His long and winding road had taken him to four colleges in four years. So when nomadic Jeff Van Gundy arrived on the Nazareth College campus in the summer of 1983 after attending Yale University, Menlo (Calif.) College and the College at Brockport in consecutive years, he wasn’t asking for much. Just a little stability, a chance to play varsity basketball and enough credit hours to earn his degree. He would wind up receiving all those things — and so much more.
“When I first showed up, I wasn’t concerned with making lifetime friends, or caring deeply about a school,’’ he said the other day from an office looking out into the gymnasium at Nazareth’s Shults Center. “I just wanted to play basketball for a year or two, graduate and get on with it. What wound up happening is that I went from that type of attitude to finding a home that I really appreciated. The seeds were planted for what’s become a lasting bond with this place.”
Through the decades, this relationship between well-known basketball coach/commentator and alma mater has grown even stronger. The lessons learned in the classroom and on the court would serve Van Gundy well as he followed in the footsteps of his father, Bill, and brother, Stan. He, too, would become a coach.
His first stop after receiving his degree in history and education in 1985 would be McQuaid Jesuit High School, where he coached the boys’ varsity basketball team. A decade later, he would reach the top of his profession when he was named head coach of the New York Knicks. Over the next 11 seasons — seven in the Big Apple and four with the Houston Rockets — he would compile a 430-318 record while guiding his teams to eight playoff appearances and one NBA Final. Since leaving the Rockets following the 2006-07 season, he has become arguably as successful in his second career as an immensely popular analyst on ESPN and ABC basketball telecasts. Fans love his insights and his quirky, self-deprecating sense of humor.
Along the way, Van Gundy has remained true to his school, making a sizeable donation six years ago to renovate the men’s and women’s basketball locker rooms at Nazareth. And, in doing so, he continued to show his humility. Rather than name the locker rooms after himself, he requested the men’s locker room be named in honor of his former Nazareth coaches — Bill Nelson, Bob Ward and Jim Emery — and that the women’s locker room be named in memory of Farrell Lynch, his late college roommate and teammate who was killed in the 9/11 terrorist attacks in the World Trade Center.
Earlier this week, Van Gundy addressed the current men’s and women’s teams, met with coaches, benefactors and school administrators, and participated in the on-campus opening of the 108,000-square foot Golisano Training Center, which was designed to promote inclusion, fitness and wellness for athletes of all abilities, including people with intellectual and developmental disabilities.
“There’s a lot of exciting stuff going on here,’’ he said. “The campus is so much different from when I was here, but the spirit of the school hasn’t changed. That’s what I love about it.”
Van Gundy’s spirit hasn’t changed either. He’s still the gym rat who tagged along with his dad and brother to basketball practices back when he was knee-high to a ball rack. The Brockport High School graduate has always loved the chess-match aspects of the game — not just the X’s and O’s, but also the psychology involved in convincing a roster of disparate individuals to work together as one. Although he loves his current job, particularly the back-and-forth on-air banter between him, play-by-play announcer Mike Breen and fellow analysts Mark Jackson and Doris Burke, Van Gundy occasionally misses the excitement — and even the misery — of coaching.
“My wife gets upset when I say this, but the best five minutes in life is the first five minutes in a locker room after a great road win,’’ Van Gundy said, smiling. “She would always say, ‘What about the birth of your kids?!’ I know I’m supposed to nod and say, ‘You’re right,’ but there’s just something about pouring heart and soul into something and working together intensely on a common goal that’s indescribably rewarding. It’s really hard to find something to replicate that competition and camaraderie.”
Which begs the question, would he ever coach in the NBA again?
“You never say never,’’ said Van Gundy, who did some coaching with USA Basketball in recent years. “But the further you’re away from it, the less likely it becomes. It’s not as possible as it was 10 years ago when I was 47 instead of 57.”
His name still pops up whenever there’s an NBA vacancy, but Van Gundy seems content with his current gig, which provides a courtside view without having to deal with the agony of defeats. He’s looking forward to this season, because the number of championship contenders is deeper than it’s been in years.
“There’s a different feel because the Golden State Warriors dynasty has been broken up by free agency and injury,’’ he said. “Milwaukee and Philadelphia are really good and probably will meet in the Eastern Conference Finals, and the Western Conference is even deeper. It’s going to be intriguing to see how things turn out in Los Angeles, where you have LeBron (James) and two rejuvenated teams ready to duke it out.”
Van Gundy can’t wait to dissect things the way he has since those days three decades ago when he was a gritty, Nazareth College point guard known to his coaches as “All-Out Jeff.” He led those Golden Flyers to two Lincoln First Tournament titles and a berth in the NCAA Division III Elite Eight. And he developed a bond with his alma mater that’s only grown stronger with time.
Best-selling author and nationally honored journalist Scott Pitoniak is the Rochester Business Journal sports columnist.