The post game conversation between two brothers who love and respect each other was awkward at best. In a hallway at AmericanAirlines Arena, New York Knicks coach Jeff Van Gundy needed to commiserate while being ecstatic; Miami Heat assistant Stan Van Gundy needed to vent while being congratulatory. Like almost every other member of the Heat organization, Stan was incensed with the way Sunday's Game 7 of the Eastern Conference semifinals had been refereed. Jeff believed, as well he should, that his team had showed more grit, character and, need it be said, free throw accuracy than its rival in the 83-82 New York victory. When the brief conversation was over, Stan rushed back to a disconsolate Heat locker room. "Look, Jeff is a great person and a great coach," said Stan, who got the Miami job partly because his younger brother recommended him to coach Pat Riley, "but that's all I can say. I'm not in the mood to be happy for him."
Let this, then, sum up the lot of Jeff Van Gundy: In a moment of triumph, he can't even get his props from a blood relative. Or perhaps this is an even more telling detail about the man: When Van Gundy's car became front-page news in a freak airport mishap last week, his ride was revealed to be...a 1995 Honda Civic! "Jeff is not seduced by the trappings," says Knicks assistant Brendan Malone.
Yes, the Knicks-Heat rivalry has produced more than its share of clock-stopping, butt-ugly games. But the sheer intensity of the rivalry ultimately produced a kind of bare-knuckled elegance that made this series more engrossing than anything going on in the Western Conference—and made the loss more paralyzingly unbearable for Miami. Immediately after the game, Heat small forward Jamal Mashburn rushed up to the zebras, informing them, he revealed later, "that they sucked." The move was his most aggressive of the day. Mashburn had only seven points on 3-of-15 shooting and was outclassed by his New York counterpart, Latrell Sprewell, who had 24 points and five assists.
Miami point guard Tim Hardaway, too, expressed outrage at the officiating, but what he might have really been feeling was frustration. The latest in a long line of injuries, a sprained left foot, had limited his effectiveness throughout the series. (He shot 29%, including six of 20 on Sunday.) Even center Alonzo Mourning, who has grown into the role of team diplomat, was still sitting at his locker, staring into space, an hour after the game. If it's possible to have a weak 29-point, 13-rebound game, Mourning had done it. On a couple of occasions down the stretch he settled for a fallaway jumper when he should have taken the ball to the basket against 37-year-old Patrick Ewing, who was in foul trouble, or against Larry Johnson, who was not strong enough to handle him. Mourning missed five of 10 free throws, and his teammates weren't much better, converting six of 11. New York, meanwhile, hit 28 of 31 shots from the line. Though Mourning got the ball in the final seconds with the Heat down by one, he passed out of a double team, and backup forward Clarence Weatherspoon took the final shot, which clanked off the back of the rim and was rebounded by Sprewell.
Do the Knicks have a good chance against the Indiana Pacers in the Eastern Conference finals? Lord, yes, because of factors that were abundantly clear in the Miami series. Van Gundy's strategy against Mourning—immediately double-team him whenever he faced up, otherwise wait until he put it on the floor and then send two defenders to dig at the ball—was simple, and his players followed it to the letter. There's no reason New York won't have a solid plan for Indiana's most potent post-up player, should it turn out to be center Rik Smits or swingman Jalen Rose. If it ends up being point guard Mark Jackson, the Knicks might eschew the double team and let their strong point guard, Charlie Ward, handle Jackson, or, if need be, assign the taller Allan Houston or the hyperactive Sprewell to the task. Many teams are at a disadvantage against Indiana when the slow-moving Jackson gives way to the turbocharged Travis Best, but not New York. Van Gundy can send for Ward's speedy backup, Chris Childs, who was nothing less than the best player on the floor in the fourth period of Game 7, scoring his team's first 10 points of the quarter and keeping the Knicks in the game.
A final advantage for New York? Try the guy with the thinning hair and the bags under his eyes, the guy who looks like the team's road manager, the guy who has eliminated Riley three years in a row on Riley's home floor. This is not to suggest that Larry Bird can't coach, but it is to say that in this situation, Finals-tested Van Gundy is the master, Hall of Fame player Bird the neophyte.
The Knicks coach is a rarity in the hire-the-former-player NBA, the type whom Chuck Daly calls "a lifer," the son of a coach, the guy who swept out the gym, who watched blurry-eyed as the Sacramento Kings played the Los Angeles Clippers on cable and dutifully handed the chalkboard to the main man, who happened to be Riley in four of Van Gundy's 6� seasons as a Knicks assistant. It was so perfectly poetic when, in the early-morning hours of last Thursday, after a burst of exhaust from a jet engine on the Knicks' charter sent Van Gundy's Honda tumbling over three cars on the tarmac at Westchester County Airport, the coach had to sleep in his office at SUNY-Purchase College, the Knicks' practice site. Wasn't the first time he'd slept there. Won't be the last.
Van Gundy, 38, is quick to remind anyone that he would never have gotten his chance if the Knicks hadn't fired Don Nelson early in the 1995-96 season. Van Gundy is the classic interim coach who made good, and he seems not quite to believe it himself, so hard does he work, so carefully does he choose his words when talking about his team, so religiously does he follow the unwritten NBA dictum that players are the steak, coaches the soup. He is not the only blue-collar guy running a team—the Minnesota Timberwolves' Flip Saunders is another—but he's the only one doing it in New York City, where every questionable decision is fodder for a tabloid headline. Gradually, Van Gundy has earned, if not passionate affection, then grudging respect.
He has been pilloried, for example, for sticking too long with Ewing, who appeared overmatched by Mourning in Game 1. But as the series wore on, Ewing got stronger, and, trailing 82-81 with 1:20 left in Sunday's game, Van Gundy sent his team out of a timeout with a play drawn up for the big man. Mourning gambled when he tried to intercept the entry pass, Ewing got a dunk, and the Knicks had their winning points. Van Gundy's greatest triumph has been to mix and match the pieces of a bifurcated roster, some of which wants to run ( Childs, Sprewell, Marcus Camby), some of which wants to play half-court ( Ewing, Houston, Ward).
After the game Riley was hurting as badly as his players and was at pains to mention the disparity in free throws. He was near tears as he contemplated his fifth season in Miami without a conference title. But without prompting, he turned the subject to Van Gundy, whose respect for Riley ran so deep that he and his wife, Kim, had named their daughter Mattie Riley. The relationship between the two coaches had seen some ups and downs since Riley left New York in 1995. The Heat coach had criticized Van Gundy for playing the role of leg-chewing terrier when Van Gundy latched on to Mourning during a Game 4 melee in '98, but he had also express-mailed Van Gundy a note of congratulations for setting up a play that enabled Houston to nail a jumper that beat Miami in a deciding Game 5 last year. In that letter he referred to Van Gundy as "Coach" for the first time (it used to be just Jeff), and the gesture deeply moved Van Gundy. "I'd like to see Jeff take this thing and win a championship," Riley said on Sunday, and you could tell he meant it.