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Van Gundy hails importance of the World Cup Qualifiers for basketball
GREENSBORO (North Carolina) - There will be an enduring image of the United States' successful Americas Qualifiers' campaign for the FIBA Basketball World Cup 2019. It is one of the players jumping up and down wildly with Reggie Hearn after his buzzer-beating game-winning jump shot against Argentina.
It will serve as a reminder of just how much it meant for Hearn and all his teammates to win another game for their country. Yet it will also be viewed as proof that other teams and players from around the world are getting better and pushing American teams to the limit.
"We won so many close games that we could have lost," Van Gundy said in an interview published by Italy's Gazzetta dello Sport. "We have to understand that our opponents have already reached a high level and will continue to grow."
"I WAS AN ABSOLUTE NOVICE WHEN I CAME TO FIBA BASKETBALL, LEARNING DAY BY DAY ABOUT HOW GOOD THE TEAMS ARE, HOW HARD THEY PLAY, JUST HOW ROUGH FIBA (COMPETITION) IS. THAT’S NINETIES PLAYOFF BASKETBALL IN THE NBA, HAND-TO-HAND COMBAT, FIST DOWN YOUR THROAT, ELBOW IN YOUR CHEST, ON EVERY POSSESSION. YOU HAVE TO GET USED TO IT AND YOU HAVE TO EMBRACE THE DIFFERENCES."
So yes, the campaign was successful, but it was one that has raised more eyebrows in the United States. International basketball, or "FIBA basketball" as Van Gundy calls it, is tough and getting tougher.
In his post-game remarks after the 84-83 win over Argentina, Van Gundy said: "I was an absolute novice when I came to FIBA basketball, learning day by day about how good the teams are, how hard they play, just how rough FIBA (competition) is.
"That’s nineties playoff basketball in the NBA, hand-to-hand combat, fist down your throat, elbow in your chest, on every possession.
"You have to get used to it and you have to embrace the differences."
Van Gundy did embrace it.
"I found it fascinating, the level of coaching and playing around the world has improved and I thought I started to get a better handle the more I did it on what it took to win in FIBA basketball," he said.
Puerto Rico gave Van Gundy’s team two very tough games before losing by seven and eight points, respectively.
Uruguay led the USA, 65-64, with less than 2:30 remaining in Montevideo on December 2 before losing by eight while Argentina would have beaten the Americans a second time in the Qualifiers had Hearn not drilled a game-winning jumper from the right corner at the buzzer.
"These windows have to serve as a warning for USA Basketball to grow even more because all of these teams are getting better and we were very fortunate to qualify," Van Gundy said, before also recognizing that even for the countries that did not win as many games, the Americas Qualifiers were beneficial.
"Having taken part in them, I think they've been positive for teams that don't get to play much together, like Cuba, Panama and Venezuela, who grew so much," he said.
"I think FIBA has, as its primary objective, growing basketball on a global level. And the windows work in order to achieve this objective."
Van Gundy has been involved in basketball all of his adult life. He was a point guard at Menlo College (1981-82) in California, The College at Brockport, State University of New York (1982-83) and at Nazareth College (1983-85) in New York, and then got immediately into coaching at the high school level before working as an assistant for NCAA teams Providence and Rutgers before getting a big chance as an assistant with the New York Knicks.
"THESE WINDOWS HAVE TO SERVE AS A WARNING FOR USA BASKETBALL TO GROW EVEN MORE BECAUSE ALL OF THESE TEAMS ARE GETTING BETTER AND WE WERE VERY FORTUNATE TO QUALIFY."
As a head coach in the NBA, he led the Knicks (1996-2001) and Houston (2003-07).
His first national team opportunity arrived in the summer of 2017, when he coached the United States to FIBA AmeriCup 2017 glory in Argentina.
Now he's guided the team through a tricky Americas Qualifiers campaign, one that saw the team win 10 of 12 games. He will now hand the national team reins to Gregg Popovich, who will coach the USA at the 32-team FIBA Basketball World Cup in China, which tips off on August 31.
"I always dreamed of representing my country,” he said. “This experience will forever remain an incredible honor and whatever I do in the future will never be able to surpass it."