When Stan Van Gundy roams in front of the Orlando Magic bench during the NBA Finals, his biggest fan will sit within earshot and wear a headset.
The coach’s younger brother, Jeff, will analyze the game for ABC - and struggle to contain his pro-Magic bias - as the series between Orlando and the Los Angeles Lakers gets under way Thursday.
“I definitely want them to win, there’s no doubt,” Jeff Van Gundy said. “But during the games I’m going to try and be as objective as possible.”
In a conference call with reporters this week, Van Gundy said he considered recusing himself from the series because he feared he could not criticize his brother’s performance.
Fellow analyst Mark Jackson and play-by-play man Mike Breen convinced him to stay on.
“Mark said, ‘Well, that’s no different. You’re never critical of any coaches,’ ” said Van Gundy, the former coach of the New York Knicks. “That made a lot of sense to me because I know how hard the job is, and Mark and I try to say what we’d do, but we don’t spend a lot of time second-guessing.”
The irony is that neither Van Gundy believed the Magic would get this far in the postseason. Earlier this year, the brothers purchased an Alaska cruise for their parents as a anniversary gift. They eventually realized the cruise took place during the Eastern Conference finals, so they rebooked… to two weeks later.
“We thought it would be a safe time, but thankfully it’s not safe,” Van Gundy said. “They’ll be watching the last three or four games on a satellite dish in Alaska or wherever the cruise is taking them.”
Van Gundy avoided calling any Magic games during the playoffs - until now - because all of Orlando’s games were broadcast on TNT. It will be interesting to see how fans react to his analysis in the finals, but chances are there won’t be much uproar.
The potential for bias is ubiquitous in sports broadcasting these days, and fans generally don’t complain about it too loudly.
Fox didn’t bench Joe Buck when his beloved Cardinals won the World Series in 2006, and it allows Troy Aikman to analyze Cowboys games. TNT never asks Charles Barkley to leave the studio when the 76ers come up in discussion during halftime shows.
In other words, Van Gundy will get away with it, in part because he has emerged as one of the more likeable NBA analysts on television. His commentary is constructive and his self-deprecating, unassuming manner is refreshing.
Replacing him in the broadcast probably would create more outrage than his presence would generate.
“The level of honesty that he portrays when he’s on the air is what makes him a great analyst,” said Norby Williamson, executive vice president of production for ESPN/ABC. “Dealing with this situation is nothing different. He’s been honest about it. He’s been open about it. The Lakers certainly haven’t had any issues… and I don’t think the fans will.”