Coaching Van Gundy brothers honor their proud father

By Ian O’Connor USA Today, April 27, 2004


He sits before his bedroom TV, volume off, and savors the early Father's Day gifts in complete silence. Bill Van Gundy demands his peace and quiet with his picks and rolls. Those are his boys out there, Jeff and Stan, and if their mother wants to listen to the announcers screaming about this and that, then Cindy can watch the playoffs on the living room set.

Bill Van Gundy spent 40 of his 68 years in high school and small college gyms, in dark and drafty armories.

He was once the junior varsity coach at Cal State-Hayward when a depleted varsity stole his starting lineup. Bill finished the season with five players and five consecutive victories, sometimes earned with four men on the floor. He doesn't need anyone telling him what he's seeing with his own two eyes.

Now he's seeing Jeff and Stan honor the family name in the first round. Stan's Heat, 11 games under .500 last month, might just take a series from the Hornets. Jeff's Rockets won't beat the Lakers, but they're making Phil Jackson earn every pompous step he takes toward the second round.

"One block-out in Game 1 and one break in Game 4," Cindy says, "and we could be up 3-1 on L.A." The other knows the lingo. She grew up in Hoosierland, loving the Indianapolis Olympians of Alex Groza and loathing the Minneapolis Lakers of George Mikan. Nobody was surprised when she married a coach and raised two more.

"To have both sons in the NBA playoffs at the same time," Bill says, "is a little surreal."

It's a little sentimental, too. When Stan was in seventh grade and Jeff was in fourth, Bill blacked out a couple of times, once in his car. Bill had surgery to remove a brain tumor on Dec. 7 and was back on the bench 26 days later.

In between, Cindy drove Stan and Jeff to scout one of Bill's opponents. The boys forever rode the team vans with their father, but this assignment was different.

"All I remember is how scared we both were," Stan says. "I'm not one to remember dates or anecdotes, but Dec. 7, Pearl Harbor Day, is one I'll never forget. I flunked a math test, the only test I ever flunked, because I was scared to death my father might die.

"But Jeff and I got through that and did the report for him. I'm sure it wasn't a very good one. At that time, we could recognize the difference between basic sets offensively. We knew the flex from the UCLA high-post offense. We knew reverse action if we saw it and could tell the difference between man and zone."

Bill knows how this all sounds and is quick to dispel any Great Santini suspicions. "It wasn't like I was running a coaching school for them," he says.

No, it was far more nurturing and natural than that. "It was take-your-child-to-work-day every day for us," Cindy recalls.

The family vacationed at the Final Four. Bill's father ran a gas station, so the boys recognized the difference between coaching and real-world work.

They wanted to be part of Dad's business, despite the hurt they felt when Dad was fired at Brockport (N.Y.) State.

Jeff and Stan joined Larry and Herb Brown as the only head coaching brothers ever employed in the NBA, even though the Van Gundys never looked the part.

"A couple of schmucks," Jeff and Stan call themselves. One bald, one round, they looked like guys who should've been coaching Jeff's Landscaping and Stan's Pizza in the local beer league.

"I promised I wouldn't go watch when the Heat played the Rockets," Bill says, "and that's a promise I'm glad I broke. I was there when Jeff and Stan faced each other the second time, in January. When the teams lined up for the national anthem and I saw my two sons out there, I felt an overwhelming sense of pride."

Stan emerged from the shadows to take Miami places Pat Riley could not.

Jeff got his break in New York, filling the chair once occupied by Riley and Red Holzman. Before he blew out Michael Jordan's Bulls in his first home game, Jeff wept in his office while pondering the opportunities his father didn't get.

Bill retired six years back as coach at Genesee Community College. "The way we respect the game," Stan says, "is how we honor our father."

That's the greatest first-round tribute of all, and one best savored in silence.