Jeff Van Gundy is my favorite TV sports analyst. That is not a small compliment in my book. I’m often a fan of ex-coaches and ex-jocks in the broadcast booth. In fact, I much prefer ensembles of them – talking football on Sundays, say – to most sitcoms. The cheery extemporaneous verbal towel-snaps of most ex-jocks are much funnier.
Thank heaven that the New Orleans Pelicans picked someone else besides Van Gundy to coach the team next season. Now we’ve got a better chance to watch and listen to Van Gundy in the broadcast booth again next year, the way he’ll be doing it Thursday for the NBA finals between the Cleveland Cavaliers and the Golden State Warriors.
He’ll be, as always, with basketball play-by-play whiz Mike Breen and ex-player and coach Mark Jackson, whose street orotundities mix very drolly with Van Gundy’s whines and sudden spritzes of verbal pepper spray. They’re a delightful trio. And now that New Orleans has passed up hiring Van Gundy for the coaching job he interviewed for last week, we NBA fans don’t have to worry so much about breaking up the old gang.
With this ESPN/ABC finals team, the NBA can luxuriate in the semi-heavyweight viewership likely now that LeBron James’ Cavaliers and Steph Curry’s Golden State Warriors are going head to head. It’s enough to send NBA executives into runaway gigglefits when no one is looking. T-shirts, caps, etc., will be sold; advertisers will return phone calls and elbow each other in the crush. Let the joy be unconfined.
And with Van Gundy solid in the fold for a while (we’ll see if there’s another team out there who wants him to return to coaching as much as he says he does), that means things look peachy for next year, too.
Why am I so partial to Van Gundy?
First of all, there’s the way he looks: like a high school chemistry teacher. In the world of TV expertise and glibness, Van Gundy looks and sounds like a refugee from the real world who sneaked in through a back entrance when the security guard went out for a smoke.
We might actually live next door to a guy who looks like Van Gundy. Shaquille O’Neal? Not so much. But Van Gundy looks like the kind of guy you’d run into at the supermarket soup aisle, the kind happy to loan you his jumper cables if you needed them. He sounds like him, too, when he talks.
But that doesn’t mean he isn’t loaded with basketball expertise from his toes up to his cueball head.
He comes from a basketball family. His father Bill coached at Genesee Community College and SUNY Brockport State, and Van Gundy grew up in Brockport. His brother Stan is the coach and honcho of the Detroit Pistons.
Van Gundy himself was a highly visible coach of the New York Knicks, Patrick Ewing vintage, and the Houston Rockets, Yao Ming vintage. (Go online and see if you can find a picture of 5-foot-9-inch coach Van Gundy in street clothes next to 7-foot-6-inch Ming, all suited up to play, and tell me if they even look as if they’re from the same species.) Van Gundy used to coach his boothmate Mark Jackson which is why Jackson still calls him “coach.”
Van Gundy was apparently as good a high school and college player as a 5-foot-9 guy is likely to be, without any NBA scouts looking in his direction as a player. As a coach, though, his teams did splendidly but not so well that he joined the ranks of those (Pat Riley, Phil Jackson) whom NBA owners seek out the minute they’re free.
All the better to take his excitable and very funny self to the announcing booth.
How can you not love a guy outspoken enough to chastise Howard Stern for leaving his front row seat early, thereby instigating an honest-to-God feud with the most pitiless and savage controversialist this side of Rush Limbaugh. (Which is, of course, the side you want to be. You wouldn’t want to be on THAT side.)
When Van Gundy’s former assistant coach Tom Thibodeau was fired recently by Chicago Bulls owner Jerry Reinsdorf as the team’s head coach, Van Gundy termed the whole process under Reinsdorf’s executive gang “downright vicious.”
He’s the kind of basketball color man who can, instantly, give you an X-ray of the play you just saw, as well as the best strategy to employ for the rest of the game. You can argue with him but when you do you’re likely to sound like a know-it-all gasbag and a picayune squabbler.
But he’s also the kind of guy who’ll carry his old coaching complaints with him into the booth and decry obvious “floppers” trying to cadge gratuitous foul shots off the refs. He’ll also admit freely that he has no idea anymore what a hard foul is and what a “flagrant” foul is, not to mention what’s an ejectable offense.
And when the basketball games inch their way into tedium during blowouts, he can make the kind of astute, off-the-wall jokes about pop culture that fathers learn to make when they’ve got a couple of daughters back home.
Find me a better combination of expert and Everyman in the announcing booth for any sport. I don’t think you can.
There is, unfortunately, one disappearance from ABC’s upcoming NBA finals coverage that I’ll mourn seriously. We won’t be seeing my second-favorite sportsmouth on the NBA, Bill Simmons, the outrageously smart and combative mega-fan and commentator who created the online site Grantland.
Simmons left the employ of ABC/ESPN when he blasted NFL commissioner Roger Goodell and then dared his ESPN bosses to fire him, which, eventually, they did.
Listening to Simmons talk basketball is like walking into a bar and learning the analyses and ideas of the biggest professional basketball fan who ever lived – a guy who can tell you in detail how George Mikan, Wilt Chamberlain and O’Neal played the same position. (See his “The Book of Basketball,” one of the most fascinating fan’s guides to a sport you’ll ever find.)
Simmons became so addicted to free-form bar room candor and pugnacity that he actually had the temerity to offer himself up as a sacrificial pawn to the American mega-business partnership of ESPN and the NFL.
Not a good move for a fellow hoping to keep his noisy piece on the chessboard. Van Gundy, no doubt, might have tried to talk him out of it if consulted. But then all the evidence seems to be that Simmons couldn’t have cared less.
Too bad. I’ll miss his articulateness and ultra-shrewdness every game at halftime.