By the time all’s said-and-done with the conclusion of the NBA Finals in two weeks, Jeff Van Gundy will have spent roughly three months inside the bubble at ESPN’s Wide World of Sports Complex. Fortunately, he and fellow network basketball broadcasters Mike Breen and Mark Jackson were allowed to return home for two four-day reprieves. Other than that, they’ve lived the same monotonous, lonely existence as players, coaches and support people.
Not long after arriving in Orlando, Fla., on July 21, time began blending together for Van Gundy and Company, one day indistinguishable from the next. Bubble dwellers started feeling like Bill Murray in the film, “Groundhog Day.” Every day became a repeat of yesterday.
Sure, there are far worse venues to shelter in place than a swank hotel. And hoops junkie Van Gundy is grateful for the opportunity to continue doing something he loves, especially during these pandemic-ravaged times when so many are suffering. But tedium and time away from loved ones cause mental anguish. Suddenly, “isolation” no longer refers solely to one-on-one plays on the court. The real-life matchup becomes your mind versus loneliness. And loneliness often wins.
“I’m a basket case,’’ said Van Gundy, the former Brockport High and Nazareth College star point guard who gained fame as the coach of the New York Knicks and Houston Rockets before embarking on a successful career as an insightful, humorous hoops analyst for ESPN and ABC 13 years ago. “Yes, we are fortunate to have a job and fortunate to be healthy, but there’s a repetitiveness to the days, particularly the ones when you don’t have a game to call because those are the days when you are biding time until the next game. Your mind starts wandering and you begin concentrating on how much you miss the normalcy of your everyday life.”
During those idle times, the one-time McQuaid Jesuit varsity boys basketball coach begins wishing he were back home in Houston, sleeping in his own bed and spending time with his wife Kim and their two daughters. That’s not to say there haven’t been silver linings. Ask Van Gundy the best part of the experience, and he’ll tell you about the six weeks he spent with older brother, Stan, a former NBA coach who resided in the bubble as a member of the TNT broadcasting team that televised games not carried by ESPN or ABC. The siblings have always been closer than the layers of lacquer on a hardwood court. And they became even tighter during their morning walks on the path snaking through the nearby Disney golf course.
“Although we’ve kept in frequent contact by phone through the years, we really haven’t had the opportunity to spend a lot of quality, in-person time together since going off to college back in the 1980s,’’ Van Gundy said before participating in a Rochester Rotary Zoom gathering Tuesday. “It was great being able to spend time with Stan. We got caught up on a lot of things, some important, some foolish. We talked about everything and solved nothing. That time together was a blessing.”
The morning walks were good for body and soul, and prompted Jeff to chuckle when asked if he and his only sibling were preparing for the speedwalking competition at next summer’s Olympics in Tokyo. “If there was a competition for slow walks to nowhere,’’ he deadpanned, “we’d be your guys.”
Van Gundy was skeptical the NBA would be able to make the bubble work when it announced resumption of its schedule following its COVID-19 shutdown on March 11. He’s been pleasantly surprised by the quality and intensity of play, especially in the absence of fans in the Disney arena. “I think it comes across much better on TV, with the virtual fans in the seats and the piped-in crowd noise, than it does in person,’’ he said. “In the arena, it’s strangely quiet and sterile. Almost like a scrimmage. But give credit to the players. Yes, they are being well-compensated to play, but they are human beings. Despite the separation from their families, they’ve played hard, and the games have been highly competitive and highly entertaining. I haven’t seen any drop-off in the level of play, and that’s really something, given the circumstances, because there was such a long suspension of play that this isn’t a continuation of last season, but really the start and completion of an entirely new season.”
In recent weeks, a number of NBA coaching positions have been filled, with Steve Nash taking over the Brooklyn Nets, Tom Thibodeau the Knicks and Billy Donovan the Chicago Bulls. Van Gundy, who guided teams to nine playoff appearances in his 11 seasons as a head coach, was rumored to be under consideration for the Nets and Knicks openings, and The Athletic reported the 58-year-old will return as coach of the Rockets once the NBA Finals conclude. ESPN reported he’s also in the running for the Los Angeles Clippers job. Van Gundy, who coached the U.S. national team in recent years, danced a bit when I asked him about the vacancies. “I always think it’s better for the teams to talk about what they’re doing with their openings and for me to say nothing,’’ he said. “If they’re interested and want to talk about it, great. If they are not interested, that’s fine. And if they’re interested and don’t want to say anything, that’s OK, too.
“I don’t rule out anything, and I don’t rule in anything either,’’ he continued. “I’ve got a great gig and I’m thankful for it. If some job in whatever line of work comes about that’s better for myself and my family, I would be open to it.”
In the meantime, Van Gundy is looking forward to the NBA Finals between the Miami Heat and a Los Angeles Lakers team powered by LeBron James and Anthony Davis. “Miami is thought of as a huge underdog,’’ he said. “I don’t see it like that. I think if you had a draft of all the players (in the finals), the first two picks would be James and Davis, but I think the next four-to-five picks would be Miami players. So, I think you have the depth of Miami against the greatness of James and Davis. It’s going to be a fascinating watch.”
One that will tide him over as he wraps up life in a bubble.
Best-selling author and nationally honored journalist Scott Pitoniak is the Rochester Business Journal sports columnist. His latest book, “Remembrances of Swings Past: A Lifetime of Baseball Stories,” is available in paperback and digitally at amazon.com.