Van Gundy, Once Again, All In And Ready To Go
Six hours before getting the first practice underway with his new USA Basketball team, former NBA head coach and current ESPN analyst Jeff Van Gundy couldn’t hide his eagerness to get things going.
“I am excited about the start of camp, because I know how significant these games are going to be in relation to us qualifying for the (FIBA) World Cup. This is really significant, and we’re starting from ground zero,” said Van Gundy, who is filling the critical role of head coach of the USA World Cup Qualifying Team.
It was only about 11 weeks ago that Van Gundy, as head coach of the 2017 USA AmeriCup Team, directed the Americans to an 81-76 comeback win over host Argentina to take the FIBA Americas zone championship. The U.S. finished a perfect 5-0 to claim the Americas title and the gold medals.
Now, Van Gundy’s back at it, and instead of trying to lead a USA team to a gold medal, he’s looking to help the red, white and blue earn a qualifying berth for the 2019 FIBA Basketball World Cup.
And once again, he is faced with several significant challenges.
The first is to quickly create a team from 12 players who, for the most part, are currently playing for NBA G League teams.
And with just six total practices on the calendar before the first game, he is faced with the task of preparing his new USA team for meaningful FIBA games in less than a week.
“We have four (AmeriCup) returning guys who I’m excited are back to give us some continuity. The eight new guys are going to have to catch up quick, and the biggest thing we have to do is understand our opponents and the challenges that both of them present, because they’re both excellent teams who are extremely well coached and have continuity of playing together.”
In the first window of the new FIBA World Cup Qualifying system, Van Gundy’s USA team will face Puerto Rico on Thanksgiving Day (Nov. 23) in Orlando, Fla., and, three days later, the U.S. will play Mexico on Nov. 26 at the Greensboro Coliseum Complex Fieldhouse, home of the Charlotte Hornets NBA G League affiliate Greensboro Swarm.
“For the AmeriCup we actually had more preparation time, so I think what that experience taught me is we have to streamline even more. Get right to what is important from day one. You don’t have a lot of time for experimentation with individual players or our team.
“The biggest thing we have to create is a chemistry, intensity and an identity over these next six days that leads to a passion, because we are going to have to play with great passion to be successful in these game,” said Van Gundy, who served as an NBA head coach for 11 seasons.
“I think there are two significant challenges. One, we’re getting players during a holiday break, Thanksgiving, where they are making the sacrifice to not be with their families and to be with us. You have find guys who are ultimate competitors, who will play any time, any place, under any conditions, and that goes to a competitive spirit.
“And then the second part is, there are no gold medals like we got in the AmeriCup, but there is personal and professional pride. We certainly don’t want to be a part of the group that lets USA Basketball down. We want to be part of a group that furthers our chances for qualifying for the World Cup, and, as importantly, we want this to be great for these 12 players’ careers. If they can show an adaptability to a new game, with new rules, more physical conditions, I think it can only up their stock in the NBA teams’ minds. So, I think it is a great opportunity for them professionally.”
Van Gundy continues to embrace his USA coaching opportunity, and again realizes it comes with great responsibility.
“It is still an enjoyable challenge, but you feel a great burden because as a coach you want to make sure you do your part to help USA Basketball and to get our team qualified and allow Gregg Popovich and the great players that will be assembled to do their thing.
“I think the hardest part of all this is going to be to get qualified. We’ve got to do our job so ‘Pop’ and his team can do theirs.”
Making Greensboro Home
The USA team is training at the Greensboro Swarm facility, which also is the site of the Nov. 26 USA-Mexico game (5:00 p.m. EST).
“I don’t have a lot of knowledge about G League facilities, but I was overwhelmed with what a great playing setup this is. From the perfect sized venue, great locker rooms, meeting space, weight room, there’s nothing that is missing where a team or an individual player can’t succeed.
“And what a great fan experience to be that close to the action in that intimate of an environment. The Swarm have a beautiful arena.”
Tickets for the Nov. 26 USA-Mexico game at the Greensboro Coliseum Complex Fieldhouse are available at www.ticketmaster.com, the Greensboro Coliseum box office and Ticketmaster’s charge-by-phone system at 1-800-745-3000. For ticket information visit greensboro.gleague.nba.com/usa/ or call 336-907-3600.
FIBA World Cup Qualifying Games And Home Court
Eighty national teams are competing in the FIBA Basketball World Cup Qualifying games across four geographical zones. The first-round qualifying games will take place in three separate competition windows through July 2018. In the first window, Nov. 23-27, each nation will play one home game and one away game.
FIBA has marketed the upcoming World Cup Qualifying games under the collective theme of “This Is My House.”
Playing at home is a rare occurrence for USA teams. The last real, home international competition for a USA Basketball men’s national team was back in 2002, when the United States hosted the FIBA World Championship for Men (now known as the FIBA World Cup) in Indianapolis.
The fact that this USA team will have a rare opportunity to compete on USA home courts in important contests, is something the USA mentor had not considered until asked about it.
“I hadn’t really thought about that,” admitted Van Gundy. “But I think every time you put on the jersey as a player or you coach representing your country, it is going to be emotional, it’s going to make you reflect on how blessed you are. But, to do it in front of my family here in the states, yeah, I think that is going to be a very significant day in my life and one I’m looking forward to.”