Jeff Van Gundy, the NBA’s Straight Shooter

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Photograph by Brent Humphreys

It’s been 11 years since he coached the New York Knicks, but Jeff Van Gundy is still a folk hero to NBA fans – a guy who always looked like he’d spent the night on the floor of his office, and who, during an on-court scrum, famously tried to take down Alonzo Mourning (who towers over him by more than a foot) by attaching himself to his leg like a rabid squirrel. But since the Houston Rockets let him go in 2007, Van Gundy, 50, has morphed into one of the NBA’s most spirited commentators – and critics. “When you’re a member of an organization, you’re not allowed to express your opinions,” he says of his coaching days. Then, he reconsiders: “Actually, you are, as long as you agree with the league.” While it’s hard to imagine him resisting the urge to pace the sidelines again for much longer, he’s currently content living in Houston with his wife and two young daughters, diving into another season on ABC, and being able to speak freely.

What do you miss most about coaching?
The three C’s: competition, camaraderie – and the charter jets.

You were intense as a coach, but your TV persona is easygoing. Are you more comfortable behind a microphone?
First of all, you realize early on in your career that the media portrays you a certain way, and you’re stuck with it; the image doesn’t evolve as you evolve. Second, I don’t think it should be some big news that you’d have a different personality for a different job.

Can you call a Knicks-Heat game and remain unbiased?
I love the Knicks…always will. I check that box score first thing in the morning. But the beauty of doing color commentary is that the game dictates what you say. That makes it easier – you just call what you see. But to say that I’m unbiased? You can’t be somewhere as long as I was, treated as well as I was, and not care deeply.

What really happened between your brother, Stan, and Dwight Howard in Orlando last season that cost Stan his head coaching gig?
My brother didn’t really tell me. He always spoke very highly of Dwight. But even if I did have negative information coming from Stan, I wouldn’t have used it.

David Stern steps down as commissioner and hands the league to you. What’s the first thing you change?
The first thing in any leadership position is: Don’t be sensitive. I would hope I wouldn’t squelch individual thought. Second, the basketball side should never take a backseat to the business side. I don’t begrudge anyone – players, coaches, people in the league office – making a ton of money. I’m talking about decisions that are detrimental to the game. One example: I’m against the three time-outs in the second and fourth quarters. All those stoppages do is bring in extra ad money. I probably wouldn’t last a day.

The league addressed one of your pet issues this off-season, saying it’s going to start issuing fines to players who flop to get cheap calls.
Flopping’s at epidemic levels right now. My frustration was not with the players; they will always do what they’re allowed to. And it wasn’t with the officials – they didn’t have any tools with which they could deal with this other than to just not give a call. My frustration was that there was no league-wide policy to deal with something so unseemly as deceiving an official. The game is hard enough to referee without having a bunch of actors and impostors out there.

What teams are you most excited about this season?
Oklahoma City and Miami are both still young and very, very good. You have a retooled Laker team – it’ll be interesting to see Dwight Howard’s impact. Boston’s kept their core together. The Knicks have really made improvements over the past few years, but can they close the gap with Miami, whose talent level is incredible? That’s not to dismiss the Knicks; they played well toward the end of last year, but it’s a stretch.

What did you think of how the Knicks let Jeremy Lin go?
The Knicks no doubt thought Lin was great, but an organization has to step back from the attachment and make decisions that are fiscally sound, and that’s what it did.

Who’s the most underrated player?
Shane Battier. He started out last year having a very poor season, as a backup small forward to LeBron James. Then [Heat coach] Erik Spoelstra had the foresight to put Chris Bosh at center and Battier on the floor. His competitive spirit and IQ defensively, plus his ability to shoot threes, had an incredible impact on them beating Indiana when they were down 2–1, Boston when they were down 3–2, and then Oklahoma City in five. I’m interested to see if they go right back to that lineup this year.

Who were your favorites to coach?
No star player is easy to coach – that’s one of the reasons they’re stars. But certainly Yao Ming and Larry Johnson were two of the most selfless players anyone could hope to coach. Patrick Ewing, John Starks, Charles Oakley, Charlie Ward – I’m indebted to all of them. Tracy McGrady. Look, the NBA player gets a bad rap: Almost all are incredibly committed, unselfish, and dedicated to their craft. Most fans would think you’re spending all your time trying to get them to fight off this sense of entitlement, and it’s not like that. I coached three assholes in my time in the NBA.

Who are the assholes?
I’m not gonna say. But there’s going to be ego – there better be. If you don’t have a strong ego in professional sports, you’re going to believe all the people along the way who say there’s no way you can get there, or that once you get there you can’t sustain it, or that once you sustain it, you won’t go down as one of the all-time greats.

You dropped out of Yale in 1981 to play basketball at a junior college. How’d that conversation with your parents go?
I was recruited at Yale but didn’t make the team, so I left after one year. I don’t remember my parents thinking I was wrong. I was probably stupid to give up such a good opportunity, but I’m still sent the Yale alumni magazine, so I can always fake it.

That image of you clinging to Mourning’s leg in the 1998 playoffs says everything about why you – and those 1990s Knicks teams – are still so revered.
I guess that’s better than people saying I lost my mind, which is what really happened. I understand why criminals plead temporary insanity – I don’t remember anything about it. I looked like a fool. That’s why I loved New York – they could overlook your flaws if they knew you were giving maximum effort. We didn’t always win and we never got to the last step, but I don’t think there were many times when fans left a game thinking, “They didn’t bring it tonight. They half-assed it.”

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