At some point in my childhood, I realized I wouldn’t be a professional athlete. That didn’t stop me from playing sports—badly—or obsessing over the major leagues (past and present). But when I fantasized about a future in the business, I never pictured myself on the court or the field. I narrated the action, in my head or aloud. I imagined building the perfect team around myself. At no point did I relate to the athletes themselves. If I had a future as an “athlete,” it was really just an excuse to take on some other role in the equation—coach, general manager, or even announcer. Someone like Jeff Van Gundy.
The National Basketball Association playoffs—which, if you haven’t been following, are the best they have been in years—are Van Gundy’s most prominent annual moment. The former New York Knicks coach turned incandescently yappy ABC/ESPN broadcaster can be heard and seen in prime-time throughout the season and two to three times per week during the playoffs, which run from mid-April to as late as mid-June. Hubie Brown, with his boundless enthusiasm and warm first-person plural, is the dean of hoops color commentary. Charles Barkley’s smart-dumb/dumb-smart act rules the studio crews. But after them, only Van Gundy (and maybe relative newcomer Chris Webber) pulls off the combination of intelligence, humor, and irony expected of the league’s on-air personalities.
Almost all Jewish basketball fans (and plenty of non-Jewish ones) have, at one time or another, sought to confirm their intuitions about Van Gundy, who is diminutive and bald; talks too much and always sounds slightly annoyed at himself for doing so; and, of course, has that vague yet unmistakably European surname. The strong prima facie case for Van Gundy’s Jewishness is only enhanced by his connection to the Knicks, a franchise with strong Jewish overtones. Both Jews and Knicks fans tend to be eager for anything resembling a Jewish presence in Madison Square Garden (during his time as a Knick, current Golden State Warriors forward David Lee—not a Jew—was subject to similar whisperings).
Van Gundy took over as the team’s coach in 1996 after spending six seasons under his mentor, the great Pat Riley, as well as another half-season under Don Nelson. With his rumpled jacket, furrowed brow, and nervous intensity, Van Gundy could not have been further from the hair-gelled, Italian-besuited, and aristocratic Riley. Riley drank from the fountain of youth; Van Gundy was never without a Diet Coke, and seemed to age with every press conference without ever assuming a shred of gravitas. He was an underdog who smirked at having to prove he belonged, too smart for his own good, and yet determined to drive himself crazy with a slow, punishing, inherently frustrating brand of basketball. The Knicks made the playoffs every year he was coach; in the strike-shortened 1999 season, they entered the postseason as the Eastern Conference eighth seed and made it all the way to the Finals—only the second Knicks appearance in the championship series since they won it all in 1973, and exactly as many Finals appearances as Riley accomplished with the franchise. In 2001, Van Gundy stepped down because of exhaustion, a slippery bit of sports euphemism that, in his case, seemed unusually literal.
Van Gundy joined TNT’s broadcasting team, where early attempts to go stern soon gave way to gabby humor. Then came a coaching relapse, as he took the Houston Rockets to the playoffs from 2003 through 2007. Then, he returned to the booth, at which point he morphed into a caricature of himself, dispensing coach wisdom like an absent-minded professor, railing against pet peeves and specks of enemies, and replacing his trademark scowl with an audible grin. A few years on, he has entered the realm of shtick, even camp—further exacerbating his case of mistaken Semitic identity.
I wish there were a more elegant way of putting this, but I feel I have to sadly announce: Jeff Van Gundy is not a Jew. He appears on none of the Internet’s copious directories of Jewish athletic professionals. His Wikipedia page makes no mention of his religious background. On Answers.com, the question lingers—itself unthinkable for a genuine Jewish sports figure, given the near-obsessive interest in recognizing and cataloguing them. “Van Gundy,” when you think about it, is pretty obviously Dutch, and his family’s Hudson Valley roots hammer this one home. The Website “Jew or Not Jew” cites “various Catholic and Jesuit institutions” in his past. (I learned that ESPN confirmed that Van Gundy is not Jewish, and that he did not wish to offer any further comment on the matter.)
More than any other case, Van Gundy illustrates that, in looking for a Basketball Jew—in looking for any Jew—we are really looking for what we already think we know. We hear hoofbeats and look for a horse, forgetting that horses can approach quietly, and forgetting, also, the existence of zebras.
This past summer, superstar Knicks forward Amar’e Stoudemire sent ripples through the community by proclaiming himself Jewish and traveling to Israel to get in touch with his roots. It was almost too easy: the Knicks’ newly minted superstar experiencing de facto conversion months after signing. Stoudemire, a sculpted, 6-foot-10-inch tall African-American, didn’t exactly register as Jewish; much early discussion, which in retrospect took the entire thing way too seriously, wondered exactly which brand of Judaism, or perhaps just how crazy a Black Hebrew sect, Stoudemire might have some vague family tie to. At the end of the day—after Stoudemire popped up on Israeli television wearing a gigantic yarmulke, but before he retreated to mushy platitudes about “original culture” and outlandishly vowed to honor Shabbat despite his chosen occupation—the conversation was exciting for basketball-loving Jews. As long as his, and our, delusion was plausible, this was the next best thing to a certified Jewish All-Star. Given the fraught relationship between blacks and Jews, maybe this story could have a happy, legitimate ending for everyone.
Stoudemire meant well and genuinely showed interest in Judaism—his reputation for depth helped amplify the gesture. However briefly and farcically, we were momentarily grateful, and if we were bamboozled, we have no one to blame but ourselves. Predictably, though, Amar’e the Jew proved to be little more than a gusty meme, the equivalent of a summer jam that remains tethered to those months.
By contrast, nobody could question the literal Jewishness of Sacramento Kings forward Omri Casspi. The first Israeli to play in the NBA, Casspi is a point of pride for anyone who ever attended Hebrew School or took a summer trip to the Holy Land.
At the same time, though, Casspi is unmistakably Israeli. While Diaspora Jews and Israelis have more in common with each other than do, ahem, Diaspora Jews and Stoudemire, that Casspi is a sabra is a crucial distinction that has too frequently been glossed over. As a giant, jump-shooting Magen David, Casspi is of immeasurable importance; that his play is lithe, athletic, and doesn’t lend itself well to tropes of identity is probably for the best. However, it also separates him from his American audience, many of whom have spent time among Israelis and found Israelis quite different from themselves. This isn’t a question of Jewish masculinity or some benighted idea that Jews need play Jew-y. But Casspi’s otherness should not be ignored. Israelis aren’t Americans.
Meanwhile, since 2006, one full-fledged American Jew—not a high-profile trick question like Stoudemire or a whirlpool like Casspi—has played in the NBA: New Jersey Nets guard Jordan Farmar. Born of a black father and a Jewish mother and raised by an Israeli stepfather, Farmar is indisputably one of us. And yet Farmar is consistently overlooked, if not scorned, even though he got real playing time on two championship Los Angeles Lakers teams—hardly a status that kept him out of the spotlight. Maybe if he now played for the Knicks, not the Newark Nets, or had Stoudemire’s talent, things would be different. Then again, the combination of Farmar’s skin color (he looks more black than Jewish) and his undeniable authenticity might be exactly the kind of needling that Jewish NBA fans don’t want out of icons.
Our humoring of Stoudemire, our safe distance from Casspi, and our Farmar-blocking eye-patch are all related to our fascination with Jeff Van Gundy. Because Van Gundy, if only by accident, fits the bill. That’s why the bond sticks; that’s why we can’t help but claim him.
In recent years, the Jeff Van Gundy Question was further complicated by the emergence of his younger brother, Stan, as a major figure in his own right. Like Jeff, Stan got his start as an assistant under Riley and later succeeded his mentor, in this case as head coach of the Miami Heat. Since 2007, Stan Van Gundy has helmed the Orlando Magic, which he took, in a spot of tremendous coaching, to the 2009 Finals. Stout, mustached, swarthy, Stan bears an undeniable resemblance to the Jewish porn star Ron Jeremy. (What I mean, you comedians, is that their faces look alike.)
Stan magnifies many of his brother’s trademarks. He talks with his hands even more than his brother did; evolved (de-volved?) his brother’s ill-fitting-suit look toward an even more distinctive “style” of wearing polo shirts and mock turtlenecks under blazers, like some third-rate ’70s TV detective; and mouths off to reporters with at least as much of Jeff’s righteous indignation and none of his sly humor. (Stan would never get work as a broadcaster.) Where Jeff frequently bewildered his players, Stan seems on occasion to positively embarrass them.
Stan also is a more sophisticated coach than his older brother and has been at least as successful. Certainly, he has a more fully realized philosophy of coaching and a more ample bag of strategic tricks. This should, of course, have aided the misguided case for Stan Van Gundy’s Jewishness, given actual Jews’ distinguished history of basketball coaching. Yet, somehow, Stan’s unmitigated bellowing and lack of contradictions—and, yes, his appearance—are exactly why Jeff, and not he, has been, well, chosen as an accidental icon. When I asked Twitter about the Jewishness of the Van Gundys, Jeff was much-cited. More than a few respondents, however, admitted that they always read Stan as Italian. Well, of course.