This is his game. That's what the world doesn't understand, may never understand, because the big chance dropped in his lap, and he was handed a team fat with talent, and there he was, suddenly transformed from faceless third assistant to millionaire leader of men. Yes, the question lingers: Has there been any coach luckier than Jeff Van Gundy? A man with no portfolio, no storied past, no shoulders for god's sake, yet now he's lording it over Madison Square Garden, striding before tycoons and stars, folding his arms, pursing his lips, leaving Pat Riley in tears, waving Pat Ewing goodbye, piloting one of the NBA's most prized franchises, the New York Knickerbockers, for going on five years already. And he fell into the job—didn't he?—like some yahoo striking oil in his backyard. The guy must spend each night counting his blessings, thanking the deity in charge of such things....
No. This is his game, though he never played it very well. His game, because he has never known anything, other than family, that he cared about more. His game, because nothing—not his big brother's bruised ego, not the supposed wisdom of his elders—has ever convinced him otherwise. Sons of coaches, Van Gundy will tell you, are "the biggest assholes to deal with," and coming up, the son of a small-college coach, he was a classic. As an eighth-grader in Martinez, Calif., Van Gundy began playing summer league with his brother, Stan, a high school star. Early in their first game together Stan was running downcourt, hearing his little brother "jump my ass about something he didn't like, for taking a bad shot or not playing defense," Stan recalls. "It just pissed me off: Who the heck is he? He'd never even attended a day of high school. But it was his show: I'm taking control. He's always had that attitude."
He doesn't show it much. Van Gundy will say all the right things, and mean them: I had incredible mentors. I got unbelievable breaks. I'm amazed that I'm coaching the Knicks. But pat answers don't necessarily make him a predictable man. To get what he wanted, Van Gundy made sacrifices that few others would dare even consider. Imagine you're a 5'9", 150-pound senior coming out of Brockport High in upstate New York in 1980, one of those floor-burned hustlers with no hops and no quickness; you're a B-plus student, and you eked out 1,040 on your SATs, but, thanks to basketball, you get accepted by Yale. So what if the Elis' coaching staff cuts you after watching you play pickup, before fall practice even begins? You're in, and this is Yale, you fool: Ivy League prestige, a lifetime of connections. You don't do what no one in the history of higher education has done. You don't transfer after one year from Yale to Menlo Junior College in Menlo Park, Calif., because you're sure you need to play college ball somewhere, anywhere, to be a coach.
"I thought he was insane," says Van Gundy's wife of 12 years, Kim, who met Jeff in high school. "I mean, do you know anybody who does that? How do you explain that?"
About as easily as you explain Van Gundy's bizarre summer of 1999, after the Knicks became the first No. 8 seed to reach the NBA Finals. Talk about lucky: In the end it all hinged on guard Allan Houston's last-second runner that bounded twice off the rim before dropping to eliminate Riley's Miami Heat in Game 5 of the first round. Had Houston missed, New York would have been finished, and Van Gundy, for one, is "absolutely" sure he would have been fired.
Time after time that season he had seen his face plastered on the TV screen while pundits said his job was in peril. Garden president Dave Checketts, who'd demoted close friend and general manager Ernie Grunfeld to special consultant over dessert one evening that April, assured Van Gundy, who had one year and $2 million to go on his contract, that he was in good shape. Then, during New York's second-round series against the Atlanta Hawks, the truth emerged: Checketts had interviewed former Chicago Bulls coach Phil Jackson, revealing himself to be someone quite capable of patting Van Gundy on the back, then shoving him into a ravine.
By the time the postseason run was over, though, and New York had fallen to the San Antonio Spurs in five games in the Finals, Van Gundy had become a Big Apple hero, his name chanted by the Garden crowd. His return was assured in everyone's mind but his. "You get to a point where you believe in yourself" Van Gundy says. "And in your mind—you never say it—but in your mind? F—- it. If you don't want me, somebody else will. And I'll go." He sat at home in Chappaqua, N.Y., for two weeks, thinking about quitting. He came close. It sounds absurd. Walk away from the Knicks? The way he'd walked away from Yale? Van Gundy's stubborn belief in himself had a way of propelling him in some odd directions. "I was thinking, What is best? Maybe it's best for me and the team to get a fresh start," he says. "Did I want to continue? Was it worth it?"
Sure it was. That season had hardened him, and Van Gundy had learned the ultimate NBA lesson. "Trust," he says, "all comes back to contract." When they finally met two weeks after the Finals, Checketts offered Van Gundy a long-term extension, which, after negotiations were complete, wound up guaranteeing him $14 million over four years. Van Gundy spent last season becoming richer and more entrenched, guiding the Knicks as far as the Eastern Conference finals. Since the summer New York has taken on a different look: smaller and softer. When Ewing, Van Gundy's staunchest ally when the coach's job was on the line, was traded to the Seattle SuperSonics on Sept. 20, a franchise long dominated by the glowering big man fell fully into the hands of the hangdog little one.
In talking to Checketts that day 15 months ago, the 37-year-old Van Gundy insisted on one thing: He had often heard Checketts use the phrase great young coach to describe him, and Van Gundy wanted him to stop. It made him uncomfortable. Drop it, he said to Checketts. Drop the young".
He hears what people say. Raccoon eyes. A kid in his father's suit. He reads the stories in the papers, every word. He is not one of those coaches who pretends that the gibes slide off his back; he knows who said what and when and where, and he remembers it all because it hurts. Yes, he wants to shout, just once, Yes, my scalp resembles a scorched field, and my skin looks like skim milk under the arena lights, but can we move on now? Can we get past this?