The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

‘The voice of the NBA’: How Jeff Van Gundy became basketball’s John Madden

Jeff Van Gundy has worked alongside Mike Breen on NBA broadcasts for 11 years, following a successful coaching career. (Billy Delfs for The Washington Post)
Placeholder while article actions load

When an NBA coach gets fired, he typically takes some time away from the spotlight. But when Jeff Van Gundy was dismissed by the Houston Rockets after four seasons on May 18, 2007, he was in the ESPN broadcast booth that night, calling Game 6 of the Western Conference semifinals between the San Antonio Spurs and Phoenix Suns.

“I remember him coming right in, and we were thrilled for a number of reasons,” said Mike Breen, a voice on NBA telecasts for more than 25 years who worked that game alongside Van Gundy and Mark Jackson. “Both of us knew — because we knew him well — how knowledgeable he is and how smart he is and, second, how funny he is. We thought it would be perfect, and we really thought because we knew each other so well, there would be great chemistry.”

Little did Van Gundy know at the time, but he was jumping into his next full-time gig.

“It just worked out that way,” he said from the sideline during June’s NBA Finals. “I was just going to do it for that game. Then, when [the Rockets] let me go, [ESPN] asked me to take it from there.”

In the 11 years since, Van Gundy has become basketball’s version of John Madden, an ever-present part of the sport’s biggest games and most memorable moments.

“Not in a million years could I have fast-forwarded to this,” NBA analyst Doris Burke said with a laugh. “He has become the voice of the NBA in my estimation. That’s a pretty incredible journey, and I think his overall journey is pretty incredible.”

Archive: Why you heard more women giving thoughtful analysis when you watched the NBA this season

Van Gundy coached Jackson as a player, and he has known Breen, who calls New York Knicks games for the MSG network, since his time as a Knicks coach from 1989 to 2001. But his relationship with Burke goes back even further, to the late 1980s, when he was a graduate assistant under Rick Pitino at Providence College and Burke was starring for Providence’s women’s program.

“When I first laid eyes on Jeff, he was exiting the Providence College men’s basketball wing, so to speak, this long hallway,” Burke said. “It was incredibly early in the morning. I want to say I was going in for a 7 or 8 a.m. individual workout with an assistant coach, and here comes Jeff in sweats, looking exhausted and like he’d been there for quite some time.”

Archive: As Basketball Hall of Fame announces Class of 2018, an overdue honor for trailblazer Doris Burke

Since then, Van Gundy has bounced from one job to another — serving as an assistant at Providence, then Rutgers; working as an assistant under several coaches with the Knicks before coaching the team himself for parts of seven seasons; then landing with the Rockets; and, eventually, doing television.

The Van Gundy name has been synonymous with coaching in the NBA for two decades, thanks to his success — he made the playoffs in nine of the 10 years he finished with a franchise, including a trip to the 1999 NBA Finals with the Knicks — and that of his brother, Stan, who has been a head coach with the Miami Heat, Orlando Magic and, most recently, the Detroit Pistons. Jeff Van Gundy also has a knack for memorable moments, such as an infamous scene in which he futilely clutched Alonzo Mourning’s leg in a playoff series against the Miami Heat.

But it is Van Gundy’s work in the broadcast booth that turned him into a household name. After taking over last July as the coach of Team USA’s qualifying effort for next year’s World Cup, he learned that the hard way.

“We’re practicing, and one guy, who hadn’t played with us before, he asked someone, ‘Has he ever coached?’ ” Van Gundy said. “I was like, ‘Wow.’ It was interesting. I said, ‘You know, I probably should have introduced myself a little bit deeper versus, “Hey, let’s get started.” ’ But that sort of, it tells you how long I’ve done it and also the power of TV.”

Television also has allowed Van Gundy to be choosy about when — or if — he will jump back into full-time coaching in the NBA. Right now, he’s paid well, gets to work with people with whom he has had long-standing friendships and has far less stress.

“The benefit of having a really good job that you really like is that you can be more selective,” Van Gundy said.

What television can’t provide, though, is the level of adrenaline coaching produces. Over the past year with Team USA, Van Gundy has again gotten a taste of that.

He landed back in coaching in the first place because of changes the International Basketball Federation (FIBA) made to the qualifying process. Team USA needs to use G League players to qualify for the world championships next year in China, requiring a coach who wasn’t working during the season.

Enter Van Gundy, who not only has his own coaching record to fall back on but a relationship with Team USA men’s national team director Sean Ford that dates back to when Van Gundy was coaching Ford’s brother, Ryan, a walk-on at Providence.

“Thank God for him,” said Ford, who spent summers with his brother and Van Gundy at Providence. “The consistency of what he brings to the table … you can get to where, ‘Okay, now we’re 4-0, we’ve got some of the same players, we are playing teams for the second time.’ You can get complacent.

“I don’t even know if Jeff knows how to say that word, which is what we need.”

Breen and Burke both said they have seen the Team USA experience remind Van Gundy just how good he is at coaching, but they added that it also has been a revelation of what it takes for G Leaguers to make it to the NBA.

As someone who toiled his way up the basketball ladder — going from Yale to Menlo College to Nazareth College as a collegiate athlete before making his way as a coach — Van Gundy recognizes and appreciates the effort.

“They just need a break,” he said. “There are some of them who are [in the NBA] earlier in their career and they’re out now trying to get back.”

And questions persist about whether he will try to get back. He doesn’t believe, though, that there is a point at which he will have been out of the NBA too long to return to the sideline.

“I don’t think you ever have to come to a point to make that type of decision,” he said. “Life sort of works out the way it works out.”

That, after all, is how Van Gundy went straight from the sideline into the broadcast booth 11 years ago.

“I‘m not going to sound like I predicted it,” Breen said. “But I knew if he stayed committed and wanted to do it, he would excel at it. He’s just so damn smart. His mind operates on a different level than most. If he puts his mind to it and especially about a game he loves so much, he’d figure out a way to get it done.”

For his part, Van Gundy appears to be going with the flow.

“I never would’ve thought [this would happen]. I never had a plan,” he said of his broadcasting career. “I still really don’t have a plan.”

Read more:

NBA free agency: The latest news and rumors

LeBron James is drawing up the business plan for every big star in U.S. pro sports

Assessing all of the madness from the opening hours of NBA free agency

The Wizards are beginning to take the steps necessary to catch up with the NBA