Ex-coach Van Gundy turns new career into a no-lose situation
Whether the perception is fair is another matter, but the lingering images of Jeff Van Gundy from his six-plus seasons as coach of the Knicks (1995-2002) and four with the Rockets (2003-07) — arms flapping in exasperation, eyes double-bagged and drooping, limbs on one unforgettable occasion clinging koala-style to an imposing opposing player during a brawl — do not suggest a man of droll, self-deprecating wit and easy charm on camera.
The suggestion instead is that of a man of singular purpose overcome by the challenge of trying to succeed and survive in the NBA. Which, Van Gundy will tell you, is exactly who he was. But what he has become, in his three seasons on ESPN and ABC’s top NBA broadcast team, is the former.
Van Gundy is arguably the premier in-game NBA analyst, deftly mixing a basketball lifer’s insight with a quick and quirky sense of humor. During Game 3 of the Eastern Conference finals at TD Garden, the camera caught a fan wearing a half-home, half-road Lakers jersey talking on his cellphone. Without skipping a beat, Van Gundy imagined the dialogue coming through the earpiece. “Yeah, you’re on TV. Yeah. And you look like a CLOWN.’’ And upon the announcement during Game 4 that a Dwight Howard foul had been changed to a flagrant-1, Van Gundy offered his own take on the league’s ubiquitous slogan, muttering, “The NBA . . . where soft happens,’’ a pitch-perfect piece of snark that surely thrilled commissioner David Stern.
Yet even as Van Gundy watches from close range as his brother, Stan, sacrifices sleep and most other semblances of normalcy as he tries to coach the Orlando Magic to an unprecedented comeback, he casually confirms his own desire to return to the sidelines someday.
“There are so many things about coaching that I miss,’’ said Van Gundy. “The competition, the camaraderie cannot be replaced. It just can’t. It’s a void.
“And yet, you also know yourself, and I am reluctant, very reluctant, to go back into that life until I know I can handle the pain of losing better. I think I made strides from New York to Houston in that way, and I’d like to make more strides, because while you want to take your job extremely seriously, it shouldn’t . . . it shouldn’t affect you from the time you lose until the next time you play and win. Not every day should be miserable.
“And just like, absolutely hating yourself,’’ he added with a laugh. “That self-loathing is not good. I mean, I say that in a kidding way, but not totally. Because you’re always going, ‘Why didn’t I do this, why didn’t I do that?’
“I want to handle all those things better, so that you could live a more balanced life. Now, am I ever going to be doing the Zen yoga with Phil Jackson? No, probably not, because you are who you are personality-wise. But with more maturity and all that, you’re going to keep trying to do better.’’
In one regard, Van Gundy already is doing better. A year ago, he couldn’t bring himself to watch his brother’s games during the Eastern Conference playoffs, which aired on TNT. Instead he went for long walks when the Magic were playing and checked the score when he got back. When the Magic advanced to the Finals against the Lakers on ESPN/ABC, he offered to remove himself from the broadcasts. His bosses kept him in his usual role.
While that leads to obvious questions about his objectivity, Van Gundy counters by admitting that while he always wants his brother to win, he doesn’t believe that clouds his analysis. He notes that he has received considerably more negative feedback from Orlando fans than Celtics fans during this series, in part because of his bluntness regarding passive Magic star Vince Carter, of whom he has said, “He could be a champion, if he only had the will of a Kobe Bryant.’’
“I think it’s gotten easier to do [Stan’s] games,’’ said Van Gundy, who hasn’t spoken to his brother since the playoffs began. “I just say what I see. Whether that’s right or wrong, everyone else can make that decision. I feel very comfortable doing and saying what I see.
“One thing you learn when you’re in coaching is that not everybody is going to agree with every decision, and in broadcasting, not everybody is going to agree with everything you say. So you just try to do your best.
“If somebody’s critical, they’re critical. What I’m getting paid for is opinions, so why would I get worried about someone else having an opinion about me?’’
Van Gundy said he’s been told by ESPN that he needs to “celebrate the game’’ more, which seems like a misguided notion given the appeal of his usual approach and his genuine chemistry with play-by-play man Mike Breen and fellow analyst Mark Jackson.
“I understand wanting me to boost the game, but from a coaching perspective, I’m not trying out for the cheerleading team,’’ Van Gundy said. “I’m trying to tell people what I see from my perspective. What I both admire and what I abhor.
“Maybe sometimes I am a little too harsh in my criticism. I don’t sense that myself, but having that coaching background, you’re used to giving everyday feedback to your team in the most truthful manner that you can.’’
Van Gundy’s candor and willingness to use himself as a punch line also are evident when he discusses how he fits with Breen and Jackson.
“We’re friends and know each other so well, and we can needle each other without worrying about hurting each other’s feelings,’’ Van Gundy said. “Mike is the star point guard and we’re the spot-up shooters. No one cares about who’s on more. No one has to tell me that Mark’s much better with replays, the opens, all those things.
“Sometimes I listen back to mine and I’m like, ‘Oh my goodness, what a wreck.’ Like, I’m terrible at those . . . whatever those are called before the game, when you’re sitting there looking at the camera, and I look at myself and I look just so painfully . . . I don’t know, I just look awful.
“I know now why these guys go to school for broadcasting. Hey, I know who I am. I’m a coach with a pretty fortunate secondary career.’’