Maybe it is the time of year. But I felt nostalgic Tuesday afternoon.
I headed over to the Hyatt to hear former Orlando Magic Coach Stan Van Gundy talk to the Canisius College Cage Club at lunch time. It felt like old times.
Many of you might not know that once upon a time I used to cover local college basketball. A lot of people have told me over the years I was a much better sportswriter than I was a TV critic. Shockingly, they included some of the general managers of the local TV stations who don’t exactly love my criticism of their stations.
I also wasn’t the most beloved basketball writer in Western New York. I tended to be a little, well, critical.
When Canisius played in Memorial Auditorium, a banner was once in view on the third level where the orange seats were. It proclaimed “Alan Pergament’s Fan Club.” Needless to say, no was sitting in the oranges.
How long ago was that, you ask?
It was so long ago that the present Canisius basketball coach – Jim Baron – was the starting point guard at St. Bonaventure. I wasn’t that popular at Bona, either. However, one of my favorite memories was watching Baron (who is now 58) return home to his native New York City and lead Bona led to a NIT title in 1977 when the tournament at the Garden meant something.
The guy inside the Golden Griffin mascot suit back then was Erik Brady, who is now in his 50s and remains a gifted sportswriter at USA Today.
We still keep in touch. I ran into Erik recently at a restaurant and he told me that he called Canisius President John Hurley the day that Baron was fired from his job at Rhode Island and told Hurley that Baron was a good fit for the vacant Canisius job.
I know Hurley, too. The last time I ran into him was at a Canisius-UB basketball game right after he got his new job running the Main Street college. Hurley reminded me that he owes me a can of paint. It seems he painted one of my houses decades ago with his brother Dan and dropped a can of paint while riding his bike. Like Honest Abe, the president of Canisius could not tell a lie. It just took him about three decades to tell me.
I wasn’t unpopular with every Canisius coach. About the time Hurley was painting my house, I was friendly with Coach Nick Macarchuk, who took over the program when it was in worse shape than it was when Baron was hired. I respected Nick for his candor. I was so nice to him that I allowed him to beat me in tennis a few times every postseason. OK, “allowed” isn’t exactly the right word. He was a lot better than me. I still beat him up pretty good in print when the Griffs lost because I’m nothing but honest.
In that way, I have something in common with Van Gundy, a former Canisius assistant under Macarchuk whose mouth has gotten him in trouble at times.
How much trouble you ask? I was watching Channel 2’s Ed Kilgore Tuesday night introduce a story about Van Gundy’s visit here by saying the former Magic coach works for ESPN. Channel 2’s graphic referred to him as an ESPN “analyist.”
It was a Kilgore turnover. Van Gundy doesn’t work for ESPN. In a much-publicized story in late October, it was reported that ESPN may have backed away from hiring Van Gundy after NBA Commissioner David Stern apparently suggested that it wasn’t a good idea to hire his nemesis. ESPN issued a non-denial denial. ESPN should have hired him, but passed. Van Gundy then was hired by NBC Radio and also does some college games for the NBC Sports Network.
In any event, Stern’s interference freed Van Gundy to speak his mind about the commish at Tuesday’s luncheon and anywhere there is a microphone or a reporter’s pad. He called Stern “a bully” and discussed all the times he was fined $35,000 by the commish for speaking honestly. He got fined for agreeing with Stern that the NBA referees were very good (he said it when they weren’t working because of a labor dispute) or lousy (when they got back to work). Stern would have preferred it the other way around.
This led Van Gundy to tell Cage Club members that he made a request of the league office: “Will you guys decide (if the refs are good or bad) to save me some money.”
The guy obviously has a great sense of humor and is a great storyteller, which are assets for any TV analyst. Or analyist.
One of his best Macarchuk stories concerned the time when my tennis nemesis was the Fordham coach. He made his team practice the three-man weave for more than an hour of torture after an embarrassing loss to Princeton. His players didn’t see the point. (Good thing, they didn’t play for former Canisius Coach John McCarthy, who actually used the weave as his offense at times).
Finally, Van Gundy said Macarchuk told his players the reason for practicing the weave. “You guys made my life miserable yesterday, I’m making yours miserable today.”
Van Gundy also has a great self-deprecating sense of humor. When a Cage Club member asked Baron about the challenges of coaching his sons (son Jimmy played for him at Rhode Island, son Billy is playing for him now at Canisius after transferring from URI), Van Gundy didn’t have any sympathy. He said his father had a bigger problem coaching himself and his brother Jeff (who is the lead NBA analyst for ABC and ESPN after coaching in the NBA) that Baron doesn’t have.
“We stunk,” said Van Gundy. “Jimmy’s sons can play.”
On the other hand, Van Gundy said he had a problem coaching the Miami Heat that Baron doesn’t have. Baron can be involved in his team’s scheduling, something a pro coach can’t do.
“I started 0-7 at Miami and I was looking (to play) Savannah State or someone,” cracked Van Gundy.
He always had a crack ready after Baron spoke about something or someone. Baron mentioned that former St. Joseph’s guard Jameer Nelson – who played for Van Gundy with Orlando — was one of the toughest players his college teams have faced.
“I’ll have to tell Jameer that after telling him for five years how much he stunk,” joked Van Gundy.
You’ve got to love the guy. Except if you’re David Stern. I wish he were on ESPN. After one nostalgic afternoon, I’ve become a proud member of the Stan Van Gundy Fan Club.