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Smile and You Lose

The driven, intense son of another driven, intense coach, Jeff Van Gundy believes that the two worst things to happen to the NBA are God and golf. Why? They sap players' intensity. But imagine what the game would look like if his players were as intense as he is.

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Enter Shaq, bathed in TV lights. Spielberg, Capshaw, Katzenberg, Ovitz, and Beatty twinkle in behind. A few feet away, in a cavernous hallway beneath L.A.'s Staples Center, Lakers coach Phil Jackson convenes a pregame press conference. I ask him about the recent favorable comparisons of Red Holzman, who coached Jackson on the 1969-70 championship Knicks, and Jeff Van Gundy, the current Knicks boss, who is gaining on Holzman in career victories. Any similarities between the two men, Phil?

"Absolutely not one," he snaps. "Except they're both short. Red had a temperament that was so even and so paced, his manner with players was so affable and gentle. He was a man who sat on the bench and rarely stood and yelled. Jeff, sometimes you have to call three seconds on him, he's so far out on the floor." Jackson lets the laughter die away before adding a grudging compliment. "He's a very intelligent coach, there's no doubt about that."

Nearby, the limousine of Van Gundy's Chappaqua neighbor, Bill Clinton, is pulling into a loading dock.

Van Gundy is oblivious to it all. Around the bend from Jackson he is squatting low to the ground, his face pressed to a four-inch-square TV monitor. Van Gundy is running a section of videotape back and forth, memorizing plays from a January game between the Lakers and the Knicks at Madison Square Garden. His outfit is as plain as a Mormon missionary's: white dress shirt open at the collar and nondescript gray pants. The Knicks have been dreadful in consecutive losses to Vancouver and Portland, and Van Gundy badly needs a win today -- not just to salvage the road trip but to stanch the first real grousing from his players.

After ten minutes in a knee-busting crouch, Van Gundy rises and walks into the Knicks locker room expressionless, his sunken eyes, ringed in raccoon-black circles, fixed on some invisible point in the middle distance. He stops to diagram defensive strategy on the white-erase board as Allan Houston stretches on the floor and Larry Johnson nods along to the CD playing through his headphones. Van Gundy doesn't say a word as he steps into the visiting coach's office and shuts the door behind him.

Three hours later, Van Gundy is scribbling again. The 18,997 fans are screaming. The Laker Girls are hootchie-kooing in black Lycra. With 5.6 seconds left in the game, the Knicks are up 79-78, but after this time-out the Lakers have the ball and the last shot. Van Gundy is calmly using his blue Sharpie to construct a box around Shaquille O'Neal: Marcus Camby will play in front of Shaq, Kurt Thomas behind him, with Glen Rice and Latrell Sprewell on either side.

The Lakers inbound the ball to guard Derek Fisher, who dribbles frantically to his left, harassed by Charlie Ward, searching for an opening to pass to Shaq. With the clock down to three seconds, Fisher heaves up a fifteen-foot jumper that skitters harmlessly against the backboard as time expires. Knicks win.

Van Gundy retreats to his office. Congratulations, he's told, on a great game plan. That's all it takes to summon his trademark gloomy sarcasm. "I'm just glad," Van Gundy says, "that they won despite me."

You've got to like a man who tells you right off that the biggest thing he's learned as Knicks head coach is how to be a better liar. "No one wants to hear the truth," Van Gundy says one morning in Westchester at the Knicks' practice site, after his daily chat with the New York media. "They want to hear political correctness. Especially in this town. One thing you don't want to do is be too honest."

It takes a bit of Machiavelli to survive six seasons as Knicks coach. Van Gundy has navigated a nasty public power struggle that nearly got him fired, grabbed the leg of Alonzo Mourning in the middle of an on-court brawl, and waged an unpopular, though admirably loyal, campaign to defend Patrick Ewing. Nothing so melodramatic has happened this year, other than Van Gundy's taking twelve stitches above his left eye when he broke up another Knicks fight. Yet in some ways, this has been among Van Gundy's most difficult seasons.

His biggest challenge hasn't been a shortage of talent -- though the Knicks are an unbalanced bunch, with too many shooting guards and not enough muscle under the basket. Van Gundy's greatest difficulty has been locating the Knicks' emotional pulse. In early March, he castigated the team's "nature" as "sleepy and lethargic" -- the exact dispositional opposite of his own Diet Coke-fueled insomniac frenzy. Six months into the season, Van Gundy is still expressing bafflement at his club's unpredictability, claiming he doesn't know whether the aggressive or the sluggish Knicks will hit the court on any given night. Part of this is coachly posturing, Van Gundy's attempt to goad his players' pride. But his suffering is sincere -- with the strain showing most graphically in mid-February. In a meeting with the five Knicks starters, the tightly wound Van Gundy nearly burst into tears.

"They thought I'd been too hard on 'em," Van Gundy says. "This is more of a sensitive group than I'm used to. Sprewell said, 'When we're down, don't kick us.' But my point with this team is, they don't police themselves, so unfortunately I'm in the role of bad cop all the time. Since then, I may have toned down the volume, but my job is still to tell them the truth."

Later, Allan Houston met with the head coach and suggested he smile now and then. "I'm not a positive guy," Van Gundy says, sounding resolute but weary. "My intensity is my greatest strength. It's also my greatest weakness."


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