By Adrian Wojnarowski
Yahoo! Sports Columnist
ORLANDO, Fla. – Bill and Cindy Van Gundy had to leave the house for the airport at 4 a.m. on Friday, a vacation their sons had booked months ago for a 50th wedding anniversary gift. Before an Alaskan cruise and a train trip across Canada, they planned to find a television somewhere in Calgary to watch Game 5 of the NBA Finals.
“Stan and Jeff sure did it up pretty well,” Bill said this week.
They had to jam the trip between the end of the playoffs and the start of an old coach’s summer of working basketball camps. Even so, no one was thinking about the Finals when the trip was booked in the fall. That’s how it’s always gone with his sons’ coaching careers. You just never saw them coming.
Yes, Bill and Cindy felt awful about missing Sunday’s game, about losing three extra days with Jeff in town, but maybe they did Bill a favor. He would’ve awoke on Saturday morning to the headline splashed across the Orlando Sentinel’s front page – “Stan Van Goofy” – and Bill could do without that at 73 years old.
Stan Van Gundy deserves to take the blows for failing to foul the Lakers at the end of regulation on Thursday night. He’s right. That play will haunt him forever. He’s still a very good coach with a chance to be a great one. He isn’t perfect, but those don’t exist. He’s an easy target for those who barely watch the NBA, but the Orlando Magic don’t reach the Finals without him. Yes, he should’ve fouled, but Jameer Nelson(notes) could’ve, you know, guarded Derek Fisher(notes) on that 3-pointer.
There comes with these jobs the criticisms that Bill Van Gundy never had to endure in his 40 seasons on a college bench, small schools from Northern California to upstate New York. These golden years have been something extraordinary, to watch Stan and Jeff take the family business of coaching basketball to the bright lights and big stages that he never, ever imagined for himself.
The telephone rings with voices out of the back of old vans, the faded pages of a small college coaching life’s scrapbook. This week, it was a ballplayer out of the 1959-’60 season at Cal State Hayward reaching out to Bill Van Gundy.
Forty years of driving through snowstorms and washing uniforms and sweeping floors, and all those ballplayers see a little of the old man in these NBA Finals.
“He wanted me to remind Stan that he babysat for him and changed his diapers,” Bill said.
Stan and Jeff played for their father at Brockport State in the 1980s, but Jeff transferred when his father lost his job. Sometimes, they feel guilty. Why us? Why not him? It’s natural. Jeff coached one year of high school ball in Rochester, N.Y., before Providence assistant Stu Jackson went to McQuaid Jesuit to recruit a shooting guard and left more impressed with the coach. He told his boss at Providence about Jeff Van Gundy, and it wasn’t long until Rick Pitino hired him as a graduate assistant in 1986.
“And he ends up in the Final Four a year later,” Bill said. “So Jeff can look and see what he saw me do, but Stan did all of those things – driving the vans, the laundry, putting down the lines on the soccer field – when he was at Castleton State. Listen, I think they are great coaches, but what I’m most proud is that they’ve never forgotten where they came from, and who helped get them there.
“I think that allows them to keep some things about all this in perspective.”
Bill Van Gundy never wanted to retire in 1999. He had been coaching at Genesee Community College in Batavia, N.Y., and his doctor told him he would do himself a favor walking away at 63 years old. He made one final trip through a blizzard for a victory in the old Olean Armory, near St. Bonaventure, and took a long, look around the gym when the night was over. “This sums it all up,” he told his wife.
“On my own,” he says now, “I never would’ve retired. I wasn’t done. Hey, you don’t keep going to work college basketball camps in the summer if you really wanted to retire.”
Stan and Jeff are jealous of Bill in this way: They’ll never be connected to their players, the way that Bill was to his. That’s the beauty of small college basketball: You’re a part of your kids’ lives. Pro and big-time college coaches have no mandates to mold, just win.
He always did wonder what it would be like to move up the coaching ranks the way a lot of coaches did, high school to small college, small college to Division I and beyond. It’s only natural. The beauty is the boys did it for him. What father doesn’t want his son to advance beyond him anyway?
“There’s a lot of reward at the level I coached, but I don’t think I could be truthfully honest and say that I wouldn’t have liked to do that, too,” Bill said. “But I wasn’t good enough to do that, and I know that. But it’s the pinnacle and I think we would’ve all liked to have reached it.”
It’s funny, but Stan and Jeff hate hearing him talk like that. As Jeff said, “Unlike players, where the best ones always advance to the highest level, that isn’t true in coaching. The best coaches don’t all move up to a higher level.”
Whatever happens, Bill still loves that Stan always talks about how Bruce Webster at the University of Bridgeport destroyed him year after year when the Magic coach was at Lowell College in Division II, how that old coach has to be wondering how Stan Van Gundy ever made it to the NBA Finals. This is Stan’s way of honoring all those small-time coaches, honoring a father, who never caught a break.
Yes, Stan has taken his hits this weekend and maybe it’s just as well that Bill Van Gundy left Orlando hours after Game 4. Bill is somewhere in Calgary, with his wife, and it is still killing him that they can’t be courtside in Orlando on Sunday night.
It’s Van Gundy.
It’s always been a basketball family. Along the way, his boys just made it a famous basketball name.