USA TODAY: Influence of the Van Gundy brothers permeates the NBA
BY SAM AMICK, USA TODAY
The Van Gundy brothers are plenty busy these days, what with all the hoops pontificating to be done in the media and their respective families to tend to during the downtime.
But when Jeff and Stan get a break in their schedule and get a hold of the remote control, the former head coaches take in the NBA action with all the pride and joy of beaming fathers. Theirs is a coaching tree that they won't take credit for, a distant cousin to the tallest timber, the one Gregg Popovich planted so many years ago in San Antonio, and a different sort of species that's worth acknowledging and appreciating for its own special place in the league's lore. And even if they claim to be mere branches in this forest of basketball minds, there's a Six Degrees of Van Gundy component to the current coaching landscape that is impossible to ignore.
Their pal and former assistant coach to both brothers, Steve Clifford, is flourishing in his first season as head coach of the Charlotte Bobcats and doing it with the help of another family favorite, associate head coach Patrick Ewing. Jeff's old prodigy from his New York Knicks and Houston Rockets days, the Chicago Bulls' Tom Thibodeau, is honoring the profession as always despite losing franchise centerpiece Derrick Rose to injury yet again for the rest of the season. Those ties run as deep as any, with Jeff having first met Thibodeau when the then-assistant coach at Harvard would routinely make the 70-mile trek to see Rick Pitino's practices at Providence College back when Jeff was a graduate assistant under him.
In Sacramento, Kings first-year coach Michael Malone – the son of longtime Stan Van Gundy lead assistant in Orlando, Brendan Malone – is heading the toughest of rebuilding efforts. Malone's first NBA job came under Jeff Van Gundy in 2001, as he was a coaching associate on his New York Knicks staff for a short time before Van Gundy quit in early December of that year.
The most high-profile connection may be the one between Jeff Van Gundy and Golden State Warriors coach Mark Jackson, his former partner as a television analyst who played for him briefly in Houston at the end of his career and with whom he remains close.
"I never even think of it (as a coaching tree)," Stan Van Gundy, the former Miami Heat and Orlando Magic head coach who is living with his family in Orlando, Fla. and doing occasional radio and television work, told USA TODAY Sports. "The reason I think you can call it a coaching tree (for Popovich) is that I think people get jobs simply because they have worked for Pop. I don't think we have anything like that…I just think that we've hired good people, and they've eventually gotten their chance."
Draw your own conclusions, but it's tough to dispute the track record of the coaches who have spent time with the Van Gundys. And while they both still have the itch to coach that won't be scratched again unless the situation is just right for their respective families, watching their favorite associates do so well is the next best thing to doing it themselves.
- The Bulls are on Jeff Van Gundy's four-team list of must-see-NBA-TV (Charlotte, the Knicks and Rockets being the others) for reasons beyond Thibodeau: Andy Greer, whose first job was given to him by Jeff and Stan's father, Bill, at Genessee Community College in 1983, is a trusted assistant of Thibodeau's and seen as head coaching material after serving as a Jeff Van Gundy assistant in Houston and New York; Adrian Griffin, who played for Jeff Van Gundy in Houston, is now the lead assistant under Thibodeau and seen by many as a future head coach after he was a finalist for the Philadelphia 76ers head job that went to Popovich disciple Brett Brown.
- The Phoenix Suns always catch Jeff's eye as well because of assistant coach Michael Longabardi, whose first break came courtesy of Clifford at the Division II Adelphi University in New York. From there, Longabardi received the highest recommendation possible in this circle – the one from top Van Gundy advisor, Bill – after the longtime small-college coach worked with him at an All-Star college camp in Italy in 2001. Jeff Van Gundy took his father's advice and hired Longabardi as a Rockets video coordinator in 2003, and he eventually had 'assistant coach' added to his title before moving on to the Boston Celtics in 2007 as an assistant under then-head coach Doc Rivers and Thibodeau (until he left for Chicago in 2010).
"(Longabardi) probably won't get his shot for another four or five years (as a head coach), but just like those other guys, I think when he does get his shot, he's going to knock it out of the park," Jeff Van Gundy, now an ABC/ESPN analyst, told USA TODAY Sports..
- Stan Van Gundy watches the Heat because of his past experience in Miami and ties to team president Pat Riley (his former boss) and head coach Erik Spoelstra (his former assistant); and he watches the Bobcats closely for reasons that go beyond Clifford: Bobcats assistant Bob Beyer was his assistant in Orlando from 2007 to 2012, and four-time All-Star point guard/Bobcats assistant Mark Price worked as a player development coach under Stan Van Gundy in Orlando from Dec. 2011 until he was fired five months later amid the Dwight Howard drama.
"I may flip to the other games, but I'm watching those all the time, because those are guys that I'm really close to," Stan Van Gundy said. "They're good friends. They're great coaches. They did a lot for me. I know how good they are, and I want to watch them all the time. I know Jeff is the same with Tom (Thibodeau) and with Steve (Clifford). It's what we really follow, are the guys who we've worked with."
But the root of it this alleged tree, at least as Jeff sees it, is Ewing.
"If there's a tree in this story, it's Patrick Ewing's," Jeff said. "He made everybody in that whole Knick era (during his playing days )… So I'm the branch on his tree, believe me. And I realize that every day. That's why I called him the mortgage, because he paid mine and everybody else's for a long, long time.
"I don't think any great player – think about it, a top 50 players who pursued coaching – has ever been willing to put so much time and effort into this new craft. I have such respect for him, obviously, but also how he has gone about trying to become a great coach."
The brothers may have their disagreements from time to time on other matters, but on this they couldn't agree more: Ewing, the Hall of Famer who served for three seasons as an assistant with Jeff in Houston (2003-2006) and for five as an assistant with Stan during his Magic tenure (2007-2012), deserves to be a head coach.
"Anybody who has worked with Pat knows that he can do the job," Stan Van Gundy said. "People on the outside haven't picked up on that, and that's, I think, a little disappointing to all of us who have worked with him."
It's one of the few disappointments on this front, to be sure. And with the way this trend that surrounds them has gone of late, it's only a matter of time until he gets his chance too.