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Van Gundy is a star in the booth

June 13, 2008|Larry Stewart | Times Staff Writer

Jeff Van Gundy is in an enviable position. For one thing, as an ABC-ESPN commentator working the NBA Finals, he gets to sit courtside. For another, he's not going to be fined $100,000 by the NBA for anything he might say, as he was in May 2005 when he was coaching the Houston Rockets.

In a first-round playoff series that year, Van Gundy was speaking to reporters at the team hotel in Dallas before Game 5 when he said a referee not working the playoffs had called him and warned that officials were looking harder at Yao Ming because of complaints to the league office by Mavericks owner Mark Cuban.

That comment, and Van Gundy's refusal to identify the official who called him, resulted in the fine, the largest ever levied against an NBA coach.

Yao fouled out in 20 minutes of Game 1 and was called for four fouls in Game 2. In the final two games of the seven-game series won by the Mavericks, Yao had five fouls in each.

Now it comes to light that among the court-filed claims by banished NBA referee Tim Donaghy is that an NBA owner complained that an unnamed player was getting away with illegal screens during a 2005 playoff series and that referees working that series -- Donaghy was an alternate -- were instructed to enforce screening rules more strictly.

It's now seems clear Cuban was the owner and Yao the player.

Although Donaghy's claim may vindicate Van Gundy, he wants no part of it.

Reached on his cellphone before Thursday night's Game 4 of the Lakers-Celtics finals, Van Gundy said, "Donaghy has no credibility. Zero. You have to dismiss anything he says.

"He's an admitted felon. He has already tarnished the game so much, you can't give him any credibility. He doesn't deserve any.

"If he was still employed by the NBA, that would be one thing. But he's a guy who is going to jail and trying to lessen his sentence."

Of more immediate concern to Van Gundy is the NBA Finals, which continue on ABC with Game 5 Sunday night at Staples Center. And, he said, for the foreseeable future, broadcasting is his focus.

"I try not to plan too far ahead, and I certainly still consider myself a coach," he said. "But I don't view broadcasting as a short-term job. I'm committed to one more year, and I don't see getting back into coaching any time soon."

When Van Gundy, 46, was coaching the New York Knicks, he never envisioned a career in broadcasting.

But after he resigned from that job on Dec. 8, 2001, Marv Albert recommended to TNT that Van Gundy would be a perfect fit on that network's NBA telecasts.

And he was.

He left TNT in 2003 to coach the Rockets. He was fired in May of last year, and almost immediately he served as a guest analyst for ESPN on a Utah-San Antonio playoff game.

He's now working alongside play-by-play announcer Mike Breen and commentator Mark Jackson. "I feel very comfortable working with them," Van Gundy said, "and I'm so grateful that they were open to a three-man announcing team."

Good thing too. Van Gundy has become the star of an announcing team in need of one. He's not afraid to express an opinion or say whatever is on his mind. His sense of humor helps too. He's the closest thing ABC has to a Charles Barkley, even though Barkley is a studio analyst and Van Gundy a game analyst.

Mike Pearl saw the potential when he first hired Van Gundy at TNT on Albert's recommendation. Pearl later left TNT for ABC, which has since become part of the ESPN empire, and Pearl latched on to Van Gundy as soon as he became available. His guest appearance for ESPN on the Utah-San Antonio game was essentially an audition, and Van Gundy passed with flying colors.

Not bad for a guy who knew nothing about broadcasting until 2001.

"I never thought about working in broadcasting, and I had no appreciation for how difficult it is," Van Gundy said. "I soon realized that guys like Mike Fratello make it look easy, and it certainly isn't.

"I'll tell you how green I was. The first time I was on the air, they were talking about what we were going to say during the opening. I said, 'What's an opening?' "


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