Jeff Van Gundy Excited for Challenge, Rewards of Leading USA Men at World Cup Qualifiers
The NBA coach turned broadcaster has the U.S. 4-1 in the third window of the first round.
Coaching basketball is in Jeff Van Gundy’s blood. He is the son of a coach and has spent a lifetime on the hardwood, first as a player, and later mentoring some of the best players in the world. More recently, he has spent the past decade as a broadcaster for NBA games, including the NBA Finals each year since 2007.
So, even though it had been a decade since Van Gundy last coached, it made sense for him to return to the sideline last year when USA Basketball asked him to lead the Men’s National Team in the 2017 FIBA AmeriCup and qualifying rounds for the 2019 FIBA World Cup.
As he and members of the national team finish off another window in that qualifying process, Van Gundy is 9-1 in international competition – 5-0 in winning the AmeriCup and 4-1 thus far in qualifying — and enjoying each moment he has on the court. He’s coaching a team made up mostly of players who have spent time in the NBA and the NBA G League.
In the first two qualifying windows in November and February, he coached a total of 14 players who were signed to NBA contracts during the 2017-18 season.
“I’ve enjoyed it,” Van Gundy said. “Coaching is enjoyable in general, but specifically to USA Basketball, because everybody – players, coaches, everybody – is volunteering their time, so you want to be doing it for a worthwhile cause, which is obvious, and you want to do it with great people.
“I think with USA Basketball, any entity is only as good as the people that work there. So, working under Sean Ford (national team director) has been an absolutely great experience for me. He’s smart. He’s diligent. He’s trustworthy, all those ingredients that make a high-level leader. So, that has been good, and then getting to work with players like we’ve been able to work with. You don’t have a lot of continuity within our team. There are
is a lot of changes window to window, but it’s gratifying to work with the G League players and particularly to see the G League players improve their career after they leave USA Basketball.”
While his 9-1 record to this point in international play would suggest Van Gundy has good players and a solid grasp on the game, he said the differences between international rules and the NBA concern him, because players must adapt to doing things in a way they are not used to.
“It’s a huge deal,” he said. “It’s one of the things that makes us vulnerable. I’ve coached ten international games. They’ve played very few international games. We’re going up against teams who — that’s how they grew up. They’re used to the differences in rules, the differences in interpretation of the rules, dealing with the FIBA officials, referees.
“All those things give our opponents significant advantages. … We don’t want to underestimate the differences, nor our opponents. They both represent really significant challenges.”
First, Van Gundy is led members of the team through a training camp in Houston (June 20-26) before departing for the next two games in the 2019 World Cup qualifying process. The USA fekk to Mexico 78-70 on June 28 in Mexico City, and on Sunday, July 1, played in Havana, Cuba, against the Cuban national team.
He said some might take for granted that the U.S. men will qualify for the World Cup. But, he cautioned it’s a difficult process against quality competition where there are no sure things.
“It never gets old putting on the USA jersey for the players, and for the coaches – it’s the same deal,” Van Gundy said. “You’re excited for the opportunity but also understand the challenges and the obstacles and the responsibilities that lie ahead.”
There are seven players returning for this qualifying window who played for Van Gundy in one of the previous windows. But there are also five new faces, which makes it a challenge to integrate the team and get everyone on the same page. Xavier Munford, who played for the Milwaukee Bucks last season and for Van Gundy and the national team, is one of the 12 players on the USA roster for the last first-round window of games. Munford said he has enjoyed being around Van Gundy.
“He’s one of those coaches who is going to push you to be the best you can be,” Munford said. “He’s going to put you in positions to play to your strengths. He has a lot of knowledge about the game. He’s been around for a long time. So, any advice you can take from him is great.
“He’s definitely a fun guy to be around. He’s got a lot of jokes and stuff. He keeps guys laughing and loosened up and stuff, but he also doesn’t really tolerate any goofing around when it’s time to come to work on the court.”
Van Gundy said it makes him happy to see the players participating in this process also have success in their quest to continue their professional careers at the NBA level.
“The difference between a high-level G League player and the 12th, 13th, 14th man on an NBA team, that difference is very slight,” he said. “So to see them and their hard work getting rewarded and to see them making it to that level or getting another shot at that level is awesome. I’m so happy for them.”