Van Gundy: Warrior in Nebbish Clothing

In Miami, not long before the start of Game 2, Walt (Clyde) Frazier, symbol of faded New York Knick glory and glamour, took a moment away from preparing for another night of rhyming play-by-play descriptions to consider Jeff Van Gundy, the nebbishy coach of the New York Knicks.

“I think he knows exactly what he’s doing,” said Mr. Frazier, seated courtside in the Miami Arena. “Everyone underestimates him because of his look, but that seems to galvanize him. He’s in total control of this team and they are playing for him.”

He is pale. He is gloomy. He is skinny. He is New York. He is Van Gundy.

In what is probably the most crucial week of his N.B.A. career-the Knicks and Heat go at it again on May 12, tied 1 to 1 in the Eastern Conference playoff series-Mr. Van Gundy is also clinging to his job in much the same way he clung to Alonzo Mourning’s ankle in last year’s installment of the New York-Miami basketball psychodrama. With his immediate boss, Madison Square Garden president Dave Checketts, having firmly refused to give him a vote of confidence, and former Chicago Bulls swami (and ex-Knick) Phil Jackson inhabiting a home just 90 miles away from the basketball mecca (in Woodstock, N.Y., of course), Coach Jeff must advance or else.

It has been a harrowing season. With $68 million worth of maladjusted, highly talented and often-injured players to work with, Mr. Van Gundy just managed to squeak into the playoffs. The old warrior, Patrick Ewing, has been hurting all season. Knick newcomer Latrell Sprewell, a natural shooting guard and N.B.A. outlaw, had a foot fracture early in the season, then found it difficult to mesh with the team’s offense. Charles Oakley, former enforcer for the team now getting long in the tooth, spent the season wearing a purple uniform as a member of the Toronto Raptors, having been shipped off for the elbowy and quick 6-foot 11-inch Marcus Camby.

For the first time in the 90’s, opposing players found big holes in the Knick defense on certain nights and made it to the hoop for easy layups, without being fouled. When the Knicks found themselves with a record of 21 and 21 in April-a Knick team built to win it all, no less-general manager Ernie Grunfeld got severely demoted, and Mr. Checketts began traveling with the team, the better to scrutinize his more inscrutable players (is Allan Houston really trying? is Latrell Sprewell paying attention?) and his unassuming coach. No one’s job is safe.

The current N.B.A.-NBC values stress sheer athleticism or brute force in players and arrogance in the coaches who control them. Right now, the other cities have the high-concept coaches. Miami has the ultimate motivational speaker in Pat Riley, former mentor to Mr. Van Gundy during their years together on the bench in the Garden. Orlando has the well-paid Chuck Daly-he’s a kind of grandfather figure who lets his players run wild on the court, improvising their offense as they go, only to blow into a rage when they fail to get back on defense. Indiana has Larry Bird, the laissez-faire genius from French Lick. Houston has Rudy Tomjanovich, who might as well be Tommy Lee Jones with a Trailblazers past. And now in post-Jordan-era exile, there’s the Zen guru and former Knickerbocker role player Phil Jackson, now shorn of his beard and looking for employment. (Prospective employers should be willing to make him general manager as well as coach.) All possess a stage presence that the 5-foot 9-inch, 160-pound Mr. Van Gundy will never match.

In a league of custom-tailored suits, he’s a store-bought guy. A workaholic, who labored for six and a half years as a Knick assistant coach in a profession increasingly dominated by cultist motivational speakers, Mr. Van Gundy seems out of time-he’s a gym rat with a whistle around his neck in an age of primped and pressed bench geniuses.

And he’s damn proud of it, too. He calls his ill-fitting attire (tie below belt, suit six inches too long) “Van Gundy Wear.” He eagerly points out his $8 watch to reporters, and beats them to the punch with cracks about his appearance. “Pat went to Elaine’s, I went to McDonald’s,” he recently reminded reporters for the umpteenth time. And when asked if he was moved by the players coming together to save his job, he replied, “I feel awful about that. I only want them to win for themselves.”

That Mr. Van Gundy has already made it three and half years as head coach-a long time by Knick standards; only Pat Riley and Hubie (Suitcase) Brown of the previous eight coaches have lasted longer- is as much a tribute to his skills as a coach and as his political savvy.

He had a chance in that second game in Miami. The Knicks kept creeping up, creeping up, and were down 78 to 70 with 1:46 to go … But then the veteran three-point specialist Dan (Thunder) Majerle dropped an uncontested jumper from 24 feet away, making the score 81 to 70 and finishing the Knicks off for the night. Mr. Van Gundy called a time out, and after addressing the players, stared off into the ether of Miami Arena. Rap music blared from the loud speakers. Chants of “Knicks suck” rang through rafters. The Miami Heat dancing girls hit the floor. Two more losses against the Heat, and Coach Jeff is most likely through. Done. Goodbye.

Subplots of a Knick-Heat series have traditionally centered on age-old themes, mentors and masters (Van Gundy versus Riley, Mourning versus Ewing) but the Knicks’ disappointing performance this season transformed the plot lines of this series into something entirely different-Mr. Van Gundy’s survival as head coach.

He’s … Not Human?

At times, the $2 million coach’s self-effacement and his seriousness seem almost inhuman. Knick assistant coach Don Chaney said: “Everything with Jeff is business and seriousness right on the line, straight up. Every once in a while, he’ll break out with one of his jokes. I don’t know if you could call them jokes, but to him they are.” Mr. Chaney recalled an example. “He was talking about his dad and his dad’s obsession with driving all over New England to find the lowest price for gas-that his dad would go 25, 30 miles to save $2. Coming from him, to find a moment where he’s loose enough to relate an occurrence that happened in his family, it made us say, ‘Oh, he’s human.'”

Son of a coach, brother to an assistant coach, Steve (Mr. Riley’s assistant in Miami), Mr. Van Gundy has always focused on basketball. A magna cum laude graduate of Nazareth College in Rochester, N.Y., Mr. Van Gundy became head coach at McQuaid Jesuit High School and at Providence College, the following year. He joined the Knicks as an assistant coach in 1989 and remained in that role through the Riley years-until he eventually replaced Don Nelson, victim of a Patrick Ewing-led player revolt in 1996.

Now, along with Mr. Ewing, Mr. Van Gundy is the longest standing employee of the Knicks. His players and his assistants speak of Mr. Van Gundy’s devotion to the game.

“You can not beat him into the office in the morning,” assistant coach Brendan Malone said of his boss. “He’s in there before 7 A.M. and he stays until after 7. He’s an office guy.” Of Mr. Van Gundy’s practices, Mr. Malone said: “With Jeff, everything is thought out. He prepares about an hour and a half for each practice. He looks at the tapes of Miami three or four times. He’s a detailed guy. He works on repetition.”

On the road, Mr. Van Gundy retreats monklike to his hotel room, emerging only for practices and games. “He’s kind of a hermit,” Mr. Chaney said. “Very seldom do you see him outside. He’s always in his room, watching tapes. All the time. He watches more tape than any coach in the N.B.A. and he probably sees less daylight than any coach in the N.B.A. Everything is in his room. He eats in the room, he works in the room and he sleeps in the room. It’s all basketball in there. I personally would like to see him get involved in another hobby to take him away from basketball. Sometimes this business gets very stressful and you need an outlet, and I don’t think he has one. He’s really stressed. He wants to win all the time and this is a game where you’re not going to win all the time.”

While Mr. Van Gundy has often been referred to as a players’ coach, it should be noted that he is not their pet. He has dealt firmly with ’98-’99 newcomers Marcus Camby and Latrell Sprewell. Mr. Camby had a troubled tenure with the Toronto Raptors, where he was pegged as a lazy player who exaggerated his injuries. Early in preseason, Mr. Van Gundy said the young forward was not in basketball shape; in the regular season, he benched the flighty Mr. Camby during games against the more physical teams in the league, such as Indiana and Miami. It was like a hazing ritual. And with Mr. Sprewell, he was equally tough, making the explosive shooter (who was banned from the league for choking his last coach, P.J. Carlesimo) his sixth man, and playing him in the quick forward slot, rather than in the shooting guard position Mr. Sprewell prefers.

For his part, Mr. Camby said he is fan of Coach Jeff. “When I first came here, a lot of people made an issue about our relationship that we did not get along, but that was never the case,” he said. “He told me straight up that he respected me as a person and as a player, and that he was never against the trade. He just wanted to help coach me. That sort of cleared the air. I believe him. I have no reason not to. He’s a man of his word.”

Just as he can be on the floor, Mr. Sprewell was elusive in discussing Mr. Van Gundy: “It’s not like the guys on the team were familiar with the way I played. He didn’t know what I was like or what I didn’t like, but I think he has a better sense now.”

Do the players really listen to Mr. Van Gundy? Whether the Knicks lose to Miami or advance, that is something that the coach’s bosses-Mr. Checketts and, ultimately, Charles Dolan, president of Cablevision-must decide.

According to assistant coach Chaney, the answer to that question is a clear Yes. Sitting on the bench an hour before Game 2 in Miami, Mr. Chaney began by contrasting Mr. Van Gundy and his immediate predecessor, Don Nelson: “I’ll tell you the truth about Don Nelson. Nellie, to me, he wasn’t geared for New York. He came into this situation here, the team was established and he introduced some new ideas and they didn’t buy it. Some of the same things he tried to do back then, we’re doing now. This team believes in Jeff, bottom line. They respect his detail and his knowledge of the game. Don had Patrick shooting jumpers out here at the elbow and Patrick didn’t like it. But Patrick does it now, no complaints at all.”

On the day the New York Knicks headed by private jet to Miami, Florida for a first-round playoff match-up against the Miami Heat, their contested head coach Jeff Van Gundy stood in the glow of the gym at the State University of New York at Purchase following a two-and-a-half-hour practice. Mr. Gundy had gone through his usual routine, sipping a Diet Coke while fielding the inevitable questions about center Patrick Ewing’s effectiveness, and by implication the future look of the team. Knick public relations director Lori Hamamoto had long ago given the two-minute warning for the reporters and most of the press had departed. But before he was to fly to Miami, the coach met his wife, Kim, and their 3-year-old daughter, Mattie, in the atrium. The coach lifted his daughter in the air and twirled her around. A stray photographer, seeing an opportunity, rushed down on bended knee and snapped off a picture. Mr. Van Gundy, his back turned to the photographer, heard the click and wheeled around. “No, no, no, no, no! What are you thinking ?” he said. “You’re not doing that.” Mr. Van Gundy then gave the photographer his patented “look”-a scowl familiar to all players and coaches, and widely regarded as Mr. Van Gundy’s most common and effective disciplinary tool. The humbled photographer beat a quick retreat and apologized to Mr. Van Gundy. “Don’t worry about it,” Mr. Van Gundy said. Mr. Van Gundy is no dummy. He knows how to play the New York media, and it may well be that he knows how to play his team. You give them tough love. You don’t pose and primp, like the N.B.A.’s supercoaches; you just bury yourself in the work and hope for the best.

Maybe a coach doesn’t really need Pat Riley’s gung-ho histrionics, or Phil Jackson’s mystic mumbo-jumbo. Maybe being a gloomy wonk, a smart shlub, can be enough this time. And maybe, just maybe, the Knicks’ postseason won’t be so infuriating for a change.