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Tuesday, December 1, 2020

Sports

Ex-Rockets coach returns to basketball on Cougar grounds


Jeff Van Gundy has had a long absence in coaching since being fired from the Houston Rockets. He is primed for a comeback with his new job as head coach of USA basketball. | Frank Campos/The Cougar

Silence fills the walls of the Guy V. Lewis Development Facility’s practice court, where NBA scouts and journalists wait patiently for USA Men’s Basketball to begin practice.

Many of the players’ one-way flights to Houston landed only hours ago.

The team was assembled just weeks earlier and is attending its first meeting in another part of the basketball complex.

After more than 45 minutes, the shrill of a heavy-metal door located in the corner of the shiny gymnasium ends the whispering conversations. Seventeen jet-lagged players make their way across the hardwood and begin to put binders of materials away and stretch.

Return to the sideline

The last person to enter the gym is head coach Jeff Van Gundy, a former Houston Rockets coach making making his first return to professional coaching since being fired in May 2007. His fate was sealed one day after suffering a game seven loss to the Utah Jazz; his third first-round exit in four years.

In the last 11 years, Van Gundy has found his niche as the lead NBA analyst in ESPN broadcasts and has become a staple in the basketball community. Many have speculated over the years that a return to sideline might be in the works for Van Gundy, and on this day, it finally happened.

“The level of respect I have and the honor that it is coaching for USA Basketball, to coach these guys, there’s no higher honor than that,” Van Gundy said. “You’ll never feel a greater burden either, to try to do right by the players and try to do a good job for USA Basketball.”

New challenges

In preparation for the 2017 FIBA AmeriCup, USA Basketball is practicing at UH from Aug. 17 through Thursday and then traveling to Uruguay for a final tune-up before beginning international play on Monday.

“We’re very thankful that (UH) afforded us this opportunity to practice,” Van Gundy said. “I am so very impressed with the commitment the University of Houston has put into their (facilities). The football stadium, this practice court, the Fertitta Center, really a tremendous commitment. Administration has done a great job in providing them resources. It’s very impressive.”

Van Gundy makes his home in Houston but admitted the decision to host the training camp in his residing city probably had more to do with direct flights to South America than convenience. Regardless, the organization routinely plays in state-of-the-art arenas, and the Guy V. Lewis Development Facility is just that.

The team needs all the practice time it can get as the players have close to zero familiarity with each other or their coach. Team USA is not sending the high-profile athletes that normally fill its roster — instead, a group of players who have 622 combined games of NBA experience who will compete.

Van Gundy has coached multiple Basketball Hall of Fame members in his career, but this go around will be different.

“They’re smart guys, and they’ve played at a high level of basketball,” Van Gundy said. “Certainly we’re behind as far as preparation time, practice time, exhibition games and continuity that the other teams have. But that’s why we have to have a great passion and intensity about what we do.”

Learning opportunity

The team’s roster largely consists of players from the recently renamed NBA G-League and American-born players who play professionally overseas who may or may not have spent time on NBA Rosters.

Guard Kendall Marshall brings four years of NBA experience to the team, including starting 45 games for the Los Angeles Lakers in 2013-2014. He recognizes that he and his teammates have a unique opportunity to learn from one of the top basketball minds of the day.

“I’m excited,” Marshall said. “Anytime you have coaches from the highest level of basketball, who have been there for a long time, you’re eager to learn from them, be in front of them and be a sponge around them.”

In the end, only 12 of the 17 training camp attendees will make Team USA’s roster. Those who do will have a chance to impress scouts on an international scale.

Van Gundy’s decision will come within the next week, but for now his focus is set on developing intangibles among the crop of players.

“I think (our biggest goal is) having the right mindset,” Van Gundy said. “Knowing the competition, knowing how good the players and coaches are. You know, finding the right 12 (players) to bring. Developing a team spirit, country pride and a passion for how we’re going to play.”

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