But Houston continues to perplex Van Gundy. Two nights after erupting from a shooting slump by scoring 39 points, Houston barely registers against New Jersey. At halftime of what turns out to be an embarrassing loss, though, Houston spends part of his time presenting an award to three schoolteachers during an on-court ceremony. "It's hard to knock guys looking out for other people," Van Gundy says. "Allan is a wonderful man. He tries to accommodate every reporter, he tries to accommodate every charitable request. As far as basketball, I think he'd be better off not trying to be everything to everybody."
Taking anything Pat Riley says at face value is dangerous, particularly when it relates to the Knicks. But Riley remains a sincere friend and admirer of Van Gundy's and offers his advice with what sounds like genuine feeling. "As level-headed as Jeff is, he's at war with the game, at war with the elements," Riley says. "We all go through that. You begin to analyze the game. You overanalyze it. You overanalyze everything. You can do it with numbers, you can do it with video, you can do it with offensive playbooks, defensive philosophies. And eventually that subsides. It actually becomes a lot easier for you. It's the pursuit of knowledge in basketball that's important -- this is not rocket scientry, but it's the pursuit of knowledge that makes it a lot easier to coach, and you become a better coach.
"To me, it's the one thing that haunts a coach more than anything else: When does a coach get to a point where he feels he's arrived? One day, it just all sort of happens. It just sort of comes. And there's no angst. I had a lot of angst, and Jeff has a lot now. I saw a clip last night with Jeff on television. The Knicks just went out West, and they've got this five-game road trip, and he said there's three things they have to do as a team -- they have three goals. I can't even remember what they were, but these are the things you're constantly, always doing as a young coach, thinking these things up. It doesn't mean they're wrong, but what you eventually do is you let go of a lot of those things and you stick with the core of what you believe in. The game will absolutely bring you to your knees."
Van Gundy stays up later, pounds more Diet Coke, watches more game tape. Still, his team's energy periodically vaporizes. Maybe the Knicks would fall apart without Van Gundy's whipping. Or perhaps there's a hoops corollary to the physics equation for the conservation of matter: There's only a finite amount of intensity available to any one team.
Van Gundy is now third in wins as a Knicks coach, behind Joe Lapchick and Red Holzman. "Jeff has a little bit of Red in him," says Dave Checketts, president of Madison Square Garden and a man with whom Van Gundy has had a tangled relationship. The lowest point came in the spring of 1999, when Checketts secretly explored replacing Van Gundy with Phil Jackson. Van Gundy saved his job with a miraculous trip to the NBA finals.
"We've come a long way since those days," Checketts says, offering nothing but praise for Van Gundy. "I hope I've earned his trust. He knows I'm gonna do what I think is in the best interest of the franchise every time. The thing that's in the best interest of the franchise right now is to have Jeff Van Gundy as the head coach. I see that happening for a long time."
Van Gundy feels no job security, even with two more seasons to run on his $14 million contract. "You're judged year to year," he says. "I do think that Scott Layden, the Knicks' general manager and Dave believe in me, without qualification. In many ways, I know I've got it as good as anybody in the NBA. And yet, if you lose, you're subject to changes like anybody else in this league. Great coaches, if it goes bad, they get fired. There's change. Of players. And GMs. And presidents."
Besides, how can Van Gundy predict the next two years when he claims to be baffled by his next two weeks with the Knicks? Van Gundy says he's more uncertain about this team's playoff prospects than he's been about those of any Knicks group he's coached before. He's worried about Camby's durability and strength at the end of a season in which he's played the most minutes of his career. He's worried about Glen Rice's sore foot and Mark Jackson's ability to lead and Allan Houston's head. "Even in years where Patrick Ewing was hurt going into the playoffs, we had that anchor and everybody was in familiar roles," Van Gundy says. "Now the roles have all changed. Until you get into heated playoff situations, you just don't know how guys are gonna respond."
Jeff Van Gundy's voice is hoarse. He looks miserable. He couldn't be happier.