Jeff Van Gundy's team had just earned the right to go where few coaches ever take a team: the NBA Finals. His New York Knicks had overcome not only the seemingly insurmountable loss of their only superstar, Patrick Ewing, but also the loss of another workhorse, Larry Johnson, and still defeated favored Indiana. Making it to the championship round earned Van Gundy $4 million in salary and bonuses. And the sellout crowd at Madison Square Garden had serenaded him at the end of Friday night's Game 6. If that wasn't enough, the much-coveted Phil Jackson seemed en route to coach the Los Angeles Lakers and out of what's left of Van Gundy's hair.
But as Friday night turned into Saturday morning, I asked Van Gundy's D.C-based agent, Rob Ades, how it feels not to have to worry about Van Gundy's future in New York anymore. And Ades said: "I'm still worried about him. If they want to let him go, they still can."
Van Gundy's saga is the most compelling of all the mini-dramas that surround the Knicks in this improbable run. Are the Knicks winning because of him or despite him? Is he pushing all the right buttons or has he been forced into move after move that has worked out, no credit to him? Did he help develop young Marcus Camby during the season by making him earn his minutes, or did he unnecessarily create a No. 8 seed by waiting too long to play Camby? The whole season-long escapade led to the demotion of general manager Ernie Grunfeld and has ignited a war between the New York sportswriters and broadcasters.
You can't go 10 minutes in New York without somebody asking, "So where do you stand on Van Gundy?"
I declared my position a long time ago, that the Knicks should never have been so mediocre in the regular season and that Van Gundy's resistence to playing Camby, and to a lesser extent Latrell Sprewell, cost the team big-time. I thought he spent so much time lamenting the departure of Charles Oakley and John Starks that he didn't start coaching this year's team until Ewing was injured and he had no choice but to embrace the full-court talents of Sprewell, Camby and Allan Houston.
So many New Yorkers see only the extremes and none of the complex gray areas involved in coaching an NBA team, so it's only fair for me to give Van Gundy a closer look. In this day and age of talented players sabotaging their coaches and refusing to see goals larger than their own statistics, it's clear that Van Gundy has developed a great rapport with his players and has the ability to rally them through almost any adversity. That, all by itself, is some achievement.
Not many coaches would have taken this much grief and stayed the course without lashing out. But, as Ades said Saturday morning, "He's a very strong guy. He comes from a basketball family. He saw his father, a lifetime coach, go through these kinds of things. He's not going to yell back at you, he just won't do it. He's a first-class guy. When things were going badly early on he said, `Don't blame the players, blame me.' He took the blame then, but he won't take the credit now."
The veteran Knicks such as Ewing and Herb Williams, who have played for a variety of coaches, paint a picture of a workaholic who will do anything to help his team, thereby earning unusual loyalty from the players.
"One of the things that stands out to me is the way he prepares for games or practices," Williams said. "There are times when we come in, take one look at him and know that he hasn't slept much in two or three days. The guy's up all hours of the night looking at film, trying any and every way he can to give us some advantage that night."
Van Gundy went to the office virtually every day during the lockout, Ades said.
"I'd ask him, `What are you doing in there?' And he'd say, `I gotta watch film.' And I say, `What film? There's a lockout. What are you watching, `Goodfellas?' " Ades said. "He'd say, `Leave me alone, I've got to work.' He still has that assistant coach's mentality. He expects nothing. He's self-deprecating to the point of exasperation, but it's not an act. It's who he is."
One thing I still dislike is that Van Gundy and team president Dave Checketts won't give proper and public credit to Grunfeld for putting this team together.
Late Friday night Checketts said of Grunfeld, "He played a key role in this." No kidding. From what I remember, Grunfeld and his staff engineered the whole thing to make the Knicks younger and more athletic, to give 36-year-old Ewing a chance to win now. Given every chance to throw Grunfeld a bone after the Game 6 victory, Van Gundy wouldn't. He gave some stock answer about the team winning and said, "Everybody shares. Those moves were very big and those players have been very big." When a man gets demoted for acquiring the players who get you to a championship, he's earned a more appropriate nod than that.
Stuff like that rubs me the wrong way. Same as when he takes cheap shots at people such as Phil Jackson ("Big Chief Triangle") and Michael Jordan ("Con Artist"), men who've gone through his team to win championships, men whose team never underachieved in any regular season the way the Knicks did this year. You wish somebody close to him would say, "Hey Jeff, win something before you pop off about people whose fingers are filled with championship rings."
On the other hand, he was very genuine Friday night when he said of beating Indiana with Camby and Sprewell figuring prominently, "This was not about coaching. This is about a team that has developed itself into a true team. . . . We got to a point where all we cared about was one thing, winning. That is hard to get to, but we got there." And he was compassionate enough to say of the injured and fiercely supportive Ewing, "All of us feel indebted to Patrick in many ways, for his work this year, his playing through pain."
Long after midnight, Checketts emerged to talk about this improbable journey to the championship series. The last time he'd made public comments just off the court in the media room, he apologized for lying to Van Gundy about talking to Jackson about taking the Knicks job next season.
"You want me to make a definitive statement, but it's not about that," Checketts said, refusing once again to guarantee that he'll ask Van Gundy to coach next season. "We agreed we wouldn't discuss it [Van Gundy's future]. We're working very well together now. I can't say enough about the job he's done throughout the playoffs. . . . We'll sit down and review after the season."
Asked how he felt about the fans serenading Van Gundy, Checketts said, "I was chanting with them at one point." Right.
I pointed out to Ades that in the ridiculously small chance the Knicks fire Van Gundy -- who's left to bring in if Jackson goes to Los Angeles? -- Van Gundy will have leverage because a coach who has gone to the NBA Finals will be in demand. If not this year, then next. "Where's the demand?" Ades said. "Washington? Cleveland? He doesn't want to take a year off. He wants to coach. That's who he is."