2006-12-01 / Sports

With Yao On His Side, Van Gundy Is Walking Tall

By John J. Buro

On this night, he was here as a guest. The Houston Rockets were in town and there was a game to be played. But, not that long ago, Jeff Van Gundy was a huge part of Madison Square Garden.

Those days seem so long ago. Far away, too. From 1995-2002, Van Gundy coached the New York Knicks to 248 victories [including two 50-win seasons] which is third best in team history; his .590 winning percentage is second only to Pat Riley. And, while the 1998-99 team advanced to the NBA Finals, losing to the San Antonio Spurs in five, JVG is more remembered for two on-court skirmishes which were more comedic than dramatic.

During a bench-clearing brawl in the 1998 playoffs, his attempt to restrain Alonzo Mourning, the 6'10" center of the Miami Heat, evoked laughter when the undersized coach latched onto the player's leg and was dragged along the floor. Then, in a game on Martin Luther King Day in 2001 -as Marcus Camby sought retribution against the San Antonio Spurs' Danny Ferry- the Knicks' coach inadvertently collided with his own player; the bloodied gash above Van Gundy's left eye required fifteen stitches to close.

"Marcus got the one shot in that each of my players would like to have," Van Gundy said wryly afterward, his eye badly swollen and partially covered by a bandage. "Last time, I got their guy; this time, I got my guy. Next time, I'll just stay the heck out of the way."

Van Gundy never could get out of the way. He didn't learn with either Mourning or Camby, and he certainly didn't back down from the Office of the NBA Commissioner. In May, 2005, he accused referees of pacifying Mark Cuban, the Dallas Mavericks' owner, after Yao Ming's on-court actions became the center of a firestorm. Subsequently, Van Gundy's parting shots cost him $100,000 -the largest fine ever levied against a coach.

Now, as he met the New York media once more, JVG was speaking of the Rockets, the team he has coached for the past three seasons, and his star player in particular. Yao, which is actually the family surname, was just a curiosity when he arrived from Shanghai in 2002. Four years after the fact, he has blossomed into one of the league's Top Ten players.

"With big guys," said Van Gundy, "it's hard to look good. The number one thing is conditioning. However, once they get into shape, their skill level can take over. Most big guys need a longer period of evolvement than smaller players. Eddy Curry [the much-maligned 23 year-old Knicks' center, who was originally selected by the Chicago Bulls with the fourth overall choice of the 2001 Draft] came here right out of high school. That's a difficult transition for a man of his size. But, we know he's a load to deal with.

"Most people tend to be less patient with big guys -as opposed to players who are quicker and smaller. So, their mistakes are overlooked a little more."

Van Gundy illustrated the point by referencing a stat. "When we played the Knicks last [Houston won, 103-94, on November 10]," he reminded those who converged around him, "Yao played great, but he did have eight turnovers. Had we lost the game, people would have said that, 'He couldn't even lead Houston to a victory on a night when he scores 35.' It's the same with Curry. At some point, nothing is acceptable."

What has been quite acceptable, according to the coach, is the emergence of Yao, both as a secular talent and a team player. "He is a tremendous ambassador for both his country and the game," said Van Gundy. "He doesn't refer to himself in the third person, and he hasn't given himself a nickname. Most of his quotes are team-oriented. And he doesn't try to offset his negative nights with excuses.

"Yao is basically the same guy everyday, whether it's gone well for him or not. I really appreciate that about him. I'm not sure he's better served being 7'6" as he would if he were 7'1". His skill level would still be great, but there'd be a lot less weight and force on his joints. The pounding that he puts on his body is just amazing.

"His selfless nature is really special," the coach offered. "People say that Yao should shoot more. Or rebound more. Or, that he's not mean enough.

"For one thing, meanness has only a little to do with basketball. Being mentally strong and physically fit enables a player to do their job every time. If you want mean, you can go to Attica, where you'd have a hell of a team. I'm just not sure that's the number one quality that you need in a team. Mental toughness is much more important that the physical toughness. That's one of Yao's strengths. He can bounce back from a bad game, and very strong when he is critiqued on who he is or isn't. Van Gundy, for one, prefers him just the way he is.

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