Jeff Van Gundy – Back to Coaching

Adrian Wojnarowski, ESPN (

Before the start of USA Basketball training camp, Jeff Van Gundy is surrounded at the kitchen table with a small stack of play sheets and binders. He’s pushing play, rewind and play again on his laptop. He is marveling over the genius of Esteban Batista of Uruguay. It gives him a knot in the pit of his stomach again, and God he missed it desperately.

“Watch him now, watch Batista,” Van Gundy says. “No one posts up anymore, but he still does. Watch this, every time: He’s going to always drive, spin and step through. I don’t care which way he starts. He’s driving. He’s spinning. And then he’s stepping through. Over, and over, and over.

“Our second game of the tournament: Uruguay in Uruguay. I go to bed thinking about Esteban Batista,” Van Gundy said, shaking his head, pressing pause and starting all over again.

He has been lost in Central and South American basketball, because that’s all that he has had for the past two months. He’s the coach of the USA Basketball World Cup qualifying team, which is responsible for delivering Gregg Popovich and the senior national team to the 2019 World Cup in China. No more does an Olympic gold medal deliver an automatic berth in the World Cup, so off Van Gundy goes to qualify Team USA in this Americas tournament process over the next several months.

Van Gundy knows only one existence as a coach, and that’s total immersion. He has studied the precision execution of FIBA basketball, the innovative coaching and the continuity of national team personnel. He has studied the contact away from the ball, the clutching and grabbing and struggle for space on offense. He has studied the reasons USA teams have won, and studied more closely the ways that they have lost games and tournaments. He has studied every one of USA Basketball’s 50 losses since 1990, from the lowest to highest levels of the program, searching for the common denominators.

Van Gundy has studied everything available to him to understand what awaits him and the NBA development league players in these coming FIBA qualifying events. Yes, he has studied everything and come to a conclusion.

“I told myself, ‘You better get your s— together and not f— this up,” Van Gundy said.

“You better be ready.”

Van Gundy has been out of coaching since leaving the Houston Rockets a decade ago. For years, he didn’t want to uproot his family and leave Houston, turning down NBA and major college offers. For the past few years, he has been more open to the idea of the NBA — not college — but the right job hasn’t come along for him. He loves his ESPN television life. Yet now, Van Gundy has a team again and there’s a part of him awakened: all the adrenaline, and all the angst.

Across 10-plus seasons as a head coach with the New York Knicks and Rockets, he was 430-318. He won 44 playoff games. Among his peers, he’s still held in uncommon reverence. Most consider his practices, preparation and game coaching among the best in his profession. For USA basketball, this made him an overwhelming choice for this job — despite the fact that he had no experience with FIBA basketball.

To USA Basketball, Van Gundy solved an immense problem. FIBA had moved its qualifying tournaments out of the summer and into the traditional basketball season. Essentially, the U.S. needed to find a coach without a team to coach pro players without NBA jobs. They needed someone out of coaching, yes, but not out of relevance.

Sean Ford, USA Basketball’s national team director, could well be the most connected man in basketball. Few have more relationships, more trust, more access. In delicate space between the multibillion dollar American pro and college basketball empire and the volunteer ranks of national team basketball, Ford is the ultimate connector and problem solver. He helps choose and manage the coaches, the players, the staffs, for every level of USA Basketball. He can pick up the phone and instantly get the biggest stars, league executives, agents and Adam Silver.

Ford has known Van Gundy since his younger brother, Ryan, was a walk-on guard and Billy Donovan’s roommate at Providence College. Van Gundy was on Rick Pitino’s Friars coaching staff. Ford had long thought about a way to bring Van Gundy into a USA Basketball coaching role, and finally, this was his chance.

He needed to bring a coaching recommendation to USA Basketball managing director Jerry Colangelo and Popovich, and Van Gundy turned out to be the ideal inaugural coach to sell an uncertain new era of qualification tournaments that wouldn’t include NBA stars. Van Gundy represents an elite coach with name recognition to sell the importance and gravitas of a new program.

As rivals use national teams that have been together for years, USA Basketball will be constantly cycling through non-NBA players for these qualifiers.

“International competition is more like college than the NBA in terms of the importance a coach takes on,” said Houston Rockets executive VP Gersson Rosas, a global personnel scout for USA Basketball. “When the talent is more equal in these games, Jeff’s ability to impact the game will be huge for us. We have to re-start this process every campaign, while some other countries have been going along for eight to 10 years with their teams.”

Van Gundy never hesitated to accept the job. Once he secured ESPN’s permission to rearrange some of his NBA television schedule this season for training camps and tournaments, he started the work of preparing — understanding fully that his competition will have practiced, played and been together weeks longer than the strangers he’d be thrusting together for the trip on Thursday to Uruguay.

“When they called me, someone from USA Basketball started to explain what this could mean for me,” Van Gundy said. “I said, ‘Hey, let me stop you right there. I don’t want anything from this. I’m getting something from this. I’m getting to represent my country.’

“I grew up dreaming about being an Olympic basketball player. Doug Collins getting smashed into the stanchion, making two free throws. Phil Ford and Mike O’Koren in 1976.

“This is a small part. Not many people know [our tournaments] are happening — and not many people care about the results. But we’re going to care. You just want to do your part, and you want to represent USA Basketball and comport yourself right.

“We’re the JV, and we’re trying to do a job to qualify the varsity for the World Cup.”

He has loved reading up on his players’ stories. Mostly, they’re castoffs, forgotten and never-weres. Yet, they’re postponing reporting to training camps — in the U.S. and abroad — to play for this national team.

They’re paid $100 a day for the three-week AmeriCup commitment, and $75 per diem. Ford, Rosas, the Miami Heat’s Adam Simon and the Brooklyn Nets’ Trajan Langdon worked months assembling the roster with Van Gundy. They had commitments and decommitments. USA Basketball had a hard time selling this tournament process, and perhaps a harder job selling the timing. For agents, sending a player to the AmeriCup is tantamount to an admission to a client that they were unable to get them an NBA job.

They did not assemble a roster befitting FIBA basketball, as much as they assembled a roster of players willing to commit to the the qualifying. Some you’ve heard of (Kendall Marshall and Marshall Plumlee) and some probably not (Billy Baron and Reggie Hearn).

The AmeriCup tournament is a chance for Van Gundy to gather experience in the FIBA game, and work with NBA minor leaguers who could return for the late November and February sections of the qualifying tournament. Van Gundy had to install an immense volume of offense, defense and special situations in seven days of practices and film work, but make no mistake: Mostly, he has worked to prepare his USA team to understand the intense national pride they’ll face on the floor, and home arenas awaiting in Uruguay and Argentina. As Ford promised him, “A lot of teams would just as soon beat the U.S., than win the tournament.”

“I can’t oversell the point to our team that, just because you don’t know their names, in some cases, doesn’t mean they’re not an outstanding player,” Van Gundy said. “But more importantly, these guys have a competitive spirit that’s different. You can’t hold up in a FIBA game if you don’t have great competitive spirit. You’ll get your will broken — and maybe your jaw too.

“So, you better be ready. You have to understand that the hard contact, stop, stare at the ref, trot back on defense, well, that’s losing. We’ll get our asses kicked. These guys on these teams have a passion and intensity that, if you think it’s going to be like some regular-season D-League game, they’re going to put a fist in your mouth so hard, and so deep, that you’re not going to know what hit you.

“Don’t underestimate how vulnerable these teams think we are right now. It starts with me. Here’s what they’re thinking, ‘This clown hasn’t coached in 10 years. Never coached a FIBA game. And they’re going to entrust him?’ And then they don’t know our players.

“There’s a sense of vulnerability that these teams see, so we have just got to be ready. That’s why I go back: Let’s play really, really hard and let’s pass. And let’s see where that takes us.”

Before his first practice, Van Gundy could be seen walking up and down the sideline alone, gathering his thoughts and confidence. It had been a long time. And even so, Van Gundy started where he left off a decade ago: exacting, detailed and relentless. “Hey, I don’t mean to be a p—k, but we’re going to be precise,” he barked, and soon, they were running a passing and cutting drill over again.

In lots of ways, the process of preparing to coach the USA Basketball team has started to stretch old muscles, refocus his discerning eyes. For Van Gundy, it has obliterated some common myths too. Coaching is a craft, a science, and leaving the practice floor for the television booth might make you miss it all — but it doesn’t make you immediately sharper upon return.

“I’ve had to hit rewind more,” Van Gundy said. “I could feel things getting past me. It takes a little time to be able to truly see all 10 on the court again. That’s why I have always disagreed with this premise: Well, Coach X has been out for a couple of years, and someone asks: ‘Did it help you have a different perspective? Are you a better coach?’ No.

“You get better at what you do by doing it. If you coach, and coach every day, you should be getting better if you’re self-evaluating and you’ve got people around you telling you the truth. If you don’t, you’re not using the same skills. ‘Oh, you have a different perspective.’ That’s such bulls—.”

He has been open to an NBA position for a few years, interviewed for jobs, but the proper fit hasn’t materialized. In a lot of ways, this is the ideal roster for him: hungry, overlooked and a little desperate. These are his kind of guys. His father, Bill, coached a junior college in upstate New York for the final decade-plus of his coaching career, driving the van for second-chance kids through the snow belt.

There’s an ache in Van Gundy’s stomach again, and it makes him feel alive.

“It’s hard to sleep,” Van Gundy said. “Listen, things happen in life. Over the last three years, I’ve thought a lot more about not just coaching, but man, I wish I had Game 7 to do over again against Utah. Gosh, ’99, how was Avery [Johnson] open for that corner jumper? I think about Dallas up 2-0 here in Houston. You get reflective of it all, and it’s a sign that you miss it.

“There are certain aspects that I miss of coaching. But you can’t just pick out the good parts. You’ve got to be all-in and understand there’s some negatives too. I like it and feel a responsibility, Man, I want this to be great for the players, and I want us to comport ourselves well and I want us to win.

“One thing you can’t recreate, the competition and camaraderie. No matter what you do, you’re not going to have that same feeling of a great win. To me, coming into the locker room for the first five minutes after a great win, with a staff you love, and a team you respected, there was nothing like that. That’s what you miss.

“It brings back the same feelings of, ‘You don’t want to let them down. You want to give them your very best.’ “

They had finished two days of double sessions, and Van Gundy had pushed these Team USA players hard. At the end of a practice, at center court, he could be heard to make a confession: “Hey guys, I’ve coached in two NBA Finals. I’ve coached Hall of Famers. I’ve been really, really lucky to do those things. …”

“But this, this is right up there with all of that, with anything I’ve done.”

He clutched his blue T-shirt, and pulled on the USA lettering. He nodded with his players surrounding him. He was in the gym again, with his team and a most noble basketball mission for the United States of America.

“Hey,” Jeff Van Gundy told Team USA. “This is pretty cool.”

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