Publish date:

Road Kill After beating the Heat in Miami for the third straight year, the Knicks and their unassuming coach drove on to Indiana

The postgame conversation between two brothers who love and
respect each other was awkward at best. In a hallway at
AmericanAirlines Arena, New York Knicks coach Jeff Van Gundy
needed to commiserate while being ecstatic; Miami Heat assistant
Stan Van Gundy needed to vent while being congratulatory. Like
almost every other member of the Heat organization, Stan was
incensed with the way Sunday's Game 7 of the Eastern Conference
semifinals had been refereed. Jeff believed, as well he should,
that his team had showed more grit, character and, need it be
said, free throw accuracy than its rival in the 83-82 New York
victory. When the brief conversation was over, Stan rushed back
to a disconsolate Heat locker room. "Look, Jeff is a great
person and a great coach," said Stan, who got the Miami job
partly because his younger brother recommended him to coach Pat
Riley, "but that's all I can say. I'm not in the mood to be
happy for him."

Let this, then, sum up the lot of Jeff Van Gundy: In a moment of
triumph, he can't even get his props from a blood relative. Or
perhaps this is an even more telling detail about the man: When
Van Gundy's car became front-page news in a freak airport mishap
last week, his ride was revealed to be...a 1995 Honda Civic!
"Jeff is not seduced by the trappings," says Knicks assistant
Brendan Malone.

Yes, the Knicks-Heat rivalry has produced more than its share of
clock-stopping, butt-ugly games. But the sheer intensity of the
rivalry ultimately produced a kind of bare-knuckled elegance
that made this series more engrossing than anything going on in
the Western Conference--and made the loss more paralyzingly
unbearable for Miami. Immediately after the game, Heat small
forward Jamal Mashburn rushed up to the zebras, informing them,
he revealed later, "that they sucked." The move was his most
aggressive of the day. Mashburn had only seven points on 3-of-15
shooting and was outclassed by his New York counterpart, Latrell
Sprewell, who had 24 points and five assists.

Miami point guard Tim Hardaway, too, expressed outrage at the
officiating, but what he might have really been feeling was
frustration. The latest in a long line of injuries, a sprained
left foot, had limited his effectiveness throughout the series.
(He shot 29%, including six of 20 on Sunday.) Even center Alonzo
Mourning, who has grown into the role of team diplomat, was
still sitting at his locker, staring into space, an hour after
the game. If it's possible to have a weak 29-point, 13-rebound
game, Mourning had done it. On a couple of occasions down the
stretch he settled for a fallaway jumper when he should have
taken the ball to the basket against 37-year-old Patrick Ewing,
who was in foul trouble, or against Larry Johnson, who was not
strong enough to handle him. Mourning missed five of 10 free
throws, and his teammates weren't much better, converting six of
11. New York, meanwhile, hit 28 of 31 shots from the line.
Though Mourning got the ball in the final seconds with the Heat
down by one, he passed out of a double team, and backup forward
Clarence Weatherspoon took the final shot, which clanked off the
back of the rim and was rebounded by Sprewell.

Do the Knicks have a good chance against the Indiana Pacers in
the Eastern Conference finals? Lord, yes, because of factors
that were abundantly clear in the Miami series. Van Gundy's
strategy against Mourning--immediately double-team him whenever
he faced up, otherwise wait until he put it on the floor and
then send two defenders to dig at the ball--was simple, and his
players followed it to the letter. There's no reason New York
won't have a solid plan for Indiana's most potent post-up
player, should it turn out to be center Rik Smits or swingman
Jalen Rose. If it ends up being point guard Mark Jackson, the
Knicks might eschew the double team and let their strong point
guard, Charlie Ward, handle Jackson, or, if need be, assign the
taller Allan Houston or the hyperactive Sprewell to the task.
Many teams are at a disadvantage against Indiana when the
slow-moving Jackson gives way to the turbocharged Travis Best,
but not New York. Van Gundy can send for Ward's speedy backup,
Chris Childs, who was nothing less than the best player on the
floor in the fourth period of Game 7, scoring his team's first
10 points of the quarter and keeping the Knicks in the game.

A final advantage for New York? Try the guy with the thinning
hair and the bags under his eyes, the guy who looks like the
team's road manager, the guy who has eliminated Riley three
years in a row on Riley's home floor. This is not to suggest
that Larry Bird can't coach, but it is to say that in this
situation, Finals-tested Van Gundy is the master, Hall of Fame
player Bird the neophyte.

The Knicks coach is a rarity in the hire-the-former-player NBA,
the type whom Chuck Daly calls "a lifer," the son of a coach,
the guy who swept out the gym, who watched blurry-eyed as the
Sacramento Kings played the Los Angeles Clippers on cable and
dutifully handed the chalkboard to the main man, who happened to
be Riley in four of Van Gundy's 6 1/2 seasons as a Knicks
assistant. It was so perfectly poetic when, in the early-morning
hours of last Thursday, after a burst of exhaust from a jet
engine on the Knicks' charter sent Van Gundy's Honda tumbling
over three cars on the tarmac at Westchester County Airport, the
coach had to sleep in his office at SUNY-Purchase College, the
Knicks' practice site. Wasn't the first time he'd slept there.
Won't be the last.

Van Gundy, 38, is quick to remind anyone that he would never
have gotten his chance if the Knicks hadn't fired Don Nelson
early in the 1995-96 season. Van Gundy is the classic interim
coach who made good, and he seems not quite to believe it
himself, so hard does he work, so carefully does he choose his
words when talking about his team, so religiously does he follow
the unwritten NBA dictum that players are the steak, coaches the
soup. He is not the only blue-collar guy running a team--the
Minnesota Timberwolves' Flip Saunders is another--but he's the
only one doing it in New York City, where every questionable
decision is fodder for a tabloid headline. Gradually, Van Gundy
has earned, if not passionate affection, then grudging respect.

He has been pilloried, for example, for sticking too long with
Ewing, who appeared overmatched by Mourning in Game 1. But as
the series wore on, Ewing got stronger, and, trailing 82-81 with
1:20 left in Sunday's game, Van Gundy sent his team out of a
timeout with a play drawn up for the big man. Mourning gambled
when he tried to intercept the entry pass, Ewing got a dunk, and
the Knicks had their winning points. Van Gundy's greatest
triumph has been to mix and match the pieces of a bifurcated
roster, some of which wants to run (Childs, Sprewell, Marcus
Camby), some of which wants to play half-court (Ewing, Houston,

After the game Riley was hurting as badly as his players and was
at pains to mention the disparity in free throws. He was near
tears as he contemplated his fifth season in Miami without a
conference title. But without prompting, he turned the subject
to Van Gundy, whose respect for Riley ran so deep that he and
his wife, Kim, had named their daughter Mattie Riley. The
relationship between the two coaches had seen some ups and downs
since Riley left New York in 1995. The Heat coach had criticized
Van Gundy for playing the role of leg-chewing terrier when Van
Gundy latched on to Mourning during a Game 4 melee in '98, but
he had also express-mailed Van Gundy a note of congratulations
for setting up a play that enabled Houston to nail a jumper that
beat Miami in a deciding Game 5 last year. In that letter he
referred to Van Gundy as "Coach" for the first time (it used to
be just Jeff), and the gesture deeply moved Van Gundy. "I'd like
to see Jeff take this thing and win a championship," Riley said
on Sunday, and you could tell he meant it.

By now, there's no doubt that brother Stan has said the same.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY BOB ROSATO Armed struggle Against the Knicks' suffocating defense, Weatherspoon (with ball) hit a dead end in Game 7.

COLOR PHOTO: MANNY MILLAN Playing catch-up Sprewell thrived when the Knicks went to their up-tempo game, while the injury-plagued Hardaway never got untracked.