If you asked anyone in 1996 if we’d still know Jeff Van Gundy’s name 20 years from now, they would’ve laughed. Those same people are probably wishing that they bought Google stock.
Twenty years ago this past March, Van Gundy stepped into the national spotlight in a way no one else could.
On March 10, 1996, the Bulls entered Madison Square Garden with a 54–6 record. Chicago’s opponent — the Knicks — were reeling (what else is new?). At the end of the 1994-95 campaign, Pat Riley resigned, via fax, as New York’s head coach after a crushing second-round playoff loss. New York’s front office decided to hand the keys over to Don Nelson with the hope that he could end the franchise's and Patrick Ewing's championship drought.
Things started off well for Nelson and the Knicks. They opened the season 18-6, including a blowout at home against a Pat Riley-coached Miami Heat squad. That's when things fell off the proverbial cliff. Over the next 30-plus games, New York would play below .500 ball and Nelson would clash with Ewing.
Basketball fans of a certain age know all about the ’90s Knicks. Fans celebrated and reviled their style of play simultaneously. If you go to YouTube, you could find a clip dedicated to that style of play titled “90s Knicks ‘Thug’ Edition.” Their offense was just as rough sometimes: dump it into Ewing in the low post and if that doesn’t work, pass it around until you can dump it into Ewing in the low post. Yet Nelson had other ideas.
One of Nelson's ideas had Anthony Mason playing point-forward and running the offense through him. That didn’t sit well with Ewing. Starting shooting guard John Starks complained of Nelson’s “confusing” substitution patterns and the team would routinely blow games in the fourth quarter. In the Frank Isola and Mike Wise-penned book, Just Ballin, about the 1999 New York Knicks, there's a story told where Nelson mocks Starks for signing an autograph “Cark” when the autograph seeker said his name was “Mark with a ‘C.’” The Knicks front office needed to make a move. Again.
As a result of the team's mediocrity, MSG President Dave Checketts and Knicks President Ernie Grunfeld fired Nelson on Mar. 9, 1996. At the time, the team was in Philadelphia getting ready to play a 76ers squad that would finish the season 18–64. The firing marked Nelson’s second in 13 months after the Warriors axed him the previous February.
Because of Nelson's firing, Van Gundy came into the fold. He'd spent the past seven years as an assistant coach for the Knicks under Stu Jackson, John McLeod, Riley and Nelson. Before that, Van Gundy served as an assistant coach under Bob Wenzel at Rutgers University and Rick Pitino at Providence College. His one head coaching experience happened with McQuaid Jesuit High School’s men’s basketball team in Rochester, New York. He coached one season.
Circumstances had thrown Van Gundy into a mix of mercurial personalities and the daily grind of dealing with New York media. It didn't start well. The Knicks lost Van Gundy's first game as head coach to the Sixers 100–92. Vernon Maxwell, rookie Jerry Stackhouse and Ed Pinckney combined for 64 points. The Knicks were still 34-26 after the loss but were falling behind the Bulls, the Pacers and Orlando Magic for home-court advantage in the Eastern Conference.
Going into the showdown at MSG, the Bulls had won six straight, including blowout wins against the Magic, the Golden State Warriors, the Detroit Pistons, the Boston Celtics and the Minnesota Timberwolves. With the Knicks nowhere near as tough an opponent as they were for the first half of the decade, everyone expected a loss. After this game, the Bulls would reel off another six-game winning streak, including a home-court win against the Knicks. But this game, called by Marv Albert and Matt Goukas on NBC, would be different.
The Knicks torched the Bulls in a 104–72 victory that's rivaled only by the Warriors's loss to the Los Angeles Lakers this past season for "most shocking regular-season result." Jordan and Pippen went 17-for-42 from the field combined. Outside of Jordan's 32 points, Pippen and Steve Kerr were the only Bulls to score in double figures. On the other side, Ewing recorded a double-double with 26 points and 14 rebounds, Anthony Mason provided eight points, nine rebounds, eight assists and two steals while Derek Harper dropped 23 points, including a barrage of three-pointers in the third quarter that turned the game in the Knicks’ direction. During the game, Knicks players heard something they didn’t hear at the Garden for months: cheers and standing ovations.
Van Gundy became a folk hero in New York. He bested Riley the majority of the time in the playoffs. He tried to stop a fight between Larry Johnson and Alonzo Mourning by holding onto Zo’s leg like a son horsing around with his father. He took an 8th-seed Knicks team to the Finals in 1999 and was one of the few coaches able to get along decently with Latrell Sprewell—no small feat. He'd eventually resign as Knicks coach in 2001 and move on to coach the Houston Rockets for four seasons before his firing in 2007.
But that didn't mean we were done with him.
The pride of Nazareth College now does color commentary for NBA games on ESPN and ABC, which allows his personality — witty, sarcastic and dry — to shine through and endear him to a new generation of basketball fans. While he no longer “belongs” to New York, Van Gundy’s unexpected rise as a national sports figure is a reminder of the cliché “you never know.”
Writer. Reporter. New Yorker.