-out Jackson. Van Gundy has a
190-129 record, one trip to the Finals and an All-Star Game
coaching berth on his resume despite being, at 38, one of the
youngest coaches in the league. Still, he never looks anything
but overwhelmed. To see him from afar, from up in the aqua seats
at the Garden, is to swear Woody Allen finally got the Knicks
Up close, too, Van Gundy hardly makes a formidable impression.
When Rick Pitino hired him as a graduate assistant at Providence
in 1986, he stood up, shook Van Gundy's hand and said,
"Congratulations, Jim." After their second season in New York
together, Riley took Van Gundy aside and told him, "You can be a
head coach in this league, but you've got to start dressing
better." When Don Nelson took over the Knicks in '95, after Van
Gundy had already spent five-plus years as an assistant in New
York to Stu Jackson, John MacLeod and Riley, the first thing
Nelson said was, "I don't think I've ever seen you before."
In March '96, when Checketts fired Nelson and needed an interim
coach for the last 23 games of the season, he didn't turn to Van
Gundy because he expected greatness. Van Gundy simply lent
credence to Woody's famous pronouncement that 90% of success is
just showing up. "Jeff was just there," Checketts says.
All of which would be enough to give a guy a complex, except that
Van Gundy never seemed to care. There are times, in fact, when
he's his own best punch line. No one can detail his Mr. Magoo
driving skills more hilariously: Over the years Van Gundy has hit
a gas pump, rammed into his garage door, even run a stoplight and
crashed into another car, all because he was preoccupied with
thinking about basketball. No one has better summed up how he
looked when he wrapped himself around Alonzo Mourning's leg
("like a little muskrat") during the Heat-Knicks brawl in Game 4
of the first round of the 1998 playoffs. No one can better
describe the sad-sack moment--after Game 5 of last spring's
Heat-Knicks series--when his '95 Honda Civic, parked at
Westchester County Airport, was destroyed by a blast of exhaust
from the team plane's jet engines. ("Where the f--- is my car? It
was just here!")
As a Yale freshman Van Gundy and 12 guys in his dorm each tossed
$100 into a pool: Whoever landed a date with Oscar-nominated
classmate Jodie Foster won it all. "So I'm walking back from the
gym one night, and I'm right by this great candy store and these
sirens start whipping by, so I stop," Van Gundy says. "They go
by, and I'm watching, and now they're gone, and a voice says,
'Boy, that popcorn smells good.' I turn around, and I'm about to
say, 'Yeah, it does'...and it's her. By herself. And I choked. A
box of popcorn, and I could've said it was a date. But I
couldn't get anything out. Just, 'Uh-huh.' Then I turned and ran
But something doesn't fit here. If he's such a wuss, how did Van
Gundy meld the anarchic Knicks of 1998-99, with personalities
like Ewing, Larry Johnson, Latrell Sprewell and Charlie Ward,
into a unit that made one of the more astonishing runs in recent
memory? If he's such a small-timer, why did MacLeod and Riley and
Nelson find him indispensable? If he's such a naif, how did Van
Gundy survive in Madison Square Garden--a political snake pit that
has consumed one coaching legend after another--for 11 years? "He
hasn't survived," Riley corrects. "He's flourished."
Yes, some Knicks object to the way Van Gundy micromanages the
offense and plays favorites, but even they respect his work ethic
and attention to detail and rigid adherence to defensive
principles. Also, says Sprewell, "Jeff understands personnel; he
recognizes strengths and weaknesses. It's tough to juggle
minutes, but you don't hear as much bitching on this team as you
do on others."
If some still can't resist categorizing him as a cola-swilling,
junk-food-loving, ankle-nipping schlemiel, they're missing the
essence of Van Gundy--that he is, in fact, fearless. In 1996-97,
when nobody wanted to provoke Jackson and the mighty Bulls, Van
Gundy mockingly called the Chicago coach Big Chief Triangle. A
year later, when opponents seemed more interested in kissing
Michael Jordan's four NBA championship rings than in beating him,
a disgusted Van Gundy called Jordan "a con man." After scoring 51
on the Knicks the next time they met, Jordan walked past him and
snapped, "Calm down, you little f---."
Van Gundy didn't care how it played with the public. He never
has. When guard John Starks questioned Van Gundy's play calling
in a huddle later that season, Van Gundy lit into him for all to
hear. "F--- you!" he yelled. "F--- you! F--- you! F--- you! F---
"No matter how big you are, it doesn't matter with him," says
Starks, whom the Knicks traded after the 1997-98 season. "He may
be small in stature, but he has a big heart and a very strong
mind. Players see that, and they respect that."
It is dinnertime on a recent Saturday night, and Van Gundy has
chosen to meet at a Pizza Hut near the Knicks' longtime practice
facility in Purchase, N.Y., because, he says, "It's the only
place around here I know." He is wearing blue sweatpants, a blue
sweatshirt, sneakers. He eats a couple slices. His tenure with
the Knicks is longer than Pitino's or Riley's; his winning
percentage (.596) is better than that of any other New York coach
except Riley's (.680). No one in the restaurant appears to notice
Asked later to name his favorite book, Van Gundy blurts out The
Prince, then laughingly tries to retract it, because, he says,
it will feed into "the anti-Van Gundy forces." There are critics
who believe that since his days as a subservient assistant, Van
Gundy has become more Machiavellian, more adept at playing
politics. He shrugs this off. "At first you can play into the
naivete that people think you have because you don't dress
well," Van Gundy says. "They almost give you the benefit of the
doubt. But when success comes, that's no longer a good angle, so
now you're 'a political animal.' It's all based on perception.
Was that perception of naivete correct?" He pauses, takes a bite
of pizza. "I've always thought you have to know the landscape,"
he says. "I've always been aware of the landscape."
The silence began with a conversation. It was May 1997, Heat
forward P.J. Brown had flung Knicks point guard Charlie Ward over
his hip in Game 5 of the conference semifinals to touch off the
first of many Miami-New York contretemps, and both teams had
flown to New York for Game 6. Stan Van Gundy, Riley's assistant
head coach, phoned his brother. After the usual pleasantries Stan
said, "I can't believe what Charlie Ward did," and soon the two
of them started screaming. "Forget Charlie Ward!" Jeff snapped.
"P.J. Brown, that mother----ing coward!" Then came more curses,
more accusations, two brothers taking each other apart until Jeff
slammed the phone down.
The Knicks and the Heat have played three hotly contested
postseason series since--"It's much more electric than the
Finals," Jeff says--and each year Stan and Jeff have decided not
to speak during those weeks. It is the only way to keep the
peace. The worst Mother's Day that Cindy Van Gundy ever spent
came during that '97 series, when Stan and Jeff arranged for
their parents to come to the Garden from Brockport for Game 3.
The couple sat there, paralyzed, as the Knicks won 77-73, and
after the game tried to say the right thing to each son. "Too
difficult," Cindy says. "One doesn't want to talk, and the other
is too busy and too happy to talk." Ever since, the parents have
refused to attend a New York-Miami game. They watch at home, Bill
in one room with the sound down and Cindy in the other with the
volume turned up.
They try to stay neutral, but Stan is sure that his parents root
for his brother, because Jeff is a head coach and a loss could
hurt Jeff's career more than it could his. Now when the two teams
play, Stan avoids talking to Bill and Cindy, too. "I don't really
want to be with people who are not in my corner," he says. In the
spring of '97, when Jeff was finishing his first full season as
Knicks coach, Stan had his last conflicted moment: He wanted to
win but couldn't be sure a New York loss in the second round
wouldn't cost Jeff his job. Now? "Whether we beat him in the
playoffs or not, he's financially secure, and it's established
that he can coach in this league," Stan says. "I don't worry any
more if we beat him. Poor guy, what's going to happen to him?
Riley knows Stan as well as he once knew Jeff, and what he has
seen go on between them for five years leaves him shaking his
head in admiration and concern. "It tells you something about
their obsession," Riley says. "You hope that everybody
understands and that the two of them don't break anybody's back
Bill and Cindy have been bending with the force of this gale for
years now, and, as she says, "it all just proves that insanity is
contagious." The lunacy can be traced to Bill, although Cindy, as
an Indiana schoolgirl, fell in love with basketball while
watching Alex Groza and Wah-Wah Jones play for the NBA's old
Indianapolis Olympians. A lifetime small college coach who made
stops at Cal State-Hayward, SUNY-Brockport and Genessee Community
College in Batavia, N.Y., Bill was your classic wildman on the
sideline--kicking chairs, throwing his coat. Whenever he could,
Bill would take Stan, the elder brother by 2 1/2 years, or Jeff
with him when scouting opponents. Instead of houses with curlicue
chimney smoke, the boys picked up crayons and drew X's and O's.
When Jeff was 10, Bill started having blackouts. He passed out
twice while driving the car and once in his office before doctors
diagnosed a brain tumor. The surgery to remove the benign growth
lasted 9 1/2 hours, and the memory of that December day in 1971
still leaves Jeff's eyes red and wet. While his dad was
recovering at home, laid out on the bed with splitting headaches,
Cindy drove the two boys to scout an upcoming opponent. Bill
wanted to be back on the bench by the new year. The boys watched
the players, tried to pick up patterns and wrote it all down.
Cindy charted shots. The kids were never told how close they had
come to losing their dad, and no one really knew how scared Jeff
had been until later at school, when he cut out a photo of
doctors in an operating room and wrote a story about his friend
"Billy" who had a tumor.
The two boys had the sardonic sense of humor necessary to survive
their father's hired-to-be-fired existence, but Jeff always knew
how to push Stan's buttons. "We argue all the time, about
everything," Stan says. "I start getting pissed off and raising
my voice. He just sticks to his guns and tells you what you think
The first time Jeff and Stan were on opposite sides of the court
in a game that mattered came during the final of a four-team
tournament in 1984. Stan was coaching Castleton (Vt.) State.
Jeff, playing point guard for Nazareth College of Rochester,
N.Y., had nine points and six assists in Nazareth's victory and
was named the tournament's MVP. Once both had become coaches, the
brothers were more supportive of each other. When Pitino protege
Stu Jackson, who'd been an assistant with Jeff at Providence and
later brought him to the Knicks, became Wisconsin coach in 1992,
Jeff called Jackson and said of Stan, "He's a better version of
me." That was enough for Jackson, who hired Stan as an assistant.
(After Jackson left two seasons later, Stan was the Badgers'
coach for a year.) When Riley left New York for Miami in 1995, he
tried to take Jeff with him, but Checketts wouldn't release Van
Gundy from his contract. Jeff drove to Riley's house in
Greenwich, Conn., and asked one favor: Talk to Stan; you'll hire
him. Riley did. When Jeff became the Knicks' coach, it was Stan
who gave him the best advice about the media, the players, the
way people change.
Through it all, the brothers would talk hoops--sets, screens,
defenses, specials, winning, losing, every game they coached and
watched--spending hours on the phone rehashing play after
mind-numbing play. Yet when Stan and Jeff talk on the phone in
the pressurized days leading up to a Heat-Knicks series, or in
the awkward days after, they talk about the weather, vacations,
anything trivial. Once in a while during the regular season Jeff
might try to land a jab or two. "Running a lot of flares after
timeouts, huh?" he'll say, just to show Stan he's watching. All
he gets back is silence.
Jeff has this dream: One day he and Stan will coach together.
But Stan has no interest in being Jeff's assistant. "I can't see
that," Stan says. "I'm used to being on even ground in arguments.
I'm as convinced that my side's right as he is, and I always will
It is a curious time. Two days after the Knicks severed their
15-year relationship with Ewing by trading him to the Sonics in a
four-team, 12-player deal, no one in the New York organization is
crowing. They unloaded an aging and unhappy center for six
players, including swingman Glen Rice and center Luc Longley, as
well as four draft choices, yet no one even bothers to sell the
notion that the team came out ahead. Despite the widespread
assumption that another shoe will drop--some kind of grab for
Dikembe Mutombo or Chris Webber--Van Gundy and general manager
Scott Layden insist this undersized crew will be the team they
take into the season.
No one doubts that Miami and the Orlando Magic improved their
teams with off-season moves (though the Heat later learned that
center Alonzo Mourning is suffering from kidney disease and will
be lost for the season). The Knicks? "Oh, there's huge doubt,"
Van Gundy says. "We've got a glut of perimeter players, all our
inside players have durability issues, and, other than Larry
Johnson, none of the inside players have averaged more than 11
points a game. We took our best rebounder and traded him. Hell,
there are a lot of worries. It's my job to make it work."
Don't bet against him. The man whose only previous head coaching
experience was an 8-12 season at McQuaid Jesuit High in Rochester
has now bested Riley in the playoffs three years running--and
earned his mentor's abiding respect. In 1999, after Houston's
shot did in the Heat, Riley stayed up all night. At 5:33 a.m. he
picked up his pen. When Van Gundy arrived at his hotel room in
Atlanta for the start of the second-round series against the
Hawks, he found an envelope waiting for him. He got nervous when
he recognized the writing. He had given his only child, daughter
Mattie, now 5, the middle name Riley. But the two men hadn't
spoken since sniping at each other after Van Gundy grabbed
Mourning's ankle the year before, and Van Gundy worried that
their relationship had been irreparably damaged.
The envelope was addressed to COACH VAN GUNDY--with COACH
underlined. Riley had never called Van Gundy that. But Houston's
shot, and the fact that Van Gundy ran the perfect inbounds set
with 4.5 seconds left, proved to Riley that his former assistant
had come into his own. "That's what he's about: He has them
ready, and he has something for them when they need it," Riley
says. "That's exactly what I wrote: 'You had it. You had a play
He also wrote, "No matter where I go or what I do, the name Van
Gundy will have a long-lasting, positive imprint on my life." Van
Gundy carries the letter with him in his work bag wherever he
Checketts believes all that sentiment only obscures the obvious.
"Jeff's a better coach than Pat is," he says. "I've worked with
both of them, and so much of what Pat does is to maintain Pat's
image, and it takes away from his ability to focus on coaching.
Jeff is consumed with getting his players to play in a way that
will help him win. He's the perfect coach for New York."
That Checketts's support of him is now so glowing speaks loudly
of Van Gundy's political skill. He has always been smart enough
to stay close to the players, and that, in the end, saved his job
when Checketts was deciding between Van Gundy and Grunfeld during
the 1998-99 season. Yet Van Gundy was also aware enough of the
landscape to cultivate reporters on the Knicks' beat and, once
he'd heard Grunfeld was gunning for him, savvy enough to give
them off-the-record critiques of Grunfeld, his methods and the
June 1998 trade--against Van Gundy's wishes--of workhorse Charles
Oakley for the oft-injured Marcus Camby. There's no doubt that
when Checketts demoted Grunfeld in April 1999, Van Gundy's head
was next on the block. He did everything he could to survive.
"It's gotten twisted around since I was the one left standing,"
says Van Gundy, who now says he was wrong about the Oakley trade.
"Dave has told me that Ernie was coming to him 20 games into the
year, weekly, trying to fire me. He was unhappy with my
performance; I wasn't necessarily unhappy with his. I don't have
any power to fire him. He wanted to fire me, but you know what? I
got along with him." (Grunfeld declined to comment for this
When, later that summer, Checketts was choosing between Knicks
acting G.M. Ed Tapscott and Utah Jazz vice president of
basketball operations Layden to replace Grunfeld, Van Gundy
didn't hide the fact that his preference was Layden--the former
assistant, the son of a coach. Tapscott now works for Grunfeld as
a Bucks consultant. "Yeah, I want to control everything that goes
into winning or losing," Van Gundy says. "I want to have a say,
and I'm going to fight for what I think is right for our team."
Look at him: Hollowed-out eyes, skin the color of parchment--and
training camp is still weeks away. Forget all the coaches with
their mousse and high-fashion. Look at Van Gundy. On his face is
evidence of all the lousy food, sleepless nights, bad news,
clashing egos and injuries that every coach endures. On his face
is written the job's dirty secret. Winning doesn't help.
"Losing has an unbelievably negative impact on me," Van Gundy
says. "I read somewhere that failure is an event, not a person,
but I never feel that way. It's who I am."
Pity him. He has never been happier.
Great young coach, Checketts called him. Drop it, Van Gundy told
him. Drop the young.
Even as a player Jeff "had the attitude that it was his show,"
his brother says.
Instead of drawing houses with chimney smoke, the Van Gundy boys
"Jeff's a better coach than [Riley] is," says Checketts, who
hired them both.