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Smile and You Lose

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Mark Jackson is pushing the ball crisply upcourt in a rare Knicks fast break. On the left wing, Kurt Thomas is wide open. Jackson looks right and flings a behind-the-back pass . . . that sails ten feet wide of Thomas. Van Gundy wheels around, looking for something to kick, then stamps his foot. When Houston turns the ball over moments later, Van Gundy smashes a courtside billboard with his right fist.

The Knicks are winning by fourteen points.

Sitting close to Van Gundy during a Knicks game is like paying a two-hour visit to the Museum of Disgusted Facial Displays. Among the dozen variations are his You've-Got-to-Be-Kidding-Me Open-Mouthed Gape and Wince, mostly aimed at referees; his pained Two-Lips-Jammed-Together Frown, mostly for dumb plays by the Knicks; and, when things are really going poorly, as in a late-March loss to the New Jersey Nets, the Lower-Lip-Curled-Over-the-Upper-Lip Someone's-Gonna-Pay Fume.

Even Van Gundy's friends rag him about his haggard appearance (Patrick Ewing: "I'm flipping through DirectTV and I see the Knicks, so I call him up and say, 'Damn, Jeff, quit putting it off -- just go ahead and shave all the hair off your head! Forget combing those strands over the top.' " Pat Riley: "I tell him, 'You ought to put some of that light blush under your goddamn bags.' Though sometimes I even wonder if his look is calculated -- so his players see a guy who every day is caring his ass off about winning").

Publicly and privately, Van Gundy's deepest expressions of outrage have come in his season-long battle against what he perceives as the Knicks' passivity, a trait that rears its lackadaisical head just when the Knicks appear to be building momentum. "We have proven time and again that we don't have the maturity to handle winning," Van Gundy says, his words matter-of-fact but his tone loaded with contempt. "It softens us up instead of making us hungrier for more. What I'm trying to get them to see is how predictable they've been in their irresponsibility."

Everything is moral with Van Gundy: Losses are due to a lack of heart, an absence of character, a deficiency of will. Maybe it's all calculated to cover up the Knicks' personnel flaws, but the scolding quickly grows tiresome. A day after the Knicks blast the Bulls by 21 points, avenging an earlier, inexplicable loss, Van Gundy is already bracing for a relapse in a rematch against Cleveland, another of the NBA's worst teams. "Now, tomorrow, we're coming off a big win -- how do you respond? Do you try to see how little you can put into the game and still win? Or do you come out and give the maximum and demand greatness of yourself? What is predictable is that we won't do that."

Van Gundy believes he doesn't need any more of a bond with his players than a shared love of the game, but even he is amused by the cultural chasm separating him from Sprewell, Camby, Houston, or L.J. "You know what always amazes me?" says Van Gundy, who turned 39 in January. "I'm very close to some of these guys in age. And we couldn't be further apart in lives. Not me positive, them negative. But politics, music, food -- there's nothing in common. I've never been on a PlayStation 2 in my life, and they are addicted. The music they listen to, I have no idea who it is, and they probably couldn't tell you one song that I like, who wrote it, sang it."

So what was the last CD Van Gundy cranked up loud? He looks at me blankly. "I don't own any CDs," he says. Okay -- what music does he love? There's a long pause. "One of my college roommates was into the Police, and I got to like them," Van Gundy ventures. "But I hear one of the guys left the band."

You mean Sting?

"Yeah, that's it," Van Gundy says. "I understand he's got a solo career, right?"

This season's Knicks have a distinctly southern, born-again-Christian vibe; humane is the best word for their collective off-court nature. Even Marcus Camby, who grew up in one of the toughest parts of Hartford, is a laid-back guy who aspires to work with children.

Van Gundy is all for good citizenship; he just wishes his team would display more of the burning, single-minded devotion that possesses him. He's complained that the two worst things to happen to the modern NBA are God and golf. "And I don't mean that in a derogatory way to God," Van Gundy says. "But I'll tell you what I do have a problem with -- we have it in our situation here. We let a preacher into our locker room. Spends as much time as he wants with our players before games. Now, do people in offices have preachers coming into their place of business, interrupting their work? No. They have to do it before or after work. They don't get to do it during work. That's the problem I have. As a team and an organization, you've got to try to minimize those distractions. It used to be alcohol and women more. I think we've given this guy, this pastor, too much freedom. And I think the interaction between people before games, opposing sides, the fraternization, is wrong for the league, it's wrong for competition. Everybody's hugging before games, praying together."

Before February's trade deadline, Van Gundy wanted to reacquire his favorite rugged old-school player, Charles Oakley, from the Toronto Raptors but settled for Mark Jackson. "Everybody says, 'This team has leadership, this team doesn't have leadership,' " Van Gundy says. "That's wrong. Every team has leadership. The leadership is the best players. But there's positive leadership and there's negative leadership. And we have positive leadership. Sometimes I wish it was more forceful leadership. But the only way you can have total forceful leadership is if the best players are doing the right thing every day."


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