In 10th NBA Finals, 'Coach' Van Gundy clearly a broadcaster
Jeff Van Gundy was riding a bus bound for the border, far from the glamorous side of NBA life.
Teams take charter flights to ritzy hotels, and Van Gundy craves the right opportunity to run one again. But he also likes the job he has, providing time for friends and family that coaching never could.
So there he is, still sitting courtside at ABC's NBA Finals broadcast table, far longer than colleagues expected and longer than anyone else in his role ever has.
''The good part is I enjoy what I do, more so I enjoy who I do it with, and I'm really blessed,'' Van Gundy said.
This is his 10th finals, the most for a TV analyst. Before Van Gundy and teammate Mark Jackson, working his eighth, nobody had done more than six.
Jackson played for Van Gundy, calls him Coach, and is surprised Van Gundy is still sitting there next to him. So is play-by-play commentator Mike Breen, his longtime friend who notes just how long it's been since that coach title actually fit.
''It's now his career, he's now a broadcaster,'' Breen said. ''As much as he doesn't want to admit it, he's a member of the media and he's a full-time broadcaster now for a decade, which makes me delighted because he can't weasel out of it anymore and say that he's not a member of the media.''
The team is close, going by bus from Cleveland and Toronto during the Eastern Conference finals. Traveling the roads of Western New York, as he did while playing at Nazareth College in Rochester, was fun for Van Gundy, and he said times like those stand out more than any particular game he's analyzed.
''My memories really aren't about the games as much as they are about with the people, laughing about certain things,'' Van Gundy said.
Yet the 54-year-old Van Gundy thinks about swapping that for coaching, which still provides the camaraderie but also comes with what he calls the ''misery of losing.''
He won more often, going 430-318 with New York and Houston, leading the Knicks to the 1999 NBA Finals, and his name has a permanent place on the annual coaching carousel long after he went 52-30 in his final season with the Rockets in 2006-07.
''I've been around coaching, I've witnessed coaching and this guy is an absolute gem,'' Jackson said, adding that: ''I think if I was owner or general manager or running a team, it would be his call, meaning Jeff's call, to say no to me.''
Van Gundy couldn't chase jobs for contractual reasons early on, and didn't really care to while his daughters were young. But now with one a senior in college and the other in sixth grade, he's looked more closely at getting back into the game.
He figures he's interviewed for four jobs, passed on others and was interested in talking to Houston, where he still lives, before the Rockets hired Mike D'Antoni. D'Antoni, along with Tom Thibodeau – Van Gundy's former assistant- and Scott Brooks, was one of three former Coach of the Year winners hired this summer, and the longer Van Gundy waits for the right fit, the tougher the competition.
''There's a ton of great candidates and if being out for a while prevents me from ever getting another one, that's fine, too,'' he said.
He watches plenty of games, particularly his brother Stan's Detroit Pistons, and teams coached by friends Thibodeau and Steve Clifford. But Van Gundy acknowledges the effect of his time away on his preparation.
''You don't have the same feel for guys that you didn't coach against or coach yourself. It's not the same,'' Van Gundy said. ''You can watch the games on TV, you can study in that way, but if you're not competing against people, it's hard to know as much as you do when you're coaching.''
It doesn't appear to lessen the knowledge he demonstrates during telecasts, which he mixes with personality he couldn't always show while coaching. During Game 1, he humorously speculated on Steve Kerr's karate background after the Golden State coach broke a clipboard.
But he remains dead serious about things he sees as a coach that he believes referees and league officials misinterpret. He remains in disbelief over a flagrant foul Toronto's Bismack Biyombo was called for against Cleveland, when his basket was wiped out after replays showed he elbowed Kevin Love in the chin on what Van Gundy thought was a natural basketball play.
''I've grown to detest replay so much,'' Van Gundy said. ''I thought it was such a great idea and now I think it's such an awful idea.''
Breen believes Van Gundy rants because he loves the game, and it appears at times the league is listening. Take for example the time he complained during one Finals telecast about the shot clock resetting to 5 seconds when the defensive team forced a jump ball with less than 5 seconds left. Not long after, the rule was changed, and it hardly seemed a coincidence.
''I think there's part of him that really wants to coach one more time, but I also think he realizes this is a pretty good job and he has a real impact on the league by what he says,'' Breen said. ''I mean, he has a very powerful voice.''
He could keep using it from the broadcast table. He just might prefer using it from the bench.
Follow Brian Mahoney on Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/Briancmahoney