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 r�sum� 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 job.
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 off."
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 na�f, 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—- you!"