It was a chance meeting at Syracuse’s summer basketball camp. Jeff Van Gundy and Steve Clifford – both recently out of college – were aspiring coaches. They hit it off and stayed in touch.
In 2000, Van Gundy, then New York Knicks coach, hired Clifford into the NBA as an advance scout. Then, in 2001, Van Gundy had an opening on the bench. Assistant Tom Thibodeau kept asking Van Gundy, ‘What are you thinking?’ ”
It wasn’t a question, it was an admonishment. As in, “The guy to hire is right down the hall!” pointing to Clifford’s office.
Seventeen years later, Clifford enters his fifth season as Charlotte Hornets coach, and Van Gundy is a television star, doing in-game commentary for ESPN and ABC. Van Gundy and Dave Pasch will call ESPN’s national telecast Wednesday night (7 p.m.) of the preseason exhibition between the Hornets and Boston Celtics.
Van Gundy fielded questions on the Hornets and the NBA Tuesday evening with Observer writer Rick Bonnell:
Q. How do you think trading for center Dwight Howard will work out for the Hornets?
A. It’s a calculated risk, and the right move for them. Dwight Howard is a Hall of Fame player. He’s not what he was in Orlando (the start of his pro career), but he’s still very good. If he’s getting to a time of self-reflection, which he should, he should ask, ‘What went wrong?’ (in stints in Los Angeles, Houston and Atlanta).
Steve, who coached him for five years (as an assistant), is his best chance to get the most out of him. And that gives the Hornets a much better chance (this season). Most elite big men are high maintenance. If he’s committed (to the team’s success), they’re much better for it.
Q. Your thoughts on first-round pick Malik Monk?
A. I think he can play some point guard. He can be a masterful scorer. Coming off the bench, he’s going to be dynamic. What it’s going to take for him to be more is committing himself to things like defense.
Q. What do you make of the Hornets’ prospects?
A. (Nic) Batum’s injury (a torn ligament in his left elbow) hurts. Even more so because of (injuries impeding) Charlotte’s depth on the wing. I think backup point guard play (with Michael Carter-Williams and Julyan Stone) is vital. And Howard taking advantage of his last best chance (to restore his reputation for dominant play). He needs to embrace this opportunity. He’s playing with an excellent point guard (in Kemba Walker) and an excellent, excellent coach.
Q. How have you enjoyed coaching Team USA in FIBA qualifying (coaching mostly G-League players)?
A. I really did like it, particularly the individual stories of G-League players.
I used to think the hardest job (in basketball) is major-college coaching because of the fine line to get the great players. Now I think it’s coaching in the G-League. No (player) wants to be there, there’s constant upheaval with the roster (turnover) and then you’re trying to play games (with organization and continuity).
Q. How would you project the Eastern Conference playing out this season?
A. I do it in tiers. Boston and Cleveland are 1 and 2. Then it would be Washington and Toronto. Then, Charlotte and Milwaukee. So many other teams have questions to answer, important changes (to process).
Bonnell: 704-358-5129: @rick_bonnell