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Coach Drama

With Van Gundy's exit, is the age of heroic headmen nearing an end?

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When it comes to sports, New York has lacked a true hero for a long while. Not just a player who performs brilliant feats -- there've been many of those -- but someone able to exploit the full theater of it, to hog the spotlight, to turn the city into his own stage. Mike Piazza was supposed to do this, but he turned out to be too moody and laconic. Derek Jeter, for all his preening and strategic dating, has no personality. Latrell Sprewell arrived with too much baggage. And Mark Messier, well, he has probably come closest, but he's too much of a weirdo. (Also, he's a hockey player.) Not one of them could lay a glove on Joe Namath or Walt Frazier or Reggie Jackson.

To fill this void, a strange thing happened -- coaches became the heroes. Or maybe, since they certainly don't look like heroes, it's more accurate to say that they became the dramatic figures through whom we experience the ups and downs of their teams. Jeff Van Gundy, Jim Fassel, Joe Torre, these are the guys we have depended on. And lately, they've been letting us down.

We start with the oddest duck of all, the dearly departed Van Gundy. He was the most thrilling dramatist. He made it feel okay to be a Knicks fan because he felt so damn bad. Torn to shreds by defeat, unmoved by victory, Van Gundy took everything so deeply to heart that we didn't have to. When, for the first time in his head-coaching career, the Knicks made a premature exit from the playoffs last season, fans almost had to feel grateful the suffering was short. What would another few rounds have done to poor Jeff? Would his eyes have sunk all the way to the back of his head?

Like any normal person, Van Gundy decided not to put himself through this anymore. Good for him, but lousy for us. We don't want Jeff to be like a normal person. We always knew his era would end, but we expected drama -- a breakdown or a fiery exit of some sort. This "Now I can have lunch with my daughter" stuff hurts. It hurts because the pain and agony of the Knicks are all ours again.

Speaking of pain and agony, there are the Giants. Last season, Jim Fassel surprised us. With two thirds of the games complete and the team underachieving, he morphed into a Lombardi-esque ass-kicker and guaranteed they'd make the playoffs. "This is a poker game," he said, veins bulging from his head. "I'm shoving my chips to the middle of the table. I'm raising the ante." It was weird, a Dan Rather moment. Fassel, the brainy offensive guru, was now breathing fire -- or trying to, anyway. Weirder still, it worked. The Giants made it to the Super Bowl.

Cut to this season: The Giants have reverted to their old ways, but Fassel has been unable to fix on a role for himself. Some days, he's got the veins going; others, he's that mild-mannered technique guy, trying to explain why things aren't going right. Occasionally, a disastrous season has its pleasures; you can see tomorrow's victories taking shape in today's trouncings. But Fassel has not helped us see that.

Finally, there is Saint Joe, the kindly, patient genius who found a way to mute Steinbrenner's lunacy and make the Yankees winners again. But he, too, stepped out of character recently. Why, oh, why did he have Mariano Rivera start the eighth inning of Game 7? Why not save him for a vintage one-inning, lights-out appearance in the ninth and let a fresher Ramiro Mendoza in? Why did Torre, always so careful, pick this moment for a rare misstep?

Oh, well. Questioning Torre gets you into trouble in this town, which, given his record, it probably should. And in any case, the era of the coaches may be in its waning days. Steinbrenner is reopening the vaults, and one of his priceless imports is Jason Giambi, an outsize personality who should give the Yankees their first theatrical sensation since Reggie. We're ready for him.


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