"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 him.
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 naivet� 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 naivet� 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? He's set."
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 with it."
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� 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� 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 is stupid."