One day at the beginning of their recent West Coast swing, the Knicks practice at the University of San Francisco. As Van Gundy walks out of the gym afterward, a tall, athletic-looking student walks in. "How ya doing?" Van Gundy asks. "You play ball here?"
"Yeah!" the USF student replies, clearly excited that the coach of the Knicks has any interest in him.
"How'd you do this year?" Van Gundy asks. The nervous kid starts to list some stats -- "Well, I did okay, I had about five rebounds and ten points a game" -- when Van Gundy interrupts. "Not you -- the team!" he says. "How did the team do? Geez, you're like all players!" Van Gundy smiles a little to show the startled boy that he isn't angry. But Van Gundy isn't joking either.
Unlike most other coaches, who came to this worldview in adulthood, Van Gundy had "There is no I in team" mixed in with his nursery rhymes. His mother, Cindy, was raised in Indiana, that crucible of basketball fanaticism. His father, Bill, spent 42 years working basketball's backwaters, coaching at colleges ranging from tiny to small. For Jeff Van Gundy, there was never any play in playing ball. Winning and losing was all. Winning meant you got to stay in the same school another year. Losing meant Dad got fired and you had to make a new set of friends in some other town. Just before he started high school, Jeff and family moved from Martinez, California, to Brockport, New York, outside of Rochester, when his father became coach at Geneseo State College, and Jeff seems to have internalized central New York's pervasive cloud cover.
Bigger forces than meteorology, however, formed Van Gundy's outlook. "I want to say this in a nice way," says Stan Van Gundy, Jeff's older brother. "Our mom is very much a perfectionist. When you came home from school, it was, 'What's the minus for?,' not 'Congratulations on the A.' Even athletically, even though she was supportive, you weren't going to shoot three-for-ten and have Mom think you had a great game. Jeff has certainly got a lot of those things from her. Flexible is not a word that would be used to describe Jeff."
"He may think I'm a little crazed in my obsession -- but you know what? When Latrell talks about basketball, he sure sounds like me."
A happier Van Gundy legacy, however, is visible almost every night the Knicks play. The Knicks aren't the biggest or most physical team in the NBA, but they play the league's most tenacious defense. Its building blocks were formed in thimble-sized gyms in places most Knicks have never heard of, towns like Greece, Spencerport, and Gates, where Jeff Van Gundy picked up floor burns as a hustling high-school point guard. "No matter who Jeff might ever have on a team, he'd always be defense first," Stan says. "You play defense, you rebound the ball, you take care of it, and you don't turn it over. A lot of coaches think that, but it's what he grew up with."
From his father, Jeff inherited his passion for competition -- such is Jeff's obsession that when he couldn't make Yale's freshman team, Van Gundy transferred from the Ivy League to Menlo, a California junior college, so he could continue playing ball -- but he avoids his dad's stylistic excesses. Bill Van Gundy was a raging, vein-bulging coach in the Bobby Knight mold. "I don't think he runs the emotional gamut I ran," Bill Van Gundy says. "Wins were really good for me. Unfortunately, he takes losses pretty much the same way I did. He's outwardly much more calm, but it's churning him inside, there's no doubt. The difference is, I let some of it out. I can't tell Jeff to relax because he'd have the perfect retort: 'Oh, yeah? Show me. You know how? Show me.' And I didn't know how. I don't know how."
Jeff Van Gundy doesn't smoke, doesn't drink, can't dance ("No," Marcus Camby says with a laugh, "Coach doesn't have any rhythm"), and during the season hardly sees his wife, Kim, and their 5-year-old daughter, Mattie. "But I don't sleep in the office," Van Gundy says. "That's been embellished." His prodigious preparation pays off: One night Van Gundy is yelling out Toronto's upcoming offensive play even before the Raptors cross midcourt. On his office couch, there's a white pillow with X's and O's and arrows scrawled on it in black pen. "No, I didn't draw that," Van Gundy says. "The diagram doesn't make sense. It was drawn by a player who was trying to have some fun with me. A player who'll never become a coach."
Basketball was young Jeff's way of being close to his father and brother. Yet now some of Jeff's greatest triumphs can't be shared with his family. When Pat Riley bolted the Knicks for Miami in 1995, he wanted to take Jeff with him as an assistant; the Knicks refused, so Riley hired Stan Van Gundy instead. The Knicks and Heat are the bitterest of rivals, having met four times in the playoffs, with Jeff's Knicks eliminating Stan's Heat the past three years in a row. Last year, the senior Van Gundys retired to Miami -- but offer a joke about Mom and Dad going over to the Heat's side and no one in the family laughs. "I wish that was true," Stan says. "Regardless of any of their protestations otherwise, when the Knicks play the Heat, they want the Knicks to win. Because he's the head coach and I'm not. It's not awkward -- for me, it's extremely painful."
"The Heat-Knicks rivalry, especially playoff time, is really a bad time for this family," Bill Van Gundy says. The parents don't attend any of the brother-versus-brother games. Instead, Bill and Cindy sit at home in separate rooms with separate TVs, he with the sound off, she with it up.