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Out in a New York minute

Van Gundy unexpectedly resigns post with Knicks

Posted: Saturday December 08, 2001 11:04 AM
Updated: Sunday December 09, 2001 4:53 PM
  Jeff Van Gundy Jeff Van Gundy is the third-winningest coach in Knicks history with a 248-172 record. David Leeds/Getty Images

PURCHASE, N.Y. (AP) -- Jeff Van Gundy resigned unexpectedly as head coach of the New York Knicks on Saturday, saying he had lost his focus and thought about quitting since the summer.

The stunning decision came as the Knicks were playing their best basketball of the season, winning five of six games to get above .500 after a poor start.

Van Gundy was in his seventh season with New York, the longest tenure by a Knicks head coach since Red Holtzman guided the team for 10 seasons beginning in 1968.

"In my heart I knew what was right, but it was still a difficult decision to come to," Van Gundy said at the Knicks' practice facility.

"I didn't feel my focus was at its best. I didn't want to hurt our team. I certainly don't regret the effort I put forth. I just think it's time to step back and let the team move on."

Van Gundy said he spoke with team president Scott Layden several times since the summer to express how he was feeling and that he decided Wednesday -- the day after a 14-point victory at Milwaukee -- that he was going to quit.

He's the first NBA coach to resign or be fired this season.

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    NEW YORK -- The timing of head coach Jeff Van Gundy's resignation was what really caught the Knicks off guard.

    Van Gundy survived longer than most other New York coaches, but after last year's first-round loss in the playoffs, there were questions about how much longer he had. According to one source, some players thought he might not return for this season.

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    "I'm going to step back and exhale for the first time in 13 years," Van Gundy said. "When I told my daughter today, she said: 'Does this mean you get to have lunch with me?' So that's cool."

    Van Gundy told the players of his decision at their morning shootaround.

    "We were all shocked. I didn't see this coming at all," guard Mark Jackson said.

    Van Gundy took the Knicks to the playoffs in each of his first six seasons, including a trip to the 1999 NBA Finals and two trips to the Eastern Conference finals.

    Assistant Don Chaney was to coach New York against the Indiana Pacers at home Saturday night, but the team said it hadn't chosen a head or interim coach.

    "Don will coach the game tonight and we will inform you as to when we make a decision," Layden said. "We're going to answer those questions in due time."

    The 39-year-old Van Gundy had been a member of the Knicks' staff since 1989, serving as an assistant under Pat Riley, Don Nelson and Stu Jackson.

    Van Gundy's only other head coaching job was at McQuaid Jesuit High School in Rochester, N.Y.

    He leaves as the third-winningest coach in team history with a record of 248-172, including 10-9 this season.

    "He said he wanted to spend more time with his family. He's a little burned out," guard Howard Eisley said.

    Van Gundy said "burnout" wasn't the correct word, but he had trouble coming up with a pinpoint explanation. He spoke to the media for almost an hour, interjecting several humorous lines and nervously shaking his foot as he sat on a table outside the gym.

    "My legacy is not being a great peacemaker in big man altercations," said Van Gundy, who got in the middle of fights between Larry Johnson and Alonzo Mourning during the 1998 playoffs and between Marcus Camby and Danny Ferry last season.

     
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    If Knicks management decided to look elsewhere, Dunleavy certainly would come to mind. But would he be willing to jump from the fire that was Portland into the frying pan that is New York?


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    In the first scuffle, Van Gundy grabbed Mourning by the legs and was tossed around like a rag doll until the fight ended. In the second one, he was head-butted above the eye by Camby.

    Van Gundy said some of his best memories include the fans chanting his name during the 1999 playoffs, his first coaching victory -- over Chicago in 1996, when the Bulls were on the way to a 72-win season -- and the Knicks' trips to the league finals in 1994 and 1999.

    "Trying to quantify why it's the right decision is very difficult," he said. "I didn't have the focus that I would want, although I don't think others noticed it."

    Van Gundy had two years remaining on his contract and was due to be paid about $7.5 million. He said he had no idea what his future holds but added that he loves coaching in the NBA.

    Layden would not answer when asked if Van Gundy was free to seek employment elsewhere.

    Van Gundy is known as one of the league's hardest working coaches and his haggard appearance and moody demeanor had become a fixture in New York.

    "I probably have the hairline and the face for radio," he said, joking.

    Van Gundy routinely reported to work at dawn and spent hours reviewing videotape and preparing game plans. Players praised his work ethic but often resented his stubbornness.

    He received an unsolicited vote of confidence from Layden when the team was struggling through a West Coast road trip almost three weeks ago. The next day, though, Van Gundy publicly disagreed with Layden's glowing assessment of his performance.

    Two weeks ago, Van Gundy used the phrase "mailing it in" to describe the Knicks' effort in certain games this season.

    "We are surprised and disappointed by Jeff's decision to leave the organization suddenly after 13 years," Layden said in a statement.

    Van Gundy took over as head coaching during the 1995-96 season after Don Nelson was fired. He nearly lost his job on more than one occasion but always managed to hang on, outlasting former general manager Ernie Grunfeld, former Madison Square Garden president Dave Checketts and even Patrick Ewing, the franchise center traded away two summers ago.

    Van Gundy, who is married and has a 6-year-old daughter, at times this season seemed more somber than in the past.

    Farrell Lynch, Van Gundy's college teammate and roommate from Nazareth College, worked for the bond trading firm Cantor Fitzgerald and was killed in the Sept. 11 terrorist attack on the World Trade Center. Van Gundy was close to Rick Pitino's brother-in-law, Bill Minardi, who also died Sept. 11.

    "He said [resigning] was something he was going back and forth with," forward Kurt Thomas said. "I think he has a lot of things going on with his family and with the World Trade incident. There were a lot of things piled on that he felt he had to walk away from."


     

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