sports psychologist & clinical psychology

SIX DEGREES OF RESIGNATION

Dec 15, 2005 – SI.com (Inside the NBA) – Andrew Lawrence – In the NBA, Retiring is Only a Prelude to Returning – Former Miami Heat coach Stan Van Gundy now appears to have his priorities in order. At an age when most NBA coaches are hitting their stride, Van Gundy, 46, is calling it quits, abruptly resigning this week as coach of the Heat after 2 1/4 seasons.

His plan is to spend more time with a family with whom — between travel, practices and games — he was only going to spend an estimated 49 days this season. While 49 days at home with the wife and kids might seem like hard time to some, for Van Gundy the hard times came when he looked up into the American Airlines Arena stands and saw his 11-year-old son, Michael, waving to him in the distance. Or when his eldest child –14-year-old daughter Shannon — celebrated another birthday, reminding him of the few years he has left with her until she leaves the nest.

“I can’t believe that people have a big problem believing that someone would actually want to spend time with their family,” Van Gundy said at his farewell news conference. “I don’t know why that’s so hard to buy into.”

Perhaps because we’ve seen it before, seen the coach or player leave the sporting stage to spend more time at home, only to roll our eyes at the speed at which family soon retakes its place behind coaching or playing.

Almost six years ago to the day, Danny Ainge reached a similar crossroad when he resigned as coach of the Phoenix Suns to spend more time with his wife, Michelle, and their six children. When one of his sons (then a teenager) chided him for becoming too distant, “I couldn’t disagree with him,” Ainge said then. “It really [came] down to wanting to make a statement to my family that they are more important than my career.”

That lasted three years, at which point Ainge reunited with his other family, the Boston Celtics (the team he called home for eight seasons as a player), as its executive director of basketball operations.

When Ainge resigned in Phoenix, he entrusted the Suns to his top assistant, Scott Skiles, who at 35 became the NBA’s youngest head coach. In the six years since, Skiles has stopped working only once — not that it was by choice. (He was forced out after a 25-26 record in 2002.) Last year he led the Chicago Bulls to their first playoff berth since Michael Jordan left the building.

And both times His Airness left the building, it was for the family — or so he told us. When Jordan first retired in 1993, he regretted having not left sooner, admitting that his father, James, had urged him to hang ’em up after the Bulls had won their first title two years earlier. “Now that I’m here, it’s time to be a little unselfish in terms of spending more time with my wife and kids,” Jordan said. The following spring he was in Birmingham, Ala., shagging flies for the Barons before rejoining the Bulls near the end of the ’94-95 season.

When Jordan retired again in ’98, it was to give the carpool another driver. “Now I just want to enjoy my time with my family and friends, just recapture some of the time I gave away,” he said then. But in the end, the only thing he’d recapture was fame, joining the Washington Wizards in 2000 as president of basketball operations and suiting up for them in 2001 as a player.

When Jordan retired for the final time in ’03, the terms were much different. No one could blame him for going home; his wife, Juanita, had filed for divorce a year earlier. (They eventually reconciled in February ’02.)

Jordan hasn’t been the only former Bull willing to trade NBA fame for family. After Chicago’s sixth title, in ’98, coach Phil Jackson jetted off with his first wife, June, to Turkey, before retiring to his ranch in Montana. He didn’t stay there long, signing on with the Lakers in 1999. But there he was five seasons later, headed out the door again, this time flanked by four of his grown children after losing in a blowout to the Pistons in Game 5 of the NBA Finals. “They were hoping I could win a 10th [title] and retire,” Jackson said after the game.

They didn’t need to wait long for him to try again when Jackson re-signed to lead the Lakers last June.

“The problem with coaches and athletes is the perfectionism that pervades their personality,” says sports psychologist John F. Murray. “Nothing against family — you need family. But eventually they’re going to be itching for something more challenging.”

It was an issue Steve Kerr would struggle with after ending his 15-year playing career in ’03. “I was actually a little depressed for the first couple weeks,” says Kerr, a married father of three. “Which is ironic because I was usually depressed because I had to go through training camp. It’s sort of like a death of an era of your life. It can be sort of tough to move on.”

Kerr eventually settled into life after basketball; a job as an NBA analyst for TNT has allowed him to keep a hand in the game and also have enough time to lend a hand to his wife, Margot, in raising children, Nicolas, Madeline and Matthew.

Likewise, Jeff Van Gundy, Stan’s brother, used a career in television to tune out the chaos that had come with coaching in New York. He, too, retreated to TNT after resigning from the Knicks in midseason (citing a lack of focus after dealing with the deaths of two friends in the Sept. 11 attacks). When Jeff told his five-year-old daughter Mattie of his sudden plans to resign, she, like most New Yorkers, was shocked. “Does this mean you get to have lunch with me?” she asked. Of course, her father eventually returned to the bench two years later with the Houston Rockets.

Meanwhile, Uncle Stan will fill out his hours hunting around Miami for holiday lights for the house. This Christmas will mark Stan’s first at home in almost a decade. It should be a welcome change of pace for a man whose life has been consumed by the game from the start — the penance for being born the son of a coach. When Stan was 11 and his father, Bill, was too sick to scout his next opponent, the task fell to Stan, Jeff and their mother, Cindy, to watch the game and write the report. When he returns to the Heat, it’ll be as a consultant who scouts free agents and college players. More important, it’ll be less time-consuming. “I don’t think they need me, to be quite honest,” Van Gundy said of his young brood. “They’re doing fine without me. But I need them.”

Dr. John F. Murray is a sports psychologist and clinical psychologist providing sports psychology and counseling services based in Palm Beach, Florida.

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