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ON SPORTS MEDIA

ABC's Jeff Van Gundy calls it as he and everyone else sees it

The former NBA coach is honest, and knows as much about celebrities as he does the game. He says it isn't artifice, and is self-deprecating about his broadcasting talents.

June 02, 2010|By Diane Pucin

You have to like this in a man, especially a man who will be analyzing the NBA Finals on ABC, who will tell us what to think about -- whether Paul Pierce is a better closer than Kobe Bryant or how it is Derek Fisher will keep up with Rajon Rondo.

Jeff Van Gundy reads US magazine. And People magazine. Even an occasional issue of Star. His ABC producer, Tim Corrigan, tells us this. So do his play-by-play man Mike Breen and his analyst partner Mark Jackson.

This is a good thing. How else to keep up with Lamar Odom's marriage to a reality star named Khloe or to identify who it is sitting in those pricy seats at Staples Center? Is that Neil Diamond with suddenly less hair? Why, yes it is and Van Gundy will know this.

"He's a funny guy," says Jackson, who has been known to argue with Van Gundy on-air and carry on the disagreement to a late dinner and back to the hotel lobby. "Jeff makes great points, but then he'll go above and beyond his point and shatter his point, just to make a point."

Jackson said that Van Gundy is as charmingly honest as TNT's Charles Barkley but with maybe a little better filter.

For example, Jackson says, there is Van Gundy's assertion that there should be an NBA rule — no matter how far behind a team may be, 25, 30 points, whatever — if it makes a half-court shot, the game is tied.

"Is he serious?" Jackson said. "Exactly. Kind of. He wants games to be close so he says stuff, he just goes above and beyond. But he doesn't get in trouble."

Van Gundy, who also suggests there should be no fouling out in the NBA because who wants to see the subs, says it isn't artifice. "I'm not skillful enough to do that," he said. "I say what I see, that's all I can do."

This career he has right now, as a basketball announcer instead of as a coach, isn't really a career, he says. It is an interlude. His great desire is to eventually coach basketball again as he did with the New York Knicks and Houston Rockets.

But he has this successful career detour thanks to veteran NBA broadcaster Marv Albert.

"I didn't know him well," Van Gundy said. "He was the Knicks announcer but it wasn't like it is now, there wasn't much interaction between coach and announcer. Yet he was the one who pushed me to TNT. He got me my first job at TNT, unsolicited."

The network hired him for the 2002-03 season, after he resigned as the Knicks coach in December 2001. "I was surprised I was able to get another job," Van Gundy said.

He went back to coaching, though, taking over the Houston Rockets the following season. But then in May 2007, despite playoff appearances in three of his four seasons and a record of 182-146 with Houston, Van Gundy was fired. He wasn't out of work for long, though. ESPN/ABC grabbed him to work the 2007 playoffs and he's been there since.

When he speaks about his broadcasting talents, Van Gundy is self-deprecating. He mocks his work on pregame set pieces, on the openings and closings. "I'm just not good," he said.

But Breen, the professional announcer of the threesome, said Van Gundy doesn't get his own talent. "He's very good at all of it," Breen said. "He's very much a natural."

Here's what makes Van Gundy so charmingly listenable. Without missing a beat, in between descriptions of a Rajon Rondo move and a Dwight Howard play during Game 3 of the Eastern Conference finals in Boston, Van Gundy noticed a fan dressed half-and-half, part Celtics, part Lakers. Of course the guy was glued to his cellphone. "Yeah, you're on TV. Yeah. And you look like a clown."

Exactly. Van Gundy said what we're all thinking. And he reads People too.

diane.pucin@latimes.com

twitter.com/mepucin

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