Smile and You Lose

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.”

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.

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.”

Since Ewing escaped to Seattle last summer, Sprewell is clearly the Knicks’ best player. Van Gundy has waged a savvy, low-key campaign in the media since October, talking Sprewell up as a pillar of accountability, and last month calling Sprewell “the most important person in the Knicks organization.” Van Gundy pulls Sprewell aside for private, postgame chats, asking Sprewell’s take on the mood of the team. “One thing about Latrell, you can ask him a question and he never gives up his teammate, but he’ll also let you know what’s happening,” Van Gundy says. “I love his honesty. He may think I’m a little bit crazed in my obsession – but you know what? When Latrell talks about basketball, he sure sounds like me.”

“What’s impressed me the most about Jeff is his ability to get guys to do the right thing defensively,” Sprewell says, sounding very much like his boss. “He does it just with the principles, the structure of practices, the everyday teaching of certain concepts. Jeff was fortunate to be up under Riley, who was really good at teaching it, and the system is pretty much the same system.”

Lately, though, the side of Sprewell that’s leery of being co-opted by authority has resurfaced. “We’re just going to keep playing and keep sticking to the game plan,” Sprewell says after the Lakers game completes a road trip of two wins and three losses, “and if that’s what beats us, then that’s not on us as players.”

Van Gundy dismisses Sprewell’s statement, saying it’s been blown out of proportion by the Post’s “trying to create a story. Me and Latrell have no problems.”

Ask the Knicks why they’ve come to respect a man so different from themselves and they all speak a version of Marcus Camby’s words: “Because we know how hard he works and how bad he wants to win,” says the Knicks’ rubber-limbed center. “When your coach is like that, it trickles down to the team. You don’t just want to win for yourself; you want to play and win for your coach. You can tell by the permanent bags under his eyes – all he does is eat and sleep basketball. We want to play hard for him because we know how much he puts into it.”

“Everybody’s hugging before games, praying together,” says Van Gundy. “It’s wrong for the league, wrong for competition.”

Yet as Camby goes on, the legacy of his rocky beginning with Van Gundy emerges. When then-general manager Ernie Grunfeld traded Oakley for Camby in 1998, it was against Van Gundy’s vehement protests; even when Camby was in a Knicks uniform, Van Gundy buried him on the bench and embarrassed him with jibes about Camby’s work ethic. “He thinks that he knows every little detail there is to know about basketball,” Camby says. “That’s because he works so hard and watches so much film. Sometimes you want to second-guess or question his judgment, but he always has facts to back it up. He can never be wrong. The stuff he said when I first came here, I’ve been able to look past that and look at the broader picture, trying to win the championship. But don’t get me wrong – I don’t forget.”

Other players have attempted to reach out to Van Gundy, with mixed results. “I give him books,” says the devoutly Christian Charlie Ward. “Family books, couples devotionals, inspirational devotionals. I give him the information, but as far as sitting down and talking to him about it, that’s on him.”

Allan Houston is, like Van Gundy, the son of a coach, but otherwise Houston couldn’t be more different from Van Gundy – a man with limitless basketball talents but only intermittent fire. This year, though, Houston claims, he’s bonded with the coach. “One of the turning points in my being here with Jeff is when we went and talked about how he could lighten up sometimes,” Houston says. “Not lighten up as far as work. Just smile sometimes. He was receptive to it.”

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.

Smile and You Lose