Archive for Sunday, December 9, 2001

Decision to step down catches New York players by surprise

December 9, 2001

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— Jeff Van Gundy resigned unexpectedly as head coach of the New York Knicks on Saturday, saying he had lost his focus and thought about quitting since the summer.

The stunning decision came as the Knicks were playing their best basketball of the season, winning five of six games to get above .500 after a poor start.

Van Gundy was in his seventh season with New York, the longest tenure by a Knicks head coach since Red Holtzman guided the team for 10 seasons beginning in 1968.

"In my heart I knew what was right, but it was still a difficult decision to come to," Van Gundy said at the Knicks' practice facility.

"I didn't feel my focus was at its best. I didn't want to hurt our team. I certainly don't regret the effort I put forth. I just think it's time to step back and let the team move on."

Van Gundy said he spoke with team president Scott Layden several times since the summer to express how he was feeling and that he decided Wednesday the day after a 14-point victory at Milwaukee that he was going to quit.

He's the first NBA coach to resign or be fired this season.

"I'm going to step back and exhale for the first time in 13 years," Van Gundy said. "When I told my daughter today, she said: 'Does this mean you get to have lunch with me?' So that's cool."

Van Gundy told the players of his decision at their morning shootaround.

"We were all shocked. I didn't see this coming at all," guard Mark Jackson said.

Van Gundy took the Knicks to the playoffs in each of his first six seasons, including a trip to the 1999 NBA Finals and two trips to the Eastern Conference finals.

Assistant Don Chaney coached New York against the Indiana Pacers at home Saturday night, but the team said it hadn't chosen a head or interim coach.

The 39-year-old Van Gundy had been a member of the Knicks' staff since 1989, serving as an assistant under Pat Riley, Don Nelson and Stu Jackson.

Van Gundy's only other head coaching job was at McQuaid Jesuit High School in Rochester, N.Y.

He leaves as the third-winningest coach in team history with a record of 248-172, including 10-9 this season.

"He said he wanted to spend more time with his family. He's a little burned out," guard Howard Eisley said.

Van Gundy said "burnout" wasn't the correct word, but he had trouble coming up with a pinpoint explanation. He spoke to the media for almost an hour, interjecting several humorous lines and nervously shaking his foot as he sat on a table outside the gym.

"My legacy is not being a great peacemaker in big-man altercations," said Van Gundy, who got in the middle of fights between Larry Johnson and Alonzo Mourning during the 1998 playoffs and between Marcus Camby and Danny Ferry last season.

In the first scuffle, Van Gundy grabbed Mourning by the legs and was tossed around like a rag doll until the fight ended. In the second one, he was head-butted above the eye by Camby.

Van Gundy said some of his best memories include the fans chanting his name during the 1999 playoffs, his first coaching victory over Chicago in 1996, when the Bulls were on the way to a 72-win season and the Knicks' trips to the league finals in 1994 and 1999.

"Trying to quantify why it's the right decision is very difficult," he said. "I didn't have the focus that I would want, although I don't think others noticed it."

Van Gundy had two years remaining on his contract and was due to be paid about $7.5 million. He said he had no idea what his future holds but added that he loves coaching in the NBA.

Van Gundy is known as one of the league's hardest working coaches and his haggard appearance and moody demeanor had become a fixture in New York.

"I probably have the hairline and the face for radio," he said, joking.

Van Gundy routinely reported to work at dawn and spent hours reviewing videotape and preparing game plans. Players praised his work ethic but often resented his stubbornness.

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