One of the stranger periods in the history of U.S. national-team basketball concluded on Monday night in Greensboro, North Carolina, with the American men’s team formally qualifying for the 2019 FIBA World Cup.
The U.S. won a meaningless – but exciting – game against Argentina on a last-second shot by guard Reggie Hearn for an 84-83 victory, coming back from a nine-point deficit in the fourth quarter.
As clutch as Hearn’s shot was, the real star was U.S. coach Jeff Van Gundy.
Now 57, Van Gundy hadn’t coached at all since his four-year stint with the Houston Rockets from 2003-07. He had been with ESPN since then, but was asked to head the effort to qualify the U.S. team for the World Cup (FIBA’s new name for its world championship tournament).
Could he handle it?
The challenge was real. The FIBA rules did not allow NBA players to compete in the qualifying competition, which stretched from November 2017 through last Monday night. There were six different game “windows,” with two games per window, in November 2017, February, June, September, and December of 2018, and in February 2019.
Van Gundy never had the same team to work with for more than two games at a time. There were six different “teams” which ultimately included 54 different players, all from the G League or free agents:
● One player – Hearn (Stockton Kings) – was on the team for five of the six windows.
● Two players – guards Travis Trice (Austin Spurs) and Xavier Mumford (Wisconsin Herd) – were part of three windows.
● Nine players were on the team for two windows.
● 42 players were on the team for just one window (maximum two games).
And Van Gundy was able to put together teams which won five of six first-round games, losing only to Mexico in Mexico City in June 2018, and five of six in the second round, losing only to Argentina, 80-63, in La Rioja, on 29 November last year.
Van Gundy’s teams averaged 86.2 points a game, gave up only 67.8 and were second-best in per-game rebounding with 44.1.
This is outstanding coaching, and was publicly noticed by the man who will coach the U.S. team – with NBA players – in the FIBA World Cup in China, Gregg Popovich of the San Antonio Spurs.
He told the New York Post prior to the final game against Argentina just how good he thought Van Gundy’s effort was:
“He’s better than most of us as a coach. I think most people know that, but that’s not always what gets you hired. Circumstances, and those sorts of things, and personal situations, and timing has to be right and all that, but he’s certainly somebody who would make a [NBA] franchise better than they are now.”
“He was remarkable, spectacular, off the charts, what he did to qualify USA for the world championships. He put together about five different teams, of mostly different players every time, and had a short amount of time to get ready. If they didn’t do well, the U.S. doesn’t go, and he deserves a lot of credit for doing that. I’m very grateful to him for what he did.”
Van Gundy was asked after the Argentina win what he learned from the player carousel and from the qualifying tournament experience:
“I think the biggest takeaway is my respect for the G League players. The grit, the perseverance, the commitment they have to their career.
“There is such economic disparity from being the last player in the NBA to some of the best players in the G League that you have to have a mental fortitude about yourself, and it wasn’t enough for us to win and qualify. Equally important to us was that they enjoyed their experience, that they would want to do it again, and most importantly that it helps their career.
“I think exposure to this level of competition, a lot of them haven’t played in this high-level or high-intensity game that meant so much since college, so we just wanted to be good for that. So many of our guys have gone on to play in the NBA. Not because of what we did, but because [USA Basketball Men’s National Team Director] Sean Ford picked the right guys.
“When Sean and Gregg Popovich approached me about it back in June 2017, I was an absolute novice when it came to FIBA basketball. Learning day by day about how good the teams are, how hard they play, just how rough FIBA is: like that’s 90’s playoff basketball in the NBA.
“Hand-to-hand combat, fist down your throat, elbow in your chest on every possession. You have to get used to it, and you have to embrace the differences. I found it fascinating the level of coaching and playing all around the world has improved, and I thought I started to get a better handle the more I did it about just what it took to win in FIBA basketball.”
Van Gundy deserves a lot of credit himself for being able to juggle his own broadcasting duties with being able to coach the American squad into the World Cup. He won’t be there in China; the U.S. staff will include Popovich, Steve Kerr (Golden State), Nate McMillan (Indiana) and Villanova coach Jay Wright.
The team will be an NBA All-Star squad, as usual, and heavily favored to win its third straight world title, which will also qualify it for the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo. The draw will take place on 16 March and the U.S. will find out where and when it will play its first-round games.
But none of this would be possible without Van Gundy’s leadership and acumen in bringing a group of unheralded players together to get the U.S. into the tournament. He’s quite a good broadcaster, but in case anyone has forgotten, he’s also quite a coach.