Never Bored Again: Let Jeff Van Gundy Talk His Shit

Abe Beame's NBA column returns as he investigates the charmingly irascible personality of the coach-turned-broadcaster.
By    January 21, 2021

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Abe Beame‘s got a floater that would send your team to the afterlife.

Nearly 23 years ago, on April 30th, 1998, the New York Knicks were playing the Miami Heat in Game 4 of the Eastern Conference Semifinals, just off Eighth Avenue and just above Penn Station, at home in Madison Square Garden. The Heat had a 2-1 advantage in the series. With 12 seconds remaining in the game, the Heat maintained possession down 5 (a hilarious 90s Eastern Conference playoff score of 90-85). With time waning, Tim Hardaway came off a screen, well guarded off a Knicks switch, gathered and heaved up a desperation shot from the top of the key that thudded off the backboard. In the scrum for the rebound, former Charlotte Hornets teammates Alonzo Mourning and Larry Johnson caught feelings and began trading phantom shots.

The altercation occurred immediately in front of the Knicks bench and with a speed you can barely catch with multiple Zapruder-style slow motion replays, you can see a small blur running straight into the middle of this serious face off between these two very large, strong men who hated each other. That blur was the 5’9, 150 pound former Knicks and Rockets head coach, and now legendary, persnickety color commentator, Jeff Van Gundy. He legitimately needed to be held back in the immediate aftermath of the fight by Charles Oakley to prevent him from charging Alonzo Mourning.

That 1998 Knicks-Heat tilt was covered for a national audience on TNT, by the duo of Verne Lundquist and Doc Rivers. Lundquist and Doc are fine, by the standards of corporate overseer approved milquetoast 90s NBA commentariat. Lundquist is “the voice” with Doc providing “the color,” a reliable waltz that has choreographed televised basketball games since its inception. Born in Duluth and raised in Austin, Lundquist was a league average announcer, a non-specialized all seasons media type who also called college basketball, college football, and golf, and his style, or lack thereof, was indicative of the way most national games were called. Cool, perfunctory, formulaic and bland professionalism. There might be some insight, some punctuation on a big play, but it would be delivered with the heat of a book on tape instruction manual. Even the highs were computer animated buttons, canned catch phrases every personality had in their bag. You could set your watch to the metronomic, respectful patter of the two announcers calling a game, the thrust, the pause, the parry, moving on. 

That’s not to say it was all bad. Marv Albert was in his prime at the time, a master of the suited, throwback tri-state smarm he practiced in the tradition of Howard Cosell. There were few experiences like hearing the Electric Kool Aid-soaked, soaring mystic poetry of Bill Walton in the midst of an NBC triple header, and we Knicks fans had and will always have the singular Godhead Walt Clyde Frazier, but that was about it. Suffice to say, there was nothing quite like the fourth wall shattering, self deprecating, chaotic, man on fire, but annoyed he’s on fire, energy delivered on a weekly basis by Coach Van Gundy.

According to Wikipedia, Jeff William Van Gundy was born January 19th, 1962 in a place called Martinez, California, but Wikipedia is actually wrong. Van Gundy was spawned off the fatty end of a hunk of pastrami at Katz’s Deli on Houston Street. A Puerto Rican named Israel was hand slicing a large to-go order next to an accordion stack of sliced rye, a bundle of sour pickle spears, several quarts of matzo ball soup, a squeeze bottle of brown mustard, and a case of Dr. Brown’s Black Cherry, when one of his steaming, flabby chunks grew arms, legs and a receding hairline. The rest is history.

Coach is basketball in human form. His dad was a coach. His brother is a coach. He played the game at Nazareth College where he still holds the all time record for the best free throw percentage in school history. He’s never worked outside the game, beginning as an assistant to Rick Pitino in Providence, studying under the likes of Pat Riley and Don Nelson on the Knicks, and finally becoming a head coach in New York in 1996. His coaching tree includes similarly intense current Knicks head coach (and Julius Randle’s personal messiah returned to Earth), Tom Thibodeau. Van Gundy is owl eyed and eternally schlumpy, someone who looks like he only gives a fuck about one thing but gives more fucks about that one thing than you do about all the things in your life put together.

Van Gundy had a professional record of 430-318 he accumulated over the course of seven years as the Knicks head coach, with another four at the helm for the Rockets. In those 11 seasons, he missed the playoffs once. By all accounts, he was a dedicated and well liked leader who often bristled under ownership as well as league governance (Van Gundy was the recipient of the largest fine ever handed down to an NBA coach, $100,000. You’ll never believe this, but it was for complaining about officiating). What made coaching difficult for Van Gundy was losing. As infrequently as it happened, when it did, it devastated him. Losses affected his sleep, his health, his very quality of life. Anyone who has ever listened to him call a game wouldn’t be surprised to learn of that problematic intensity. He does not do, say, or feel anything casually. 

It’s fairly remarkable that on a weekly basis, we’re all invited to watch games with the trio of Mike Breen, Mark Jackson, and Jeff Van Gundy. Even as New York basketball has sunk into obscurity, its voice, its perspective, and its attitude has maintained a presence in the form of the former Knicks coach and his co-workers. Breen is a Yonkers native, Fordham alum and his regular job is calling the Knicks, as well as the Brooklyn native, St. John’s point guard, and former Knick, Mark Jack. They are all very New York Guys. Jackson, the folksy, old soul, no bullshit deacon from Brooklyn who could’ve spent summers with his family in North Carolina and Georgia. Van Gundy, the small, loud and fiery dick who won’t hesitate to jump into a scrum between giants. Even the button up Breen will bust balls, push back, and follow Van Gundy on his mad takes. 

The three men clearly enjoy each other’s company and like to hang out, and they bring that personal, chatty relationship to work with them. You don’t get forced commentary from Coach or Mark Jack, they’re comfortable letting Breen cook for long periods of time, waiting for something worth saying to occur to them. It makes for a truly organic rapport, the rarest of qualities amongst announcing colleagues. Here’s one of my all-time favorite Van Gundy moments, interrupting Mark Jackson in the middle of his analysis of how great Tristan Thompson is at setting vicious screens:

People often point to Van Gundy, ever the coach, and his disdain for bad officiating. That it detracts from the game, that he’s maniacally focused on it, that it’s not fun to listen to. This sentiment also applies to his anti-authoritarian railing against the league for its dumb rules and bad decisions. In Yiddish, a pidgin Hebrew once prevalent in New York’s Lower East Side tenements, we have a word: kvetch. To kvetch is to complain, something I’d imagine gentiles believe has a negative connotation. But for many Jews, kvetching is therapy. It equates to a perverse form of joy.  

Go out to dinner at the Great Neck Peter Luger with my cousins from East Meadow, or my freshman roommate from Roslyn, or my mom from Freeport, and you will experience the animated glee we derive from kvetching, spiced with great hyperbole, about the traffic on the way to the restaurant, the age of the bread in the basket, the length of time it took for the drinks to get to the table, the steak, a touch gray when we clearly ordered medium rare, the temperature of the fries. We love to analyze and debate inane and stupid shit. It’s literally and figuratively the meat of our conversation, how we communicate. Complaint is truly the music of the Jewish soul. 

By all accounts, Van Gundy isn’t Jewish, but his railing against a ticky tack called foul that breaks the rhythm of play contains our rabbinical, talmudic zeal. Listen closely to Coach in full lather, as he pontificates and theorizes and rants and raves, you will hear the sound of a man proselytizing his religion, talking about something he loves more than anything else, and in complaining about it, fulfilling his life’s purpose. I once actually had the privilege of eating at an Italian restaurant in L.A. at the same time as Coach. I was across the dining room, but discreetly filmed him for a few minutes, and it was everything I dreamed it would be:  

Van Gundy doesn’t appear enough for my liking on Zach Lowe’s essential podcast, The Lowe Post, but when he does, you get a sense of what makes him such an appealing color man. He was born aggrieved. He believes in basketball that is coached, played and officiated “The Right Way,” and anyone who disrespects this sacred art is a moron, a liar, a villain, or all three. His is an egalitarian, populist, humanist vision of the game, hard nosed, played with integrity, pragmatic, accessible, and presented as the only possible conclusion to any number of problems the game presents. This is why listening to Van Gundy riff with authority on a podcast is actually quite similar to the experience of listening to him call a game, there’s no boundary between his on court and off court persona, and if he wasn’t on TV spouting his beliefs, he’d be sitting by The Cage at West 4th yelling at strangers playing pickup because he simply has to get it out somehow. 

What’s fascinating about Van Gundy is his grumpy old ball coach persona and the make-the-extra-pass-and-move-your-feet-on-defense traditionalism he subscribes to belies his wildly unorthodox and thrilling approach to a very rigid and defined form of media. He’s a consummate stylist who probably dislikes aspects of Kyrie Irving’s game, demeanor, and how he manages relationships in the locker room, but he sounds like Kyrie’s epic IG Live freestyles when he’s in his cups and spouting the NBA equivalent of chemtrail conspiracy from a frothing mouth.

(This is a much watch, and just amazing shit)

Here’s a brief recap of what I consider the highlights from a typical Van Gundy masterpiece, ABC’s primetime opener of the Lakers vs. the Mavs Christmas night.

  • “Cliches in this league are at an all-time high.” (Van Gundy ranting after Breen uses the platitude, “Big Picture Approach”)
  • Van Gundy goes nuts over the idea that a bad pass that eventually finds its target for a basket gets credit as an assist. Mark Jack called him “Scrooge.”
  • Van Gundy goes on a tirade about how easy it is to shoot 85% from the free throw line and how Luka needs to get there (as mentioned above, Van Gundy is a historically great free throw shooter). Mark asks if Van Gundy shot the technical free throws for his college team, and an indignant Van Gundy responds, “Yes!”
  • Van Gundy goes nuts on Breen for talking about players who racked up great stats in losses. “That’s the media!”
  • A Christmas Etiquette Question: (I’m paraphrasing) What do I get for my daughter’s boyfriend she’s bringing home? I’m getting him a small, token gift, but not a gift on the level of something I’d get for my actual family. (As evidence for his position, Van Gundy points out his wife’s family still doesn’t get anything for him at holiday time). 
  • Van Gundy believes he’d be awful at Wheel of Fortune.
  • Van Gundy is a fan of the Episcopal High School football team in Houston, where he lives and apparently loves it, somehow. He shouts out their National Championship headed players and the school several times. 
  • Van Gundy is furious (furious!) that when an off ball foul occurs in the act of shooting, the shooter takes the free throw rather than the player who was actually fouled.
  • Van Gundy is appalled (appalled!) by the weird alternate Clippers warm ups in green.

The way I take in most Yankee games is on the radio, for whatever reason. Baseball announcers are masters of tangent. Between his obvious expertise of the game, the familiarity of a guy who always does his homework and watches the games he’s not calling, Van Gundy weighs in on the issues of the day, and announces with the delightful, meandering aimlessness of AM legends John Sterling and Susyn Waldman. As he takes conversational tributaries into the minutiae of life, and half remembered anecdotes connected to play on the court by a tenuous thread, you feel more like you’re waiting for a reliever to warm up in the sixth inning of a meaningless game you’re listening to on 660 in July, rather than a brief pause in the action of a nationally televised marquee game. If you can’t enjoy this random, constantly surprising and hilarious quality in your media, I don’t know how to help you, and I’m not sure why you’re reading this.

The thing that I would ask of Van Gundy’s more vocal critics goes beyond what do you want from your basketball, but what do you want from your life? I feel strongly that these are joyless people who can’t remember the last time they got sucked into a conversation on the train, let alone a conversation with passionate strangers sitting in the row in front of them at a basketball game. Jack, Breen and Van Gundy are not robbing you of your precious dry analysis, it’s present in their telecasts in abundance, I promise. In their infinite shmooze, they just also happen to shuffle in the texture, the rhythm of life itself, between bounces. And if even this argument doesn’t sway you, ask yourself, would you really prefer to listen to the likes of Reggie Miller barf all over the fucking mic every Sunday for two and a half hours instead?  

It’s a poorly kept secret around the league that what Coach wants, more than anything else, is to get back to coaching. Of course he does. He’s been in consideration multiple times, but for a guy that has had as much, if not more, professional success than his brother, it’s hard to understand why no team has taken a shot. Perhaps it is how vocal and fearless he’s been in the booth. And perhaps this will be his true legacy for younger fans of the game: As the beloved, trusted voice of the perpetually irate orthodox purist who has found himself in the unlikely position of sermonizing to America through his religion’s largest mass every week. I have mixed feelings about my all time favorite coach being reduced to a mere announcer in eternity, but as long as he’s remembered and revered forever, I’m happy, even if I can’t exactly be happy for him. 

I can neither confirm nor deny if this story is true or something fabricated wholecloth to crush the conclusion of this piece, but I have a friend who is a porter at Madison Square Garden, and there’s a sort of urban legend that circulates amongst the off season staff there. In the Fall in New York, most of our buildings turn on the heat around the beginning of October, filling the air with the campfire scent of burning furnaces and the dried leaves that litter our streets in piles. Many people think of Fall as a wind down, but for me it’s always been a time of beginnings. Shaking off the surreal, hedonistic, humid fog of Summer and making a crisp return to life, to school, to another Knicks season. 

It’s around this time of year, just before another interminable pre-season kicks into gear, they say that on quiet nights, when the newly chilled air whips through the open entrances into the empty Garden’s lower bowl, there’s a strange sound that carries on the wind. There’s some disagreement amongst the staff as to what the strange sound is, but I’m told it emanates on court, from just in front of the Knicks bench, and resembles a chorus of men grunting, the symphony of sneakers squeaking on a waxed floor, the whistle of haymakers cutting empty space, and the desperate pants of a young coach, determinedly clinging to a club sized femur for dear life, where his soul will live on just off Eight Avenue, and just above Penn Station, for as long as the historic arena he once worked in stands.

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