The former franchise savior in a heartfelt post on his own personal Facebook page announced the news that he will be leaving the NBA, at least for now, to play for the Qingdao Eagles in China. One chunk from that status update stood out:
Isaiah Thomas, Rich Devos, Leslie Alexander and John Gabriel, you believed in me and I thank you. Jeff Van Gundy, you exemplified the brilliance of what a great coach is. Steven A. Smith, you gave us players a voice and for that I thank you. Doug Christy, Charles Oakley, Dee Brown, Mugsy Bogues, Antonio Davis, Dell Curry, Kevin Willis, you all showed a young kid from Auburndale Florida how to be a better player. Kobe, you made me work harder and it was an honor to play against you. And Yao, we shared an experience together that will always be with me, thank you.
The Stephen A. Smith dynamics were interesting because I can’t recall another athlete, at least in this sport, outright showing appreciation to a media figure for serving as an outlet to the public. But what hit home more was the mention of Jeff Van Gundy, the only such mention in the post of a former coach.
We’ve heard Van Gundy rave about McGrady’s talents over the years on national broadcasts, even recently going so far as to say that T-Mac was the closest thing he had ever seen to a perfect body and a good mind. Until now, we didn’t know if the appreciation was mutual.
I’ve contested that Jeff Van Gundy was the best coach this team has had in the now-close-to-20-years I’ve been following it. I felt this way because, despite his reputation as an authoritarian, Jeff was a realist. He knew how to get through to people in unconventional manners. His communication skills are precisely why Kelvin Cato and Cuttino Mobley enjoyed career years under his tutelage.
The thing about Jeff, like any good teacher, was that he knew what buttons to push and that not everyone can and should be dealt with the same. Guys like McGrady and Kelvin Cato needed to be handled delicately, in McGrady’s case because he was a diva and in Cato’s case because he lacked drive and self esteem. You never heard Jeff even remotely disparage either of these players in the media. On the contrary, he asked of more from Yao in his public statements because he knew Yao could take it. Yao didn’t break at criticism.
One might contest that Van Gundy ruined Francis’ career. I’d strongly disagree. With the leash Rudy T. had given him from the start, I’d argue that the damage had already been done. No one before Jeff had ever held Francis accountable.
My greater point though is that I think there’s a lesson to be learned here. Van Gundy got the most out of McGrady because he understood him. There were rumors that McGrady was allowed to sit out at practice and his lack of intensity on defense was tolerated. Why? Because McGrady was a hall-of-fame level talent at the other end. It wasn’t worth alienating him simply out of idealist demands.
From what we heard last year, I worry somewhat about Kevin McHale. He’s old school and seems to want to hold everyone accountable equally. I think that makes for a great speech but I’m not sure that’s always the best approach. Everyone has different buttons that need to be pushed.