Jeff Van Gundy spent a dozen full or partial seasons on the New York Knicks bench, first as an assistant under Pat Riley and then as the head coach.
During his tenure, he might have seen more of Michael Jordan — a nemesis to the Knicks and pretty much every other team that dared aspire to a championship during the 1990s — than some Bulls season ticket-holders.
A full season after Van Gundy was fired by the Knicks, he was hired by the Houston Rockets for the 2003-04 season. That coincided with LeBron James’s rookie season with the Cavaliers.
Van Gundy has coached against the two iconic modern players who have a claim to being the greatest of all time. He has seen James countless more times in his role as a color analyst on ESPN/ABC’s NBA broadcasts, including the current Celtics-Cavaliers Eastern Conference finals.
Van Gundy is opinionated, funny, and blunt. He isn’t beholden to conventional wisdom. He’s not a contrarian; he just tells you when he disagrees.
Maybe he can settle this debate that seems to come up every time James delivers another otherworldly playoff performance, which is pretty much any time the Cavaliers have a playoff game.
Who’s better: King James or Air Jordan?
Whaddaya say, Van Gundy? How do you compare them?
Naturally, he doesn’t.
“My thought on that is comparison is the thief of joy,’’ said Van Gundy. “You start comparing people, and ultimately, somebody feels diminished.
“I’ll tell you this. [James] is on his way to maybe having the best career of all time. Now, best player of all time and best career are two different things. But if he continues to play at this level, through Year 16, 17, he will have the best career of all time.’’
Van Gundy agreed that there’s fun in the debate, and when other players are included — Bill Russell, Larry Bird, Magic Johnson, and other legends — sometimes it stirs welcome memories of their greatness too.
“But the problem is that the people who are trying to decide now are acting like they really saw these older guys,’’ said Van Gundy. “In one era it’s hard enough to compare people. But comparing people of different eras . . . that’s next to impossible. I saw Russell play on TV, I think. But there’s nothing I could tell you about what I saw.
“Having coached against Jordan and James, you can sit there and say, ‘OK, these are contemporaries.’ That’s how I think of them. But even now, people are starting to forget how great Jordan was. They say they know, they say they remember. But the casualness of how they say it — ‘he was really great’ — is a little patronizing. As time passes on — and it will probably happen with LeBron too — they forget.’’
Van Gundy appreciates the familiar highlights: Jordan’s shot over Craig Ehlo, the six first-half threes he rained on Portland in Game 1 of the 1992 Finals, all the dunks that ended up on posters. But the highlights, he says, don’t tell the whole story of a legend.
“Sometimes you forget how one of those guys can just eviscerate a team on a given night,’’ he said. “The most amazing thing I’ve ever seen is Jordan goes away and plays two years of baseball. Decides to come back to play basketball. Practices for a couple of days, plays in a couple of games, and then [the Bulls] come into Madison Square Garden [to face] the best defensive team in basketball. The rules are different then; you can basically kill each other.
“And he got 55 points, basically 10 days off the diamond, against the best defensive in basketball, on the road, with rules that favor the defense, without a lot of shooting to spread the floor. Fifty-five. It’s the greatest accomplishment I’ve ever seen live.
“So people will call it the double-nickel game. They’ll acknowledge it. And then they move on. They’re not throwing in every variable that led that to be. I mean, we were sitting in the coach’s locker room after the game saying, ‘I can’t believe what I just saw.’ ’’
Van Gundy is told that this sounds like an unwitting endorsement of Jordan.
“Well, the same thing is already happening with LeBron,’’ he said. “Remember Game 5 at Detroit in 2007?’’
I do. James scored 25 straight points for the Cavs in the fourth quarter and overtime in the Eastern Conference semifinals. I did not remember this part: The Cavs won, taking a 3-2 advantage in a series that they would win in six games.
“OK, you see the number. The number is impressive,’’ said Van Gundy. “But I hate our fascination with numbers now because you see the number but forget the absolute brilliance that you saw to get there. You forget the details. Him carving up the best defense in the league with a substandard lineup.’’
Larry Hughes, better known nowadays as Jayson Tatum’s godfather, was the Cavs’ second-leading scorer that season.
“Right, James did it on his own,’’ said Van Gundy. “Everybody is like, ‘Oh, he scored 25, so that’s a great quarter,’ without thinking about the whole context of how he did it, which makes it even more impressive.
“All the fascination with numbers conspires to make you forget the beauty of the game sometimes.’’