Oh Brother, Where Art Thou? – My Search for the 3rd Van Gundy
Four years have passed since Jeff Van Gundy took final hold of Alonzo Mourning’s leg and was whisked off our court forever. Like every Knick fan, few corners of my life don’t ache with his remembrance. Recently, however, my memory of Jeff Van Gundy has been fresh and focused, a development I attribute to the following two causes. The first is Ukrainian opposition leader Viktor Yushchenko, whose ghastly visage has for months enjoyed front-page display in our nations newspapers, particularly the New York Times (fig.1). For many, it is a reminder of uncanny immediacy – an instant portal to that fateful day when, on those very same pages, we first glimpsed the picture of a retiring Jeff Van Gundy. I myself remember the moment with a 9/11-like clarity: I was at my apartment in Ardmore, Pennsylvania when shoefly (my roommate at the time) summoned me to his computer. More sorrowful than the headline, however, was the image of Van Gundy himself, awash in the white light of the cameras, his bloodless face and listless frame hanging above the microphone like some ancient willow (fig.2). Shoefly and I exchanged few words during those minutes, but among them was an agreement that we had never before witnessed, in man or any other form, such certain testimony of life’s crimes. In this regard, I cannot say whether Yushchenko is or is not Van Gundy’s equal (of the possible analogues for Layden-Era New York, one could certainly do worse than Putin’s poison). Their likeness, however, has been a source of great personal reflection: on suffering, Van Gundy, and most of all, the future.
The second, more obvious cause of these reflections is the recent resignation of Lenny Wilkens, and the attending speculations on who might next lead the woeful Knicks. Here, two men – Van Gundys both – leap immediately to mind, only to be replaced just as quickly by numbing pain. Anyone who saw the aforementioned press conference knew that Jeff Van Gundy would never survive (much the less seek) a second tenure in New York, and if he were even the least bit employable elsewhere, he probably would have left the league for good. Instead, he got as far from New York as possible, and now plies his enviable Van Gundy wares along the Mexican border. His brother, Stan Van Gundy, would be an almost equally desirable option. Unfortunately, he is too busy building the next Eastern Conference dynasty, and bronzing his generous stock in the Miami sun. It is my conclusion that until a third brother emerges, the search for Van-Gundy-as-man must cede to that of Van-Gundy-as-metaphor. Here, the candidates under discussion within the press and Knick community vary greatly, even though the Van Gundy criterion is seldom applied therein. For this reason, and for my own betterment, I offer the following survey of the field.
John Starks/Bill Clinton
Ambitious, Unemployed, and hugely popular, Starks and Clinton share top billing on the fan-favorite list. Both men share a near-godlike power over man’s collective memory, transforming 8-year tenures of inconsistency and disappointment into pageantries of gilded triumph. Whatever shortcomings in the actual task, these powers could easily redeem them: recast in Clinton’s dewy nostalgia, or the hazy glow of Starks’ one great dunk, even the most mediocre of the decades’ foreseeable fortunes would seem like the greatest accomplishments of our age. Still, the disproportioned scales of their respective coaching experience (for Starks, only the non-pro "Westchester Wildfire"; for Clinton, the world) will never match the narrowness/depth of Van Gundy vision, which looks upon the job as nothing more and nothing less than the entirely of life and death.
Easily the most qualified coach on the market, if not on earth itself. On the other hand, from the fans’ perspective, imagining Phil Jackson as Knicks’ head coach is about as joyous an exercise as imagining Reggie Miller fucking your mom. For my part, the psychogenetic trauma of Jackson-era Bulls is like Bush’s second term, Crystalnacht, and Charles Smith’s missed lay-ups all at the same time. All this plus his fruity Buddhism and height put Jackson so far down on the Van Gundy scale its not even worth the measurement.
A favorite in the sports’ press and among children, Cosby’s candidacy needs neither introduction nor defense. As a leader, Cosby’s record is distinguished, having fathered America’s first middle-class black family with nothing but a few stern looks and a smile. This kind of avuncular stick-and-jello parenting could work wonders for a slumping player like Allan Houston, who’s bourgeois civility and peripheral blackness are about as Huxstable as they come in today’s league. Yet for the rest of the team, neither the affable obstetrician, nor Cosby’s more recent turn as fire-breathing assimilationist are likely to enjoy a warm reception. One crack about Nazr or Moochie’s “stupid sounding name” and he’s just Danny Ainge, but without the long-ball. The Van Gundys, in contrast, are about as racially/culturally suited for the league as a rusted nail: their natural demographic appeal is to pharmacists and pedophiles, and even that is pretty weak. Yet from Shaq and Yao, they claim the respect and honor of Earth’s most spectacular men (figs.3,4).
Colossus, Wiseman, Maccabee - my father’s qualifications are as radiant as they are innumerable, but it’s the third that sets him farthest from the pack. In Judaism, New York’s flagship franchise confronts the imperative of its history: every one of its national championships (2) has been won under David’s Star. In this sense, Van Gundy is Holzman's truest heir (though here I break with the conventional wisdom) . After all, who but a Jewish coach would feel such unease with Christian hegemony, he would publicly advocate the banning of pre-game prayer? So doing, Van Gundy joined together Alan Houston, Charlie Ward, the ACLU, and the ADL for New York’s largest excursus on the Jewish question since Jesse Jackson’s “Hymietown”. Today, Ward is gone, and Houston marginalized (due mostly to his having been vilified – in an ironic reversal – for the salary cap ills wrought by his Shylock-like avarice). Yet having purged the anti-semitism from his backcourt, our disheveled little hero abruptly packed for Houston. Who is to replace him? Larry Brown is the obvious choice, and hitherto consigned as stranger to his city - first Philly, now Detroit - his homecoming to New York seems all but inevitable. Until that day, however, we can only bear hopeful witness to his wandering. Einhorn, on the other hand, has all but finished his current run as an intellectual property lawyer, and would be nothing if not an easy recruit. At 6’4’’, 240lbs, he has been ranked by shoefly (this time wearing his “historian of longitude” cap) one of the largest Jews of his generation. Both his low-post game and sky-hook possess an Old Testament gravity and wrath, and upon his grimaced face seems to be written – like the lines of some great tree - the entire history of his people - indeed, of basketball itself!
Unfortunately, Einhorn’s potential candidacy has garnered little media buzz beyond the editorial pages of Forward magazine (and, of course, this post). Despite his rightful place in the Van Gundy line of succession, it is unlikely he will see the throne. Thus, our search for the 3rd Van Gundy continues. Please stay tuned….