x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Basketball brains run in the family

The Van Gundy boys lived a nomadic life, following their basketball-coaching father Bill Van Gundy as he bounced around from coaching jobs at high schools and small colleges across the United States.

The Van Gundy boys lived a nomadic life, following their basketball-coaching father Bill Van Gundy as he bounced around from coaching jobs at high schools and small colleges across the United States. Sons Stan and Jeff dreamed of following in their father's footsteps. They overshot those dreams by a long stretch. This 2009 NBA final features Stan as coach of the Orlando Magic and Jeff as ABC television's basketball commentator. Wherever you turn, someone is calling Stan a basketball genius. Even Kobe Bryant is effusive in his praise.

As Stan addressed the world media at the finals on Wednesday, he paused to reflect on his remarkable run. "I think that when I got into coaching, that [Division III college level] is where I expected and dreamed of coaching. I did that," he said. "I certainly didn't go into coaching thinking I'd ever make any money at it or coach on TV or any of that. I just wanted to coach. What I got from my dad is just a pure love of coaching."

Bill had a distinguished yet uncelebrated coaching career, ending up in New York state as coach of Genesee Community College (GCC). During this time I arranged for a seven-foot tall Brazilian construction worker-turned basketball player to play for GCC. I spent many nights at Genesee watching the Brazilian play and hearing about Bill's coaching brilliance. In the final moments of Game Two of this year's final against the Lakers, with the game tied and 0.6 seconds on the clock, Stan diagrammed an inbounds play to free up the Magic guard Courtney Lee. The improbable play worked beautifully. While the shot rimmed out and the Lakers eventually won, Stan's timeout play was nothing short of basketball genius.

Intelligence of sorts runs in the family. Jeff attended Yale University before he was cut from the basketball team. He then left the prestigious university for the lowly Menlo junior college, a place where he could play basketball. This bizarre strategy proved to be brilliant, as Jeff earned his playing bona fides that would lead him to millions of dollars as an NBA coach. The average Yale student would have stayed and gone on to work on Wall Street and then seen their stock portfolio wiped out by the current crisis.

I met Jeff at an NBA pre-draft work out when he was the Houston Rockets head coach. I was translating for a Brazilian player, which required me to run around the court explaining the coaching instructions. They gave me an oversized team uniform to wear so I wouldn't sweat through my street clothes. I looked ridiculous and drew laughs from the Rockets' coaches and executives. After showering up in the club's locker room, where I found myself next to the 7ft 5ins Yao Ming, Jeff made a point of introducing himself to me. We had a good laugh about my attire and chatted for a while. He is the most unassuming sports celebrity I have ever met.

Jeff is now perhaps the most popular NBA basketball commentator and in the awkward position of having to praise and criticise his older brother, Stan, on national television. I can only imagine what Bill is thinking as he watches his two boys, one coaching and the other analysing on television during the NBA finals. After Game Three, Jeff told me: "Raised in small college hoops, we never worried about the level of play we would coach. Coaching in the NBA was never something that was ever thought about. We never dreamed about it because the idea wasn't even a goal that we could dream about. We have been very blessed. We are humbled by our opportunities and we have so many people to thank."

gdole@thenational.ae