Coaches Corner: Jeff Van Gundy
Having undertaken nine different USA Basketball assignments since 2017, former NBA head coach and commentator for ESPN, Jeff Van Gundy, has compiled a 15-2 overall record as a USA head coach for a sterling .882 winning percentage.
In 2019, Van Gundy served as the director of scouting for the USA World Cup Team, and during the team's August training camp, served as head coach of USA Basketball Select Team during the team's Las Vegas and Los Angeles training camps.
As the USA World Cup Qualifying Team head mentor, Van Gundy led USA World Cup Qualifying Team rosters in six windows of play, featuring 54 different players, to a 10-2 record and first place finish in FIBA Americas, which qualified the USA for the 2019 FIBA World Cup.
In his first USA Basketball coaching assignment in 2017, Van Gundy led the USA to a 5-0 record and gold medal finish at the FIBA AmeriCup, which serves as the FIBA Americas zone championship.
For his efforts in leading the USA to the 2017 FIBA AmeriCup title and the first two wins of the FIBA World Cup Qualifiers, Van Gundy was selected the 2017 USA Basketball National Coach of the Year.
Van Gundy boasts of 18 seasons of NBA coaching experience, including 11 seasons as a head coach and seven seasons as an assistant. As a head coach, he compiled an overall record of 430-318 (.575) and led teams to the NBA playoffs in nine of his 10 complete seasons, owning a 44-44 all-time playoff record.
USA Basketball spoke to Coach Van Gundy to gain some insight and perspective on coaching.
During this time, what type of coaching duties are you doing daily?
Well, since I don't have my own team, there's nothing that I’m doing on a daily basis, but what I find comforting is talking to other coaches, because obviously I enjoy basketball, I enjoy the fellowship with other coaches, and I love debating topics. It's really been, for me, in a period of isolation, a terrific way to reconnect with old friends or to connect with totally new acquaintances. So that part, to me, has been a lifesaver.
Face to face is always easiest for me but, I’ve found it, in this Zoom era, actually easier and more user-friendly than I would have thought. I'm not good with technology. That's not my strength, but I found it really, really good. I think for me, when you combine fellowship and basketball, it's a grounding point for me, as far as something I look forward. And more people have more time, so they have more time to actually discuss things and talk through things. I think everybody's had to slow down a bit, and they have more time in their day for friendship
What is the most important lesson you've learned in your coaching career?
I just think overall, coaching is teaching, and the best coaches, to me, are the best teachers. It starts with caring deeply about the people that you're in charge of educating. So, that would be your players, and if you keep that servant mentality in mind, I think it absolutely benefits those that you're trying to impact. It also gives you the best chance of success and not worrying about what's next, not worrying about what’s not in your control, not getting bogged down in complaining about your job, how it is harder than others may be. I think overall, just doing your job to the best of your ability, to serve those that you're tasked in trying to help, and making it no more complicated than that.
During your coaching career, was there an overarching principle or emphasis that you tried to instill within all your teams?
I would say ‘your actions speak so loud; I can barely hear what you say.’ Actions being much more important than words. In basketball, most times, you get what you deserve. That goes to your work ethic, to your sense of team, how much you're willing to sacrifice for the betterment of the team. Those things sort of guided how I viewed how my teams did.
I think it's different in pro basketball than it is with younger levels. I was a head coach in high school. I coached in college for three years, but then I've been in the NBA or in professional sports ever since. I think professional sports are different, because you're dealing with other adults. It's not it's not the same type of relationships that you might build with younger, amateur athletes, but it still comes down to people need to know how much you care about them. Certainly, those relationships are important towards team success. It's hard to have great team success without great team chemistry, and great team chemistry is born out of honest, direct communication and relationships.
What is the most important characteristic that you worked to develop with your athletes?
Sacrificing for the good of the group. I think that's an ongoing, intangible, and is the most important to success. I think the secondary one would be enjoying other people's success. So, you need to learn to sacrifice for the betterment of the group, giving up yourself for the betterment of the group. Then, hopefully, you can also enjoy that sacrifice by enjoying other people's success. I don't see that very much in society today. We're constantly comparing ourselves to others, versus enjoying other people's success.
Something else that I believe in greatly is that comparison is the thief of joy. You start comparing yourself, or your job or anything to somebody else's, invariably, you're going to feel diminished, or someone else will feel diminished in comparison to you. I don't think if one person succeeds it means that the other one fails. I think if we could get out of that whole social media ideal of who's doing better … I just think there's so many things that have helped, but that comparison aspect, I think it hurts greatly younger generations and every generation.