We have been reminded again in the last few days how little it takes to light the pilot lights of the most passionate fans of the Knicks. In a season triggered by Thanksgiving, in which a coach, a president and the best player on the team had already been kicked out, they were on Sunday night in Atlanta on the verge of winning a fifth game in a row.
And suddenly they blew this game.
And here, in a quiet but considerable number, came Knicks fans who, however crazy it sounded, enjoyed it. Because they felt that the part of their soul that was angry about the terrible losses of Knicks was sleeping might be dead. And yet it bothered them to lose this game.
"Actually," wrote a Knicks fan named Clyde Schwartz on Monday morning via email, "it bothers me that it bothers me."
Knicks fans want to believe. You want to believe in Leon Rose. They want to invest in the children RJ Barrett and Kevin Knox. They start to admire how hard Julius Randle plays every night, even if he doesn't always look pretty. Hell, they want to believe that this is finally the time when James L. Dolan, a contemptuous basketball owner, begins to emulate James L. Dolan, a revered hockey owner.
So you can imagine what the reaction would be if Dolan Rose gave complete freedom in choosing the next coach of the Knicks. And if Rose acknowledges that freedom by bringing Jeff Van Gundy back to the Knicks, back to Madison Square Garden, to finish what he started – swallow! – almost 19 years ago.
Van Gundy is expected to be on Rose's shortlist of candidate coaches. So did Tom Thibodeau, who used to work with the Knicks at Van Gundy before he was successful with the Bulls in Chicago. Either would be an excellent choice to establish a credible bridgehead on the Knicks bank, and Rose has a closer relationship with Thibodeau, who most recently trained with the Minnesota Timberwolves between 2016 and 19.
But it's Van Gundy that really inspires the Knicks' fan base, because Van Gundy is a real and eternal connection at a time when the Knicks were not only successful, but (along with the Yankees) were an integral part of the sport New York City.
From 59 games in the 1995/96 season to 19 games in the 2001/02 season, Van Gundy was a lunch pail coach who asked the Knicks to play defense, share the ball, sweat and bleed, and for to sacrifice the thing. He was 248-172 as the head coach of the Knicks. This 0.590 win rate is higher than that of Red Holzman. After Pat Riley (.680) it is the second of all time.
Van Gundy's time here was not easy to remember. He was believed to act as interimist after Don Nelson, unless it was immediately apparent how much better the Knicks were starting to play under him. He was almost fired in the 1998/99 lockout-shortened season before Dave Checketts decided to beat GM Ernie Grunfeld, and then survived a shadow power struggle when Checketts flirted with Phil Jackson that postseason while Van Gundy flipped the Knicks into Finale drove.
Several times in the spring of 1999, Garden fans sang Van Gundy's name as he shyly sipped a can of Diet Coke and watched his knicks defeat the Hawks, Heat, and Pacers. When was the last time you heard fans of a sport sing the name of a head coach here (without "MUST GO!" At the end)?
His teams weren't always eye-friendly. He was a brutal self-seeker. After the Knicks started 10: 9 in 2001/02, he gave up and gave up, which left a sour taste in some mouths, especially with Dolan. Van Gundy had lost his college roommate, Farrell Lynch, in the September 11 terrorist attacks, but there were many people who lost friends and loved ones and went back to work on that terrible day. It took him a while to forget that he was leaving, mostly because he seemed to have taken the Knicks mojo with him when he left.
But that was a long time ago. You only have to listen to him on ESPN or ABC for five minutes and know that he is still as smart and fiery as ever. He is only 58 years old and it always seemed as though he was better at coaching children, as good as he was with the veteran Knicks teams – and he proved that he had coached a cast of G in recent years -Leaguers in FIBA events that qualified Team USA for the World Cup and the Olympic Games.
The Knicks need building blocks of authority and gravity, and he would have both. It always felt like an unfinished story, Van Gundy and the Knicks. Now give him a few more chapters. Start the real rebuild with seasoned hands and reliable eyes and see if it can perhaps rekindle a bit of the old magic that used to be the garden's main industry.