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ESPN analyst Jeff Van Gundy lauds Bulls’ aggressive approach to building team

Van Gundy, who will call the game Friday against the Warriors, praised Bulls exec Arturas Karnisovas for taking risks in the offseason.

Mark Jackson (from left), Jeff Van Gundy and Mike Breen call an NBA game in December. Van Gundy and Breen will call the Warriors-Bulls game Friday night on ESPN.
Mark Jackson (from left), Jeff Van Gundy and Mike Breen call an NBA game in December. Van Gundy and Breen will call the Warriors-Bulls game Friday night on ESPN.
Gabriella Ricciardi/ESPN Images

It looks silly now, but the Bulls’ acquisition of DeMar DeRozan last August was not roundly praised in NBA circles.

Some believed the Bulls paid too much and gave up too much in the sign-and-trade with the Spurs. One ESPN writer said DeRozan was “ill-fitting with Chicago’s current core” and gave the Bulls a D-minus for the deal.

At the time, ESPN TV analyst Jeff Van Gundy had other thoughts about Bulls exec Arturas Karnisovas’ move.

“I’m thinking that this guy is serious about winning,” Van Gundy said this week. “A lot of people in management are always playing the long game because it’s also a safe game.

“What Arturas did was, he valued DeRozan more than anyone else, and he’s been rewarded. He valued [Lonzo] Ball more than most, and he’s been rewarded. And the same with [Alex] Caruso. It’s a tremendous lesson in roster-building.”

Van Gundy will team with play-by-play voice Mike Breen and sideline reporter Monica McNutt to call the Warriors-Bulls game Friday at the United Center.

Considering Van Gundy is in his 15th season with ESPN, it’s easy to forget his one year with TNT in 2002-03, between coaching jobs with the Knicks and Rockets. He worked with Marv Albert and Mike Fratello, who also had called games together at NBC in the 1990s.

“It was an unbelievable learning experience,” Van Gundy said. “The biggest thing that I saw was the camaraderie between Marv and Mike and their genuine reactions or jabs at each other. It was really good, and you can’t fake it.”

But Van Gundy and Albert weren’t always on good terms. Albert was the voice of the Knicks from 1967 to 2004, and they crossed paths when Van Gundy was a Knicks assistant and then head coach between 1989 and 2001. At the time, MSG Network didn’t produce a typical home-team broadcast, and Van Gundy thought Albert was highly critical of the Knicks, particularly star Patrick Ewing.

“Back then, there were no pregame and postgame shows. You just didn’t see each other,” Van Gundy said. “And so the couple of times we spoke, it wasn’t great. He felt that he needed to be as unbiased and straightforward as he could be. I wanted a homer.”

Having been in the business, Van Gundy said he realizes broadcasters aren’t going to please everyone. He also knows fans on both sides will think he favors the other team. But he appreciates working with his longtime crew of Breen, analyst Mark Jackson and producer Tim Corrigan, who have provided a solid foundation for Van Gundy in his second career.

“They accepted me for what I was and also for what I wasn’t,” Van Gundy said. “And so instead of trying to change everything about you, they work with you and try to give you pointers here and there. They don’t plant the seed of self-doubt.”

Van Gundy is an excellent analyst, and he and Jackson share a repartee similar to that of Albert and Fratello. But he also admits he isn’t a polished broadcaster, and producers know not to bother talking into his headset while he’s speaking. He can’t handle it.

Breen impressed upon Van Gundy early the importance of word choice, telling him not to use “great” when a play is only “good” because you have no place to go from there. But Van Gundy tries to simplify his role to its fundamental task.

“On air, it’s really not a hard job,” he said. “Say what you see. That’s basically the job.”

The saying part, however, can be problematic. During the Western Conference finals last season, Van Gundy disagreed with a flagrant-foul call and said, “I am sick of the sissification of the game.”

“Yeah, people didn’t like that,” said Van Gundy, who was criticized for using the demeaning word “sissy,” never mind giving it a suffix. “I truly try very, very hard not to get myself fired with offensive language. And then on the other hand, I try not to be offended when people are critical of me.”

Fans of the 1990s Bulls likely remember Van Gundy calling former coach Phil Jackson “Big Chief Triangle,” after the team’s offense and Jackson’s fondness for Native American culture. Van Gundy still regrets the nickname. As the son of a coach — and brother of former coach and current TNT analyst Stan Van Gundy — he regrets denigrating a coach and his beliefs.

Being in Chicago will give Van Gundy the chance to reconnect with another coach, the Bulls’ Billy Donovan, whom Van Gundy coached as an assistant at Providence. It might sound strange to those who remember the rivalry with the Knicks, but Van Gundy is happy to see the Bulls’ success.

“Arturas has done a heck of a job,” he said. “He took a lot of criticism, overpaid Ball, overpaid DeRozan supposedly. Guess what? Look at us now.”