They say opposites attract, and that certainly was the case with Jeff Van Gundy and Farrell Lynch, whose odd couple friendship took flight during their days as Nazareth College roommates and basketball teammates in the early 1980s.
Van Gundy was the introvert of the two — much more serious and intense, especially on the court, where former Golden Flyers hoops coach Bill Nelson fondly referred to his fierce point guard as “All-Out Jeff.”
Lynch, an undersized, over-achieving 6-foot-2 forward, could be intense, too. But away from the hardwood he was more social butterfly than introvert; more teddy bear than grizzly. The gregarious lad from a large, tight-knit Irish-American, New York City family was a guy, who, in Van Gundy’s words, “loved life and didn’t miss too many parties.”
Despite their disparate personalities, they hit it off swimmingly, and their friendship would be rekindled a decade after they had graduated and gone their separate ways. In fact, their paths would cross often after Van Gundy completed an improbable journey that saw him go from coaching the McQuaid Jesuit High School varsity boys basketball team in 1985 to coaching the New York Knicks 10 years later.
By that time, Lynch had climbed to the top of his profession, too. He went from working construction on the exteriors of Manhattan skyscrapers to having his own plush office on the 105th floor of the World Trade Center. And after establishing himself as a partner at the global investment firm, Cantor Fitzgerald, Lynch began bringing clients to Knicks games at Madison Square Garden, and introducing them to his old college roommate.
“It got to the point where, I’d say, of the 41 regular-season and maybe 10 playoff games we played at the Garden in a particular year, Farrell would be there for 20 to 25 of them,” Van Gundy recalled the other day from his Houston home during some down time from his work as an immensely popular NBA color analyst for ESPN and ABC. “It was always great seeing him because Farrell had this larger-than-life personality and marvelous sense of humor. Sometimes, after games, we’d grab a bite to eat, and catch up. I really enjoyed those times.”
Many others would recount similar treasured moments with Lynch.
“He was one of those guys who 15 people would say, ‘That’s my best friend, Farrell,’” Van Gundy recalled. “He was loyal and diligent — the kind of guy who would do anything for you. At the end of the day, you could count on him no matter what. We all look for people we can count on in life, and Farrell was one of those guys.”
Van Gundy thinks about him often, and those thoughts are sure to go into overdrive in the coming days as the 20th anniversary of 9/11 approaches. Sadly, Lynch was one of nearly 3,000 who perished during that date which will live in infamy. He was in his office — as was his brother Sean — when terrorists piloted those hijacked airliners into the Twin Towers.
That day had begun the way most days did for the workaholic Van Gundy. Very, very early. He was at the Knicks offices at SUNY Purchase in Westchester County, prepping for the start of training camp, when all hell broke loose 20 minutes to the south, at the southern tip of Manhattan. As the horrific scenes unfolded on his office television, Van Gundy phoned home to make sure his wife, Kim, and their daughter, Mattie, were OK. Then, he furiously began dialing Lynch’s direct line. No one answered. He dialed the number again. And again. And again. To no avail. Van Gundy kept hoping for a miracle, but it never came.
“Obviously, my pain pales in comparison to the pain felt by the wife and the daughters and the parents and the brothers and sisters Farrell left behind,” he said. “Everyone who was lost that day left so many people behind that cared deeply about them, and thus there is a huge void. And the void Farrell Lynch left can never be filled. He’s never far from our minds because he just meant so much to so many of us.”
In the days and weeks that followed 9/11, Van Gundy attempted to bury himself in his work. Normally, he would have been excited about the challenge a new season brings, but not this time. The thrill was gone.
“I think our first game that year in the Garden was the first game of Michael Jordan’s comeback (with the Washington Wizards), so you would have expected the anticipation and excitement to be off the charts,” he said. “But everything felt like it was muted. That doesn’t mean the players weren’t trying hard. They were. It was just a different feel, like this wasn’t really important, given what just happened.”
Three months after the terrorist attacks, Van Gundy announced his resignation. The timing caught most by surprise. The Knicks had been on a hot streak. It looked as if they were turning things around. But Van Gundy’s heart just wasn’t in it. To this day, he doesn’t know if the death of his good friend was the primary reason he quit, or if it was because he felt compelled to hop off the dizzying merry-go-round his life had become and spend more time with his wife and young daughter. In his post-resignation press conference, a worn and weary Van Gundy told reporters, “I feel like I’m going to exhale for the first time in 13 years.”
His one-year absence from basketball made his heart grow fonder, and he did return to coach the Houston Rockets for four seasons before starting his broadcasting gig.
Two decades later, Lynch continues to occupy a prominent spot in his soul. Several years ago, Van Gundy made a generous donation to his college alma mater to upgrade the men’s and women’s basketball locker rooms, and asked that one of them be named in memory of Lynch.
“It was just a small way of trying to make sure Farrell is remembered,” he said. “Everyone needs a Farrell Lynch in their lives.”
Van Gundy was blessed to have one in his. He and Lynch were an odd couple that wound up becoming best friends forever.
Best-selling author and nationally honored journalist Scott Pitoniak is the Rochester Business Journal sports columnist.