Inside Suns coach Monty Williams’ journey from Knicks to NBA Finals

It’s hard not to root for the former Pelicans head coach after persevering, getting another head-coaching job and leading the Suns to a 51-21 record in his second season.

Five years later, Jeff Van Gundy still gets emotional, recalling the funeral service for Ingrid Williams, wife of Suns coach Monty Williams.

At age 44, Ingrid was killed in 2016 when her car was hit head on in Oklahoma, leaving behind her husband and the couple’s five children, aged between 5 and 17.

Williams, a former Knicks first-round pick, was then an Okalhoma City assistant. The driver who lost control of her SUV reportedly had methamphetamine in her system.

“Let us not forget there were two people in this situation, and that family needs prayer as well,” Williams said then. “We have no ill will towards that family. In my house we have a sign that says, ‘As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.’ We can not serve the Lord if we don’t have a heart of forgiveness.”

Van Gundy attended Williams’ wedding and was there for the funeral service when Williams gave that spellbinding eulogy.

Van Gundy, in Las Vegas this past weekend helping the U.S. Olympic coaching staff with preparations for the Summer Games later this month, can’t get that day out of his head.

“He’s a man of great faith — it was apparent when he gave one of the greatest, most graceful speeches at the service,” Van Gundy told The Post. “I remember watching his children. They were amazing. I think he’s an amazing man. I learned from him. I watch him.’’

Suns coach Monty Williams

Van Gundy was Williams’ first hands-on NBA coach — Pat Riley’s assistant when the Knicks drafted Williams 24th out of Notre Dame in 1994.

Van Gundy’s chief assignment was working every day with the two rookies, Williams and Charlie Ward, and newcomer Doug Christie, in the early morning before practice.

At the time, Williams was infamous for nearly having his basketball career end because of hypertrophic cardiomyopathy. A defibrillator was kept courtside during Van Gundy’s workouts with Williams.

On Tuesday night, Williams’ wildly winding journey takes him to the NBA Finals, where he has masterfully coached the Suns to their first such berth since 1993.

“When I watch Monty, I’m so happy for him,” Van Gundy said. “He should be very proud of himself.”

Monty Williams with the Knicks
Nury Hernandez

Van Gundy, who will do the Bucks-Suns Finals for ABC, said he’s learned more about dignity from Williams than from any player he’s ever coached.

“He and Charlie, they were so dedicated to their occupation and their families and friends,” Van Gundy added. “Both have carried on. Charlie might not be in the spotlight but he’s still a great friend of Monty.’’

Williams only played two seasons for the Knicks before they traded him to San Antonio for cap space. Williams’ NBA career never took off like his coaching career has and Van Gundy thinks the heart issue played a factor.

Williams stopped playing in college for two years after the heart murmur diagnosis was deemed to have ended his career. More sophisticated tests later discovered his form of hypertrophic cardiomyopathy was less severe — with some symptoms miraculously disappearing. Williams’ career carried on.

“He got drafted much lower because of that,” Van Gundy said. “We had a defibrillator by the court all times he was there. It was a burden on him. I don’t blame him. He still had to do a lot of testing.”

Going from college to the championship-caliber Knicks of Riley, Williams said, was a jarring way to acclimate to the NBA. He retired in 2003, having averaged 6.4 points, because of a chronic knee issue. He played nine seasons for five teams.

“The thing I learned from [Riley] was how to acclimate to intense environments,” Williams said Saturday. “When I got there, they were playing for championships. Film sessions, every meeting, every practice was high level. There wasn’t a day of a goof-around practice. We were playing for something. I had so much respect for his stamina to come in every single day with that mindset. He was unbelievably focused every day and prepared. He was such an unreal motivator but he also was schematically sound. In every area of the game. I learned a ton from being in that environment.

“We had big-time vets. Patrick, Oak, Doc Rivers, Herb Williams. Then I had Jeff Van Gundy. He was my stable coach. [Jeff] helped me understand the work that goes into being a pro NBA player. And I saw it from Day 1 with Coach Riley.”

Monty Williams playing against the Knicks in 1999.
Susan May Tell

Van Gundy was just in his third season in the NBA and wouldn’t become the Knicks head coach for another couple of seasons. Williams started 23 games as a rookie. Van Gundy said Williams’ shooting woes became his downfall.

“We were pretty much tied at the hip,” Van Gundy said. “He actually got to play. Charlie played 40 minutes all year. Monty was physically ready for the NBA — strong, tough, athletic. He was smart and ready to play NBA basketball.’’

It’s hard not to root for the former Pelicans head coach after persevering, getting another head-coaching job and leading the Suns to a 51-21 record in his second season.

Williams was the favorite for NBA Coach of the Year but was surprisingly beaten out in a razor-close decision by the Knicks’ Tom Thibodeau. Williams actually garnered more first-place votes.

“He’s done a marvelous job in Phoenix and I don’t want people to read that and think he didn’t do great job in New Orleans,’’ Van Gundy said. “I thought he did an outstanding job in New Orleans, too. I didn’t understand them moving on from him [after five seasons]. I thought he maxed out his team every year. I think he’s one of the great leaders in sports. He combines incredible integrity, complete honesty and empathy. And he knows the game.’’

Suns star point guard Chris Paul was with Williams for part of his New Orleans’ stint, too.

“He said after [the Western Conference clincher] and when I got here, ‘I don’t call you out, I call you up,’ ” Paul said. “I feel I’ve heard everything from a coach over the years. But I never heard that. It’s really cool. He does get on guys but he just lets them know I want you to be better. When you got a coach like that, it builds trust.’’

Monty Williams hugs his players after the Suns reach the NBA Finals.

In discussing his coaching philosophy, Williams talks about “serving” his players as a catch-phrase.

“They know I’m here to serve them any way I can,” Williams said. “I want to help them get better, help them get paid and win games. I want to do it in a way that allows them to think that guy cares about me as a person and my family.”

While Thibodeau’s Knicks were ousted 4-1 in the first round, Williams’ Suns are four wins from the title. He may have to settle for the championship trophy rather than the coach of the year chalice, but he’s nothing but gracious about Thibodeau’s victory.

“I don’t think of it that much anymore,” Williams said. “It’s over with. I was happy for Thibs. I worked with Thibs four summers in a row on the Olympic team. He and I are really good friends. He and I were up together to 2:30 in the morning, watching film and learning from Coach [Mike Krzyzewski], up the next day at 7 in the morning. When you do all that together, there’s a kinship. When he won the award I was happy for him.”

This story originally appeared on: NyPost - Author:Marc Berman

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