Beilein, Van Gundy become linked through the NBA

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In the first game of his only season as Nazareth men's basketball coach back in 1982, John Beilein walked into the gym at SUNY Brockport and saw two teams in the midst of a wardrobe malfunction. As it turned out, Beilein's team, the Golden Flyers, were wearing gold-colored 'road' uniforms – the same shade as Brockport's 'home' jerseys.

"The game was delayed for a half hour because Brockport's guys had to go back to their dorm rooms and change into their visiting uniforms," Beilein recalled recently. "There was no equipment manager back in those days, so they had to go back to their dorm rooms to change."

For the Golden Flyers that evening there was no discernible dysfunction on the court as they were able to accommodate Beilein in his Nazareth debut with a 93-71 victory. Nazareth finished 20-6 in his only season, because "I inherited a tremendous team that was ready to win right away," he said.

Among the players who had to change jerseys that night was none other than Jeff Van Gundy, the starting point guard who transferred to Nazareth a year later – Beielin had moved to Syracuse to become head coach at Division II LeMoyne – and became a standout player for the Golden Flyers.

Now, some 37 years after that coincidental encounter, the basketball odysseys of Beilein and Van Gundy are about to intersect once again as both have emerged as household names with prominent roles in the National Basketball Association. After more than three decades coaching college basketball, including the last 12 at the University of Michigan, Beilein recently was named head coach of the Cleveland Cavaliers.

Beginning Thursday, Van Gundy, equipped with 10 years of NBA head coaching experience, will serve as game analyst for the NBA finals (featuring the Golden State Warriors and the Toronto Raptors) on ABC television for the 13th year in a row.

"I've been fortunate that I was able to latch onto this role and stay involved in the game," Van Gundy said recently. "There are a lot of things that I miss now that I'm no longer coaching, but in this role I'm no longer immersed like I once was."

Their link to Nazareth – Van Gundy played two seasons and helped the Golden Flyers reach the Elite Eight in 1983-84 – wasn't among the topics during a recent phone conversation, but the 57-year-old Van Gundy was able to offer a small piece of advice to the 66-year-old Beilein.

"My advice for him was to not take too much advice," Van Gundy said. "John doesn't have to prove anything. Some people think that you have to alter who you are [to coach in the NBA], but nothing could be further from the truth. As long as he stays true to who he is, he will be fine in Cleveland."

"He told me to just be myself," Beilein said.

The challenge promises to be a daunting one for Beilein, who inherits a Cavaliers team that, at 19-63, finished tied for the second worst record in the league in 2018-19, just three years after winning the NBA title with superstar LeBron James leading the charge.

Beilein is revered for reaping success on every rung of his coaching ladder, evidenced by 829 college wins. His first team at Michigan, for example, finished 10-22. Five years later, the Wolverines were playing in the NCAA championship game.

Van Gundy's basketball pedigree is equally noteworthy. His father, Bill, was a successful coach at Brockport and Genesee Community College and Jeff (and older brother Stan) was eager to follow in his footsteps.

Jeff's first big break came as an assistant coach for the New York Knicks in 1989. He became head coach in 1996, succeeding Hall of Famer Don Nelson, and helped the Knicks reach the NBA finals in 1999. He went on to coach the Houston Rockets for four seasons (and three playoff appearances) before winding up in his current TV role with veteran play-by-play announcer Mike Breen and fellow analyst Mark Jackson.

"I think John and I would both acknowledge that we've been fortunate to follow a great path through basketball," Van Gundy said, "and the great people we encountered at Nazareth were a big part of that."

Said Beilein: "I don't think anyone would have put us together back [in 1982]."