Jeff Van Gundy Excited for Challenge, Rewards of Leading USA Men at World Cup Qualifiers
The NBA coach turned broadcaster has the U.S. 5-1 heading into the September window of the second round.
(This feature orginally ran June 28, 2018, and has been updated to reflect results through the first round and the USA preparing for its September second-round games)
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 a new group of players prepare for a pair of second-round games in that qualifying process, Van Gundy is 10-1 in international competition – 5-0 in winning the AmeriCup and 5-1 thus far in qualifying — and enjoying each moment he has on the court. He is again coaching a team made up mostly of players who have spent time in the NBA and the NBA G League.
In the first three qualifying windows in November, February and June/July, he coached a total of 27 players, 15 of those 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 (men's 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 10-1 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 will lead members of the team through a training camp in Las Vegas (Sept. 6-13) before taking on the challenge of the USA's first two games in the second round of the 2019 World Cup qualifying process. The USA will host Uruguay on Sept. 14 at UNLV's Cox Pavilion in Las Vegas, and on Monday, Sept. 17, plays in Panama City, Panama, against Panama's 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 just two players returning for this qualifying window who played for Van Gundy in one of the three previous first-round windows. There are also 10 new faces, which makes it a challenge to integrate the team and get everyone on the same page. Reggie Hearn, who played for the Detroit Pistons last season and for Van Gundy at the AmeriCup and the November and June/July World Cup Qualifying teams, is one of the 14 players vying for roster spot for the September second-round window of games. Hearn said he has enjoyed being around Van Gundy.
“Probably the first things I think of are precision and discipline. He calls everybody to the same standard, holding everybody accountable to it no matter who they are. I think people and players respond to structure, when we know what is expected of us it helps us to rise to that standard,” Hearn said. “I was actually joked with him before practice and I told him, 'Hey, do you want to get up and give the pre-practice speech because I’m pretty sure I know what to expect'. He said, 'oh no, I’ve got a few tweaks.' Between what he said to us before practice and a lot of the stuff we did in practice, I dang near feel like I could be an assistant coach and help him run the practice. When you know what to expect like that I feel like that’s easy for a player.
"He does a great job of balancing work and keeping the mood light, work and play essentially. We are here to do something very significant for the country yet at the same time he can keep things light.”
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.”
Kyle Ringo is a freelance contributor to USAB.com on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.