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“If I always had the best player, I’d probably be a needler, too” — when Jeff Van Gundy clapped back at Phil Jackson

Phil Jackson vs Jeff Van Gundy was a short feud filled with tons of spice.

Rivalries don’t just exist among NBA players. Coaches, too, have had their little feuds. In the 2000s, there was a rivalry between Jeff Van Gundy and Phil Jackson. Van Gundy, then New York Knicks head coach, once questioned the coaching abilities of the Zen Master.

Michael Jordan, Shaquille O’Neal, Kobe Bryant

Van Gundy and Jackson were selected to coach the Eastern and Western All-Star in 2000. Ahead of the exhibition match, Jackson was asked for his thoughts on his Eastern Conference counterpart. And the Zen Master responded in the most savage way.

I don’t even pay attention to him. He’s like a fly on the wall,” Jackson said, per the New York Post.

Jackson’s behavior wasn’t necessarily Zen-like. But Van Gundy started the feud when he discovered Jackson was trying to land the Knicks head coaching job in 1999. Jackson was a legitimate threat to Van Gundy for a couple of reasons.

For one, the Zen Master had a way better resume than him. Second, Van Gundy had been the Knicks’ head coach since 1996, starting as an assistant in 1989. Being replaced by an outsider would be a gut punch to Van Gundy’s self-esteem. The two exchanged verbal jabs, with Jackson putting more force into his disses. Asked why Jackson was continuously dissing him, Van Gundy hit back.

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When you win, you can say a lot of things. If I always had the best player, I’d probably be a needler, too. When you have the best player, you can do a lot of things. The best player can usually back it up, too,” Van Gundy said.

Van Gundy was referring to Jackson’s Bulls squad led by Michael Jordan — arguably the greatest player of all time. Around that time, Jackson was already with the Lakers, the Purple and Gold squad that had risen to contender status thanks to the emergence of Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant.

Beef squashed

The Van Gundy-Jackson beef didn’t last long. After implying that Jackson rode on Jordan’s back to six titles, Van Gundy praised the Zen Master for turning the Lakers into a solid defensive team. Over a decade later, Van Gundy, wearing his commentator hat, praised Jackson’s utilization of the triangle offense.

I think anybody confusing a system with a reason for success is making a huge mistake. Systems don’t win games. Players do. All you try to do in any system you incorporate is put players in their areas of strength and try to hide and minimize their weaknesses. The triangle for [Scottie] Pippen and [Michael] Jordan with a lot of shooting around them was a tremendous system. Same with [Kobe] Bryant and [Shaquille] O’Neal. Then [Pau] Gasol and Bryant. It can work and other systems would’ve worked and they would’ve won it,” Van Gundy said.

Since feuds involve two parties, they can only be resolved if both say their piece. In response to Van Gundy’s comments, Jackson sent out a tweet, formally squashing the beef.

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