Jeff Van Gundy worked for the Knicks both as an assistant coach to Pat Riley and as the head coach of the successful squads of the 1990s that Tom Thibodeau referenced Wednesday night.
Thibodeau, an assistant under Van Gundy from 1996 to 2001, offered a comparison between his current rising squad and the Knicks of that era, at least in terms of the examples in work ethic and leadership that star players such as Julius Randle and Jalen Brunson are providing, as Patrick Ewing and others did back then.
“I think you’d have to be around both on an everyday basis to be able to make a comparison like that, which Tom has that benefit. I don’t, but the bar was set very high by those players,” Van Gundy, the current ESPN/ABC analyst, told The Post in a phone interview on Thursday. “I think the thing that set apart some of those teams was the sacrifices made and required to win.
“Hard work was one of them, but also being willing to, like Larry Johnson did on a yearly basis, to give significant parts of his game up to allow others to flourish. I think when you’re looking at teams that you admire besides the hard work aspect, it’s the sacrifice for the greater good aspect, which I think every coach appreciates. I know I did as the ’90s coach, as Tom does now.”
Riley’s Knicks reached the NBA Finals in 1994, and Van Gundy led them to another Eastern Conference championship in 1999, before they suffered losses to the Rockets and the Spurs, respectively.
One of Van Gundy’s less-heralded players from that latter team was Rick Brunson, the current assistant coach under Thibodeau.
His son Jalen Brunson is averaging 23.8 points and 6.2 assists after signing a four-year, $104 million contract in free agency, fronting the Knicks to a 37-27 record entering Friday’s game in Miami.
“I think for Rick to have lived it as a player and now to see his son obviously put up huge numbers is great, but really I think what a parent would take pride in, is all the sacrifices Jalen’s made to become a great player and someone who has garnered such league-wide respect,” Van Gundy said, acknowledging that he didn’t envision Brunson playing at this level. “I thought he was a good to very good player. I underestimated him, like, I think Dallas did, like I think the whole league did, quite frankly and like probably you in the media did.
“What you learn over and over again in all facets of life, but particularly in sports, is never underestimate the relentless worker. I think Jalen embodies that. I always kick myself when I underestimate guys like that. And call me stupid once again, because I did with him.”
Van Gundy added that he believes Brunson has been “a legitimate All-Star” this season, “but for whatever reason was shunned” for that designation.
“I don’t get that, but I think the interesting part in all of this, I think there were three people who didn’t underestimate Jalen, and that’s Jalen and Rick Brunson and Tom,” Van Gundy said of Thibodeau. “I think everyone else was hoping he’d be a good to very good player, instead of what he is, which is an outstanding All-Star level player to maybe even better than that. That’s how good he’s been. Give all three of those guys credit for that.”
Van Gundy also credits Thibodeau — his longtime friend and a reputed defensive-minded coach — for having the Knicks near the top of the league’s offensive statistics, as well as helping “Randle participate in his own rescue” from a trying season last year to this year’s revival.
“Oftentimes, I think the people that study it and live it for a living, never tried to pigeonhole Tom as a defensive coach. I think that’s been more media-driven,” Van Gundy said. “He earned the praise from a defensive standpoint, because in Chicago he had elite defenses. So I think the praise was correct, I think what got overlooked though was you don’t get to be a great coach like he is without being able to be an excellent communicator, an excellent organizer, practice coach, game coach, understand the game from both offense and defense, situational play.
“I think with all the accolades — what is he a multiple Coach of the Year award winner? — even with all that, I’ve always felt that he’s somehow underappreciated at every point in his career.”
By: Ny Post