Preach on, brother Jeff: we're hanging on your every harangue. (David Dow/Getty Images)
To: Jeff Van Gundy, ESPN / ABC
From: A fan of the truth
Why am I not surprised that, in the same week that you told Newsday you're still a New York Knicks fan, you'd be rumored by CBS Sports to be at the top of the list to coach the Knicks' cross-borough rivals, the Brooklyn Nets?
You are the last of a dying breed of broadcasters who actually say what they're thinking instead of trying to pander to the masses or the bosses. Better still, you seem to maintain and even gain respect for it.
When I was young and first started watching sports, I was privileged for a few years to see the late great Howard Cosell "tell it like it is." Whether his stance on an issue was popular, or even correct, was never the issue. The draw was the electric thrill of seeing a sportscaster taking such a strong stand, one way or the other.
One of the first boxing matches I ever watched was Howard Cosell's last. I remember staring in shock at Randall "Tex" Cobb getting the living crap beaten out of him. I, along with millions, watched Larry Holmes, round after round, pulverize Cobb's face into a bloody mash resembling beet soup and gelatin. And still, the assault continued, on and on, showing no sign of stopping or even slowing.
It was horrific to the point of madness—and yet the only voice of sanity was Cosell's, saying what I have to believe everyone with half a sense of medical propriety was thinking: Why isn't someone stopping this fight?
He was so outraged that he never broadcasted another round of boxing—by choice.
He took a stand.
That ilk of broadcasters has faded, replaced with generic rich baritones, one the same as the next, brimming with peppy bromides but carefully manicured to avoid any utterance that might be the least bit opinionated, let alone controversial.
I'm, of course, not counting tiresome rabble-rousers like Stephen A. Smith and the ever-irksome Skip Bayless. They're just stirring up controversy for controversy's sake, blowing hot air to fill up time on ESPN. I consider their so-called opinions to be, with an assist from Shakespeare, tales told by two idiots, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.
You're different, Jeff. You broadcast like you coached: full of verve and passion, and most of all, honesty. You wear your heart on your sleeve. That's an increasingly rare quality in this world of talking heads, spouting glittering generalities.
Like your take on Dwight Howard's attitude here. You know why it stands out? Because you're telling the truth, plain and simple—a truth that everybody thinks, but it seems no one nowadays has the guts to voice.
I daresay your frequent criticism of the league for their inaction regarding rampant flopping might have actually caused the fat cats in their ivory towers (any resemblance to David Stern is purely coincidental) to get off their heinies and finally do something to improve—some might say restore—league credibility.
If the emperor were naked, you'd be the go-to guy for the role of town crier. I guarantee you Cosell would be proud.
I'm not saying you're always right, Jeff. Heck, I'm not even saying you're always in your right mind—clutching onto Alonzo Mourning's leg in the middle of a fracas is a good way to get yourself a punctured lung or a fractured cranium.
But I have absolutely no doubt you call it like you see it.
Translation: I don't for a minute doubt your assessment of the situation.
How about when you accused the league of a conspiracy to target Yao Ming? For such a far-out charge, Stern sure got upset, didn't he? To the tune of $100,000 and a thinly veiled threat to oust you from the NBA. Again, the commish's harrumphing only made me believe you more.
In sports, we are lied to more often than we're told the truth. We're fed the same tired quotes and creaky observations contest after contest without apology, or even shame. We're taught to value a sports broadcast rife with clever phrases and ex-jocks' jokes, style over substance, content without essence.
Phooey, I say. I much prefer my sports with a side of truth, Van Gundy style.
So much about the NBA in this era seems slick, polished, sanitized and soulless. By stark contract, you are raw, unfettered, vitriolic and very much alive.
And Jeff, to my ears, mind and heart, that is music.
Matthew Stockman/Getty Images
We didn't always win and we never got to the last step, but I don't think there were many times when fans left a game thinking, "They didn't bring it tonight. They half-assed it."
Whether you stay behind the broadcaster's desk or return to the sidelines, no one will ever say you half-ass a second of what you contribute to professional basketball.
Thanks for giving it all you've got. Thanks for taking a stand. Thanks for keeping it real.
Thanks for carrying on the grand old tradition of telling it like it is.