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The Last Laugh
S.L. Price
October 30, 2000
It's easy to mock Knicks coach Jeff Van Gundy for his rumpled look and sad-dog demeanor. But don't be fooled any longer by the disguise. He's shrewd and he's fearless
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October 30, 2000

The Last Laugh

It's easy to mock Knicks coach Jeff Van Gundy for his rumpled look and sad-dog demeanor. But don't be fooled any longer by the disguise. He's shrewd and he's fearless

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The first time Jeff and Stan were on opposite sides of the court in a game that mattered came during the final of a four-team tournament in 1984. Stan was coaching Castleton (Vt.) State. Jeff, playing point guard for Nazareth College of Rochester, N.Y., had nine points and six assists in Nazareth's victory and was named the tournament's MVP. Once both had become coaches, the brothers were more supportive of each other. When Pitino prot�g� Stu Jackson, who'd been an assistant with Jeff at Providence and later brought him to the Knicks, became Wisconsin coach in 1992, Jeff called Jackson and said of Stan, "He's a better version of me." That was enough for Jackson, who hired Stan as an assistant. (After Jackson left two seasons later, Stan was the Badgers' coach for a year.) When Riley left New York for Miami in 1995, he tried to take Jeff with him, but Checketts wouldn't release Van Gundy from his contract. Jeff drove to Riley's house in Greenwich, Conn., and asked one favor: Talk to Stan; you'll hire him. Riley did. When Jeff became the Knicks' coach, it was Stan who gave him the best advice about the media, the players, the way people change.

Through it all, the brothers would talk hoops—sets, screens, defenses, specials, winning, losing, every game they coached and watched—spending hours on the phone rehashing play after mind-numbing play. Yet when Stan and Jeff talk on the phone in the pressurized days leading up to a Heat- Knicks series, or in the awkward days after, they talk about the weather, vacations, anything trivial. Once in a while during the regular season Jeff might try to land a jab or two. "Running a lot of flares after timeouts, huh?" he'll say, just to show Stan he's watching. All he gets back is silence.

Jeff has this dream: One day he and Stan will coach together. But Stan has no interest in being Jeff's assistant. "I can't see that," Stan says. "I'm used to being on even ground in arguments. I'm as convinced that my side's right as he is, and I always will be."

It is a curious time. Two days after the Knicks severed their 15-year relationship with Ewing by trading him to the Sonics in a four-team, 12-player deal, no one in the New York organization is crowing. They unloaded an aging and unhappy center for six players, including swingman Glen Rice and center Luc Longley, as well as four draft choices, yet no one even bothers to sell the notion that the team came out ahead. Despite the widespread assumption that another shoe will drop—some kind of grab for Dikembe Mutombo or Chris Webber—Van Gundy and general manager Scott Layden insist this undersized crew will be the team they take into the season.

No one doubts that Miami and the Orlando Magic improved their teams with off-season moves (though the Heat later learned that center Alonzo Mourning is suffering from kidney disease and will be lost for the season). The Knicks? "Oh, there's huge doubt," Van Gundy says. "We've got a glut of perimeter players, all our inside players have durability issues, and, other than Larry Johnson, none of the inside players have averaged more than 11 points a game. We took our best rebounder and traded him. Hell, there are a lot of worries. It's my job to make it work."

Don't bet against him. The man whose only previous head coaching experience was an 8-12 season at McQuaid Jesuit High in Rochester has now bested Riley in the playoffs three years running—and earned his mentor's abiding respect. In 1999, after Houston's shot did in the Heat, Riley stayed up all night. At 5:33 a.m. he picked up his pen. When Van Gundy arrived at his hotel room in Atlanta for the start of the second-round series against the Hawks, he found an envelope waiting for him. He got nervous when he recognized the writing. He had given his only child, daughter Mattie, now 5, the middle name Riley. But the two men hadn't spoken since sniping at each other after Van Gundy grabbed Mourning's ankle the year before, and Van Gundy worried that their relationship had been irreparably damaged.

The envelope was addressed to COACH VAN GUNDY—with COACH underlined. Riley had never called Van Gundy that. But Houston's shot, and the fact that Van Gundy ran the perfect in-bounds set with 4.5 seconds left, proved to Riley that his former assistant had come into his own. "That's what he's about: He has them ready, and he has something for them when they need it," Riley says. "That's exactly what I wrote: 'You had it. You had a play for them.' "

He also wrote, "No matter where I go or what I do, the name Van Gundy will have a long-lasting, positive imprint on my life." Van Gundy carries the letter with him in his work bag wherever he goes.

Checketts believes all that sentiment only obscures the obvious. "Jeff's a better coach than Pat is," he says. "I've worked with both of them, and so much of what Pat does is to maintain Pat's image, and it takes away from his ability to focus on coaching. Jeff is consumed with getting his players to play in a way that will help him win. He's the perfect coach for New York."

That Checketts's support of him is now so glowing speaks loudly of Van Gundy's political skill. He has always been smart enough to stay close to the players, and that, in the end, saved his job when Checketts was deciding between Van Gundy and Grunfeld during the 1998-99 season. Yet Van Gundy was also aware enough of the landscape to cultivate reporters on the Knicks' beat and, once he'd heard Grunfeld was gunning for him, savvy enough to give them off-the-record critiques of Grunfeld, his methods and the June 1998 trade—against Van Gundy's wishes—of workhorse Charles Oakley for the oft-injured Marcus Camby. There's no doubt that when Checketts demoted Grunfeld in April 1999, Van Gundy's head was next on the block. He did everything he could to survive.

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