Prior to the season, a passage in the paper one morning punched Jeff Van Gundy in the stomach. True happiness is waking up every day and realizing what a great life you have, the author, Anna Quindlen, wrote.
Yes, there it is, he thought.
"It was the simplest way that I ever heard a definition of personal success," Van Gundy said Thursday.
He wouldn't go so far as to call it an epiphany, but the words stay with him, serving as something of a baseline in the back of his mind. In his New York Knicks days, Van Gundy evolved into the patron saint of the basket-case coach – the five o'clock shadow, the bags under his eyes, the full uniform of the bleary, beleaguered slouch.
"You know, it's not like I've got great perspective on anything – not even good perspective – but I've got some perspective," Van Gundy said. "I think I've matured and evolved in some way. The losses still eat at me and I'm still distracted by the job when I'm home – but maybe not as much."
Just listening to himself, he had to laugh. Remember, this guy once dropped out of Yale and enrolled at Menlo Junior College because he wanted to get more run on the basketball team.
"It's not like I've seen the light and burst through into this other place," he said, "but I'm trying to do better with all that."
On his way, Van Gundy has delivered one of the better coaching jobs in the NBA this season.
Once the Houston Rockets lost Yao Ming to a broken tibia before Christmas, even the most ambitious of expectations had them fighting to stay close to .500 until his return in March. Yao was having an MVP year, a breakout season in every way. And even if Tracy McGrady's troublesome back responded to a new-age therapy, the suggestion that the Rockets could stay within a whisper of the second-place San Antonio Spurs in the Southwest Division seemed improbable.
"I'm not going to lie, but I thought they were in real, real trouble when Yao went down," said Bill Van Gundy, the patriarch coach of the family that includes Stan, late of the Miami Heat.
And still, Houston, at 31-17, meets the first-place Mavericks in Dallas on Friday night, just 1½ games back of San Antonio for second in the Southwest and the third seed in the Western Conference. Without Yao, the Rockets have won 15 of 22 games and still maintained the best scoring defense (90.3 points per game) in the NBA. Without its All-Star center, Houston is hanging around, looming like an intriguing threat in the West.
In Yao's absence, the Rockets have had to completely transform the way they play – from inside-out to outside-in. In every way, Van Gundy has reshaped this team on the run. In the pitiful East, Van Gundy's mentor, Pat Riley, couldn't respond nearly as well without Shaquille O'Neal. Somehow, Houston is winning at a respectable rate in the West with Dikembe Mutombo playing effective minutes in the middle, with Juwan Howard resurfacing as a rotation player and with McGrady needing to restore his standing to superstar status.
As much as anything, Van Gundy went to work on the psyche of McGrady, even after the Rockets had completed the transformation to Yao's team this season. McGrady kept beating himself up in interviews, throwing out possible retirement scenarios, sounding like a shell of himself. McGrady's back problems had taken as great of a toll on his mind as his body.
So much of an NBA coach's job is telling players that they're not nearly as good as they think they are, and here, Van Gundy had gone on a mission to relentlessly pump McGrady in private and public.
"I thought he was into too much self-analysis, too much about what he couldn't do," Van Gundy said. "He felt he always needed to answer the questions, and he really put into question in his own mind about how good he still was. His focus was maybe too much on what he had lost, when he still has an ability to be a dominant player in the league."
All in all, this season has turned into Van Gundy's finest work as an NBA coach. He's had Yao and McGrady in and out of the lineup so often with injuries, it sure would be intriguing to see what they'd look like together in the playoffs. Even if Van Gundy hasn't had the best fortune on the floor with the Rockets, Houston has been a better place for him to regain a balance to his life.
If nothing else, he's become a father again in his 40s with two year-old Grayson, and that has left him much more sensitive to all the things he missed in his 30s with his 11-year old, Mattie.
"I know this: Because you know it's the last one, you really hate to see them grow out of stages that you love," Van Gundy said. "When I was in my 30s, I didn't mind that time going quickly. Now, as they get older, I want everything to slow down."
His father Bill said: "He's definitely had to make some adjustments in his priorities, see things differently, and I don't know if he could've done that [in New York] or not. I do know that he has more of a life away from the Rockets in Houston than he did in New York with the Knicks."
From a distance, Jeff looks longingly at his older brother, Stan, and marvels over the semblance of order he's found outside basketball. Jeff lived it on some level between the Knicks and Rockets jobs, but concedes that finding a balance beyond basketball has come easier for Stan.
"I think he's found a purpose and contentment and rhythm of life right now, something that's more important than whether his team defends the pick and roll on the run well," Jeff said. "He's in a different place in life.
"More shallow guys like myself are still here trying to figure it out."
Another month, and Yao Ming will be back for the Rockets. The job gets a lot better then for Jeff Van Gundy, but truth be told, it isn't so bad now.
- Jeff Van Gundy