Stan and Jeff Van Gundy make up the most unlikely power duo in the NBA.
Neither of the basketball lifers has the look of a typical basketball power broker. One is known for his rumpled suits and off-the-cuff manner; the other is a balding 55-year-old with an acerbic wit.
But the Van Gundys have worked their way from “Division III schleps,” according to Jeff, to places where they exert more influence over the game of basketball than any two siblings in recent memory.
As head coach and head of basketball operations for the Detroit Pistons, Stan, 58, is one of the few NBA coaches who is in charge of all basketball matters for a team. Younger brother Jeff, former coach of the New York Knicks and Houston Rockets, is the league’s top game analyst for ESPN, a position that gives him a soapbox to effect change on a league that he loves.
Each has won more than 400 games in the NBA, coached teams in the NBA Finals and become ultimate NBA insiders. But their road to NBA royalty is as unique and improbable as their current positions suggest.
Just a few days before the start of training camp, on a mid-September afternoon, Stan Van Gundy sat in his office at the team’s practice facility, plotting ways to improve on last season when he failed to make the playoffs for only the second time in his 10 years as an NBA head coach.
If Stan was feeling pressure, he didn’t show it. He was at ease, befitting the manner of a veteran coach who controls the team’s entire basketball enterprise. He was dressed in full coach mode: red Pistons practice shirt, red workout shorts, and white socks bearing the NBA logo. A glass wall that faces the practice court dominates his office. From here, Van Gundy can see all in his executive role in Detroit.
|Mark Jackson (left), Jeff Van Gundy and Mike Breen work Game 3 of the 2017 NBA Finals in Cleveland.
“Scheduled for two, went on for six,” Stan said of the hours he spent interviewing with Gores.
The two connected after the marathon interview where both bought into a vision of a unified front office.
“I’ve always liked the model of connecting the floor to the front office,” Gores said. “I think with the right person like Stan, it’s an incredible model. It takes a capacity to do it. Stan has the understanding of the NBA rules. He knows players. He knows how to set structures up. I know he’s going to be as prepared as ever when it comes to any decisions we’re making, whether it’s on the floor or front office.”
|Stan Van Gundy says that compared to his brother, he is more likely to wear his emotions on his sleeve.
As they have throughout nearly their three decades spent in and around professional basketball, the two irreverent and outspoken gym rats compared notes and traded gossip as they headed toward another NBA season.
Their conversations and banter these days do not vary much from decades ago, when they would play one-on-one in Martinez, Calif., while their dad coached various small college teams.
The stakes, of course, are much higher and more visible in the NBA. But those early shootarounds — seemingly every weekend in the fall and winter four decades ago — ensured that the game stayed in their blood.
“The beauty of growing up in a coaching family, particularly one that isn’t at the very highest level, is that you get to be in the gym — that’s where you grow up,” Jeff said.
But ascending into the NBA’s upper echelon wasn’t an early goal.
“I don’t think either one of us had thoughts or ambitions of being in the NBA,” Stan said. “Initially, my ambition was to get to a point where I could have a really good small college job. There was never a plan. I got really lucky. I’m not trying to be overly humble, that’s not me. But I’ve been in the right place at the right time with the right person.”
ESPN hired Jeff in 2007 soon after he was fired by the Houston Rockets. For someone who couldn’t imagine being anything other than a basketball coach, Jeff viewed the move as a temporary stop-gap until a position opened up in the NBA.
“Initially, he thought it was just going to be a side job before he got his next coaching job,” said his broadcasting partner, Mike Breen. “Then it evolved into something that he has excelled at like very few.”
Jeff’s style was unique and showcased his personality. He is as likely to talk about hairstyles as pick-and-rolls. Viewers have taken to him because he seems to talk without a filter. In the fourth quarter of a 2016 playoff game when the Cleveland Cavaliers beat the Toronto Raptors by 38 points, Jeff said, “If you’re just tuning in, TUNE OUT.”
Viewers and critics seem to like that style. The Boston Globe, for one, referred to him as “funny, informed, self-deprecating, opinionated, and blunt” in a 2015 piece.
But Jeff slowly has figured out how big his megaphone can be as ESPN’s top NBA game analyst. His name still gets thrown around every time a coaching vacancy occurs in the league. Over the summer, he agreed to be the head coach of USA Basketball’s men’s national teams. But, Breen believes that Jeff has found his voice in the broadcast booth.
“When he first started doing broadcasting, I don’t think he realized the impact that he would have on the game for the fans and for the league,” Breen said. “He is a champion for the fans. And for the league, he’s a great watchdog. Even though he’ll criticize the league for certain things that they do or certain rules that they have or certain responses they have for things.”
For example, Jeff regularly would rail against flopping — when players would pretend to get fouled to get a referee’s call. In one 2012 Heat-Knicks game at Madison Square Garden, Jeff ranted for minutes about a third-quarter flop call. “I’m just sick of it, and I can’t believe the NBA office isn’t sick of it, too. They are obviously condoning this,” he said on air. “I have easy remedies. You fine them. Or you treat them like technicals and when you flop X amount of times, you’re suspended.”
A couple of months later, the NBA changed its rules to penalize floppers and fine repeated violators.
He also criticized the NBA Finals format that played the first two games in one arena, and the next three in the other. The NBA changed it to be the first two in one arena, the next two in the other.
“He’s definitely had an impact on the league making some changes that were great for the game,” Breen said. “I don’t know if the league will admit it, but I really do think he brought about a change in the league’s flopping policy. And that’s had an enormous impact. You rarely see the flopping that was occurring a couple of years ago. It was rampant for a while.”
The brothers’ current roles can be viewed as an extension of their father, Bill, who coached small college and high school teams on both coasts for more than 40 years. Basketball is the Van Gundy family business, and Stan and Jeff are minding the store right now.
“I don’t ever remember wanting to do anything but coach,” Jeff said. “My dad obviously influenced me. But it wasn’t because he sat there and drilled coaching stuff into our heads. We were on the bench keeping the scorebook and traveling with the team on weekends. It was such a great upbringing.”
All those hours on the basketball court helped the brothers forge a close and competitive relationship — one where they fought a lot but remained best friends.
“The hard part for me was when it became clear that Jeff was the better player,” Stan said. “We were totally different players. I tried to score all the time. He was a classic point guard who could shoot but he was the guy trying to get other people to score.”
Though Stan is older by three years, it was Jeff who blazed the coaching path for his older brother. Jeff caught a break his first year out of college when he was coaching McQuaid High School in New York. Providence College head coach Rick Pitino stopped by to see one of Jeff’s players, a sophomore named Greg Woodard. That led to an improbable meeting that changed the course of Jeff’s future.
|Jeff Van Gundy holds onto Alonzo Mourning
to try to break up a fight in the 1998 playoffs.
Pitino eventually landed at the New York Knicks and hired Jeff as an assistant — a move that led to Stan’s big coaching break.
Jeff remained a Knicks assistant coach after Pitino left the Knicks to coach Kentucky. When the Knicks’ next coach, Pat Riley, left the team for Miami, Jeff wanted to follow, but the Knicks, miffed at Riley for leaving, blocked the move.
So Jeff suggested the next best thing. He told Riley that he should hire Stan, who had just been fired as Wisconsin’s head coach after only one season marked by a 13-14 record. Thanks to Jeff’s recommendation, Riley hired Stan in 1995.
“We have an incestuous career,” Jeff said. “We’ve both worked for the same people a lot of times.”
As is the case with many siblings, Stan and Jeff are wired differently in terms of temperament and personality.
“He is far more controlled, and I mean that as a compliment,” Stan said. “I am more off-the-cuff and wear my emotions on my sleeve more than I should.”
Consider Stan’s rant after a blowout loss to the Chicago Bulls last December when he abandoned typical postgame “coach speak” and ripped into his team publicly while also blaming himself. “It was unprofessional, embarrassing, humiliating, whatever you want to say. It was terrible,” Stan told the media after the loss.
Jeff and Stan have relied on their familial bond for support throughout their careers, especially when Stan began working for Riley in Miami.
“I wore Jeff out,” said Stan, who bombarded his brother with questions as he struggled to adjust to the NBA. “Jeff not only knew the league, but he knew Pat Riley and how he liked to work.”
The only time that Stan and Jeff refused to speak was when Stan was an assistant at Miami and Jeff was the head coach of the Knicks and the two rival teams met in the postseason from 1997-2000. “We agreed that for as long as the series went on, we weren’t going to talk,” Stan said. “It was excruciating.”
The intensity of that series was typified by an incident in the 1998 playoffs when Jeff, as the Knicks’ head coach, grabbed onto the leg of the Heat’s Alonzo Mourning to try to break up a brawl.
“That was not his greatest moment in moderation,” Stan said.
Stan and Jeff competed against each as head coaches for the first time when Jeff coached the Houston Rockets and Stan was head coach for the Heat in 2003.
“I still remember very vividly, the first time we coached against each other was in Houston,” Jeff said. “Not to get all sentimental, but looking across during the national anthem, and you’re looking at your brother as the other head coach — two schleps with a Division III background standing in a packed arena coaching NBA basketball as head coaches against each other — man, I got emotional on that one.”
Jeff handed Stan a loss in the first game they coached against each other to send the Heat to an 0-7 record.
“I didn’t enjoy coaching against him,” Jeff said. “I didn’t hate it, either. I could appreciate what a great thing it was for our family while at the same time realizing that whoever won and whoever lost — it’s a hard business.”
Both of their accomplishments were based on a bedrock of hard work and smarts they learned from their father during his coaching career.
|Stan’s NBA break came as an assistant in Miami under Pat Riley.
When Jeff became a broadcaster with ESPN, he felt the professional burden from the brotherhood, particularly when he was at the microphone when Stan coached the Magic against the Lakers in the 2009 NBA Finals.
“I’ve done his games in the past,” Jeff said. “It’s probably not ideal. Before the Finals in 2009, it was an issue. Some people were critical of ESPN, saying that I shouldn’t be on the games. I understand that thought process. They decided to keep me on. Before the game, Mike Breen and our producer Tim Corrigan said, ‘We have to address this.’ I said, ‘Well, I want my brother’s team to win.’ I’m not going to try and hide that. I wanted everybody to know that I wasn’t even trying to pretend to say I didn’t care who won.”
Breen noted how difficult it was for Jeff to call his brother’s game. He recalled a big moment at the end of one of the games, when Kobe Bryant made a sensational play to seal a Lakers win. Breen looked over at Jeff, who had his head in his hands.
“He was absolutely miserable for his brother,” Breen said. “He was tortured by anything that went wrong for the Magic. When he does a game, he is so objective — as good as anybody — and does not let things get in his way. He could not hide his love for his brother and wanting his brother to have success and win that title.”
There were no such issues for Stan.
“That was hard for him, but good for me,” Stan said. “I don’t know what he’s saying on TV during the games.”
Stan and Jeff talk almost every day during the season and at least five days a week during the offseason. There is one restriction, though. The two won’t talk until the day after a Pistons loss.
“He knows that after a loss, you need time to recover and get some space,” Stan said.
Jeff has yet to call a Pistons game with Stan as the head coach, but should it happen, expect a reunion of sorts.
“I liked it when he had our games,” Stan said. “I got to see him and the fact is when I get to see him, it’s a good day.”