Jeff Van Gundy spent five seasons with the New York Knicks as an assistant coach to Pat Riley. He studied just about everything about Riley’s style of basketball. Apparently, that study included a willingness to throw himself in the middle of an NBA brawl.
Like his mentor, Van Gundy never shied away from starting conflicts in the media. He had the gumption to call Michael Jordan a con man. Despite not boasting Riley’s size or past athletic background, JVG also felt comfortable physically mixing it up with grown men.
Pat Riley became Jeff Van Gundy’s boss during the 1991-92 season
The New York Knicks needed a change heading into the 1991-92 season, so they turned to the guy with the slicked-back, greasy hair. Jeff Van Gundy had a new boss, one with championship experience.
Having previously coached the Showtime Los Angeles Lakers dynasty of the 1980s, Pat Riley sought to instill an entirely different style in New York. With Patrick Ewing anchoring the middle and physical forwards such as Charles Oakley, Xavier McDaniel, and Anthony Mason on the roster, the Knicks attempted to knock opponents around much like the “Bad Boy” Detroit Pistons.
New York tried to send a message to Michael Jordan and the Bulls in December 1991. The Knicks later pushed the Bulls to seven games. But it wasn’t until the 1992-93 season that New York cemented its bully status, especially after a March date with the Phoenix Suns.
Riley got wrestled to the floor during a 1993 brawl between the Knicks and Phoenix Suns
On March 23, 1993, two of the best teams in the NBA squared off in Phoenix. But this matchup between the Knicks and Suns became known for brutality rather than elegant or fundamental play.
Near the end of the first half, Knicks guard Doc Rivers and Suns star Kevin Johnson exchanged pleasantries on multiple occasions. After drawing an offensive foul on Rivers, KJ got into his face. The two were separated, only for Rivers to return the favor on the other end of the floor, hollering words in Johnson’s direction. Well, KJ had enough of the games.
As Rivers brought the ball up the court in the final seconds of the half, he attempted to set a rub screen on Johnson. The Suns guard nailed Rivers in the chest with a forearm shiver, and the Knicks guard immediately got up and went after Johnson.
Benches cleared, with players and coaches from both sides getting into it. That included Pat Riley.
Knicks guard Greg Anthony, who wasn’t even in uniform, appeared to reignite the situation. Though he tried to play the role of peacemaker, Riley got thrown to the ground as he tried to break things up, ripping his pants in the process.
Six players got ejections. The NBA also changed rules on fighting in the aftermath of the contest. The new policies included rules forbidding players from leaving the bench.
Years later, Van Gundy suddenly found himself as a key figure in another infamous brawl. And this time, Riley was on the opposite bench.
Van Gundy held on to Alonzo Mourning’s legs during a fight between ‘Zo and Larry Johnson
When Riley abruptly (and controversially) left the Knicks for the Miami Heat in 1995, Van Gundy took over as head coach. Interestingly enough, the former co-workers soon found themselves in the mix of a heated rivalry.
The bad blood began when the two teams met in the 1997 NBA playoffs, when Heat forward got into it with Knicks guard Charlie Ward. Miami and New York got after it again in the first round the following season. This time, two old friends set the stage for a wild scene.
Alonzo Mourning and Larry Johnson developed a beef that goes back to their days as Charlotte Hornets teammates. So when the two got into fisticuffs in the final seconds of Game 4, Van Gundy probably should have known better than to intercede.
The Knicks head coach tried to separate the friends turned foes. He ended up clinging to Mourning’s legs, with ‘Zo desperately trying to wriggle himself loose. Van Gundy, poofy hair and all, got up and acted like he wanted more smoke, despite having literally been trampled on.
Still, while JVG might not have been as suave as Riley (in just about anything), he followed Riley’s lead in carving out his own place in a famous NBA brawl. Perhaps it’s fitting, considering how the careers of the two men were intertwined for so long.