I have a special place in my heart for ESPN basketball analyst Jeff Van Gundy, and it’s not just because he says whatever’s on his mind, no filter attached.
It’s because I was at Madison Square Garden on Jan. 15, 2001, when the Knicks’ Marcus Camby went after the Spurs’ Danny Ferry, threw a wild haymaker at Ferry’s bald noggin, missed and ended up head-butting Van Gundy above the left eye. Down he went.
Van Gundy, then the Knicks’ coach, had rushed in to try to keep Camby from connecting with a punch that might have sent him to jail for assault. Martyr!
Van Gundy lay stunned on the hardwood for nearly a minute, then got up, blood dripping down his face. He went to the locker room and returned, 15 stitches later, with a patch above his eye and looking a bit like Frankenstein’s monster.
This was on Martin Luther King Day, of all days, and the restrained, mend-the-fences spokesman after the game was none other than the Knicks’ Latrell Sprewell, a guy who once had choked one of his former coaches, P.J. Carlesimo, and been suspended from the NBA for a year as a result of it.
I bring this up only because Van Gundy has stirred things up on the Bulls. During the ESPN telecast of the Bulls’ game Friday against the Mavericks, he said the front office seems to be undermining its own coach, with much of the media parroting whatever message the front office secretly wants.
‘‘I read every Chicago story,’’ Van Gundy said. ‘‘There is no doubt the Bulls organization has the media, with a few exceptions, in their hip pocket. For whatever reasons, they have set their sights on Thibodeau when all he has done is deliver greatness in his five years.’’
I want to say right here that I think I must be one of those ‘‘exceptions’’ because I have no idea what vice president of basketball operations John Paxson, general manager Gar Forman or anybody else with a desk really wants to say — unless it’s, ‘‘Don’t ask us again about Derrick Rose’s knee surgeries.’’
It’s obvious to any fool that Thibs and the front-office folks disagree about certain things. Big deal. Thibs is a basketball lunatic, and Pax and Co. are control freaks. Lock them all in a room for a few days, and there would be nothing left but bones. So?
Van Gundy wasn’t done.
‘‘The team has publicly supported their coaches while privately undermining that same person. Think about it. They ran Phil Jackson out after winning all those championships. I think it’s wrong. It’s wrong for the team. It has not been fair to Tom.’’
Jeez, I’m thinking about something like a hidden cell of the CIA working with levers and propaganda to overturn empires. Assassinations, too? Hmm, whatever did happen to Rusty LaRue?
Yes, there are limits on players’ minutes. And said limits probably were ‘‘suggested’’ to Thibodeau by Pax and Co. That’s OK. Thibs would have his ‘‘circle’’ — those players ready to give their kidneys for research during breaks — play 48 minutes a game, if he could.
Rose is fragile. So is Joakim Noah. So is . everybody.
Thibodeau himself didn’t rise to Van Gundy’s bait, staying out of the mess.
‘‘He doesn’t speak for me,’’ Thibs said of his old pal.
Here’s the thing: It’s the middle of the season, and teams are bored, crabby, treading water until the playoffs almost three months from now. Nobody wants to get hurt. No coach wants to hurt a key player.
But with all that, why do the Bulls do well on the road against tougher teams and then lose to lesser teams at home? Why do they look so listless at home? How did they get embarrassed by the Heat on Sunday at the United Center, allowing somebody named Hassan Whiteside to get a triple-double?
Whiteside, a former member of the D-League who was waived by the Kings in 2012 and released by a team in the Lebanese Basketball League in 2013, lit UP the Bulls. His 14 points, 13 rebounds and 12 blocks in just 25 minutes are humiliating.
So we won’t worry about real or subliminal messages from the Bulls’ front office. What we see in front of us is strange enough.