Story of Stan Van Gundy | Part 1: An early love for the game
Part Comedy Central roast, part interview.
That’s perhaps the best way to describe what it’s like to speak with people who’ve known Stan Van Gundy the longest, as they recall Stan the aspiring athlete. Forty-plus years ago, the current New Orleans Pelicans head coach was an eager freshman guard at NCAA Division III school SUNY Brockport, near Rochester, N.Y.
“Stan was not athletic in any way,” said Bill Van Gundy, Brockport’s head coach in the late 1970s, who is also Stan’s father. “He wasn’t tall, wasn’t long. He was not quick. But he was strong enough for his size. Not athletically gifted at all, but a very efficient player.”
A Brockport teammate, college roommate and longtime friend of Stan’s, Al Walker, uses a similar description.
“(We were) two guys who played non-scholarship, Division III basketball,” Walker said, chuckling. “We were guys with limited athletic ability, who generated as much mojo as we could, given our (lack of) God-given gifts. Stan was an average athlete, a really thin guy who didn’t have any kind of meat on his bones. He was maybe 160 (pounds) in college, if I’m just guessing. But he was a tremendous competitor. He fought like heck, every single possession.”
Bill remembers a very young Stan dreaming of perhaps becoming an NBA player or baseball major leaguer, but the boy was only consistently elite in the classroom, not on the court or field. At Brockport, “the biggest award he got was an academic one,” Bill noted, referring to Stan being named his conference’s scholar-athlete of the year as a senior.
“He was not a typical 18-year-old,” Walker said of Stan, both academically and socially. “Most of us (in college) are out there having way too much fun. Stan was always very, very, very disciplined in his approach, to each day, to his life. He was more structured as a human being than most of us knuckleheads. The difference between him and everybody else at 20 was he had great discipline in his approach and a vision of who he wanted to be and where he wanted to go. Most of us don’t know what we want to do in life at that age. You’re having fun and you’re all over the place (mentally).”
Born in Indio, Calif., and having graduated from high school in the San Francisco Bay Area, Stan moved across the country in 1977 to play college basketball for his dad at Brockport (present-day enrollment: 8,000). According to the school’s website, the Golden Eagles went 3-17 that winter, but a losing record wasn’t the only reason the ’77-78 season was so tense in the Van Gundy household. Making sure not to demonstrate favoritism to his son, Bill’s modest minute allotment for Stan wasn’t appreciated by other members of the family.
“In his freshman year, it wasn’t enjoyable, probably for either one of us, because of the fact that in Stan’s mind and his mother’s mind and his brother’s mind, I didn’t play him enough,” Bill said, referring to wife Cindy and youngest son Jeff, the future NBA head coach of the Knicks and Rockets. “So you’ve got that to deal with. I was always attentive to the fact that I didn’t want to show any special preference to him. I was harder on (Stan and Jeff) than any other players. But that was by design.”
Looking back now, Bill describes Stan as having point guard size, but a shooting guard skillset. Stan was an overachiever in multiple senses of the word.
“He probably exceeded (his natural ability),” Bill said, launching into another mini-roast of Stan. “He was a tremendous free-throw shooter – his sophomore year he did not miss a free throw, but he only took 60, because he didn’t get past anyone (off the dribble). Despite not having any real quickness, Stan was a very good defender. I think that came from him having seen so much basketball and being involved with so many coaches throughout his lifetime. I think that was an advantage for him.”
Indeed, Stan and Jeff Van Gundy were “part of the team” for squads coached by their father from the time they could walk. As Bill described it, “they lived in the gyms. From the time Stan was 2 years old, he rode the team bus to games and sat on the bench, and Jeff was the same way. They were around it all the time. They’d go to practice with me.”
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