ORLANDO, Fla. – For centuries, food has been a symbol for throwing off the shackles of oppression. Women stormed the Bastille because of the scarcity of bread. The Jews fled Egypt armed with matzo because they didn't have enough time to bake. And now we have the latest flashpoint for freedom:
Soda pop Stan Van Gundy has done what so many before have desperately wanted to do – flip the proverbial pop-top at overpaid athletes who hold franchises and cities hostage with their whims. The silver can that the Magic head coach drank as he announced that management told him Dwight Howard wanted him, uh, canned, was both a source of refreshment to fans everywhere and a sip of courage for those who are afraid of saying the wrong thing about the superstar.
Howard, who stepped in smiling at the end of the confession Thursday, was suddenly at the mercy of others' words after months of stringing everyone along with his own. Serves him right. Maybe it serves as a wake-up call – at least that's how it looked Saturday night after his first 20-20 game since March 13.
Oh sure, NBA types feel the coach broke "the code" – which translates to "whatever happens in front offices, stays in front offices," or "behind closed doors," as GM Otis Smith said in a TV interview during the Magic's slump-busting win in Philadelphia on Saturday night. But "the code" is simply code for "don't tell the public anything." The code makes sense when there's a skirmish among players. But it shouldn't apply here. Magic fans have been hung up on Howard's double-speak for too long and they deserve some truth. If it made things awkward for Howard or Smith, well, join the crowd. The entire city of Orlando has felt awkward for more than a year now.
[ Related: Magic end five-game losing streak ]
The entire city of Cleveland knows the feeling. Watching the Magic fizzle over the last several games is like witnessing a longer, more annoying version of what LeBron James did in his final playoff series as a Cavalier against Boston. In both cases, the star acts like he cares and wants to stay, but plays like he wants to leave. And tacitly or overtly, some of the fingers point to the head coach, whose job it is to motivate. Van Gundy knows it well, as Shaquille O'Neal nudged him out in Miami in favor of Pat Riley. (Oh wait, sorry, SVG wanted to spend more time with his family.) And Orlando has seen this show before, as O'Neal blamed the local newspaper for making life hard for him in Central Florida. This time Van Gundy, drawing strength from his soda, blew the whistle on the entire charade.
And it is a charade. Howard, in his opt-in news conference last month, described himself as "too loyal." That's a good one. If "loyal" is going behind a superior's back to ask for his head on a platter, the Magic should trade for some traitors. "The only thing I'm ever uncomfortable with," Van Gundy said Thursday, "is bull[expletive]. … The only thing that liberates me is, you know, be honest and deal with what's out there. Some people have a hard time with that, I guess."
Cue Howard, entering stage right.
The bravery of Van Gundy's move was in its martyrdom. He was clearly not trying to save his job. "It's 12:02 right now," he said. "If they want to fire me at 12:05, I'll go home and find something to do." He knew there's no win for him, just like there was no win for him in Miami. There's never any win for a ring-less NBA coach unless there's a titan backing him up – like Riley behind Erik Spoelstra. (This is what makes the Oklahoma City Thunder a miracle.) Even the Detroit Pistons are a good example: Joe Dumars was untouchable for years, and then Bill Davidson died, and soon the inmates ran the asylum. What more evidence do we need than Andrew Bynum shooting 3s every night?
Van Gundy is the perfect leader for the revolution. He's all grit to the league's gloss, clearly more concerned about results than how he looks pacing the sideline. Of course Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant have egos and acted as if they run their teams, but they earned their place with multiple titles. Howard and James seem as obsessed with how they appear as much as how they play. And Van Gundy, give him credit, ain't buyin' it. Here's what Sodapop Stan said about "The Decision," even before it aired: "It takes 15 seconds to say I've decided to stay in Cleveland but we've got another 59 minutes and 45 seconds to, what? Promote LeBron James? As if we don't do that enough." Van Gundy has seen his brother, Jeff, take a team to the NBA Finals and eventually end up out of a job, while the team he once led – the Knicks – descended into desperate star-pleasing and money-squandering. That's probably what will continue to happen in Orlando: a GM throwing silly money at big names only to watch them underperform. The Knicks hired Herb Williams; the Magic will probably go with Patrick Ewing. It's perfect, really. Saturday night, Smith told reporter Lisa Salters he couldn't say if Van Gundy would be the coach next season. Van Gundy has one more year left on his contract. You could say the writing is on the wall, but it's more accurate to say the chalk outline is on the ground.
Enough, said Van Gundy on Thursday, lifting his pop can high like Lady Liberty holding her torch. Give me your tired-of-this, poor-schlep, huddles-without-stars coaches yearning to be free of this garbage. Now that the air is clear, one of two things will happen: Either Van Gundy will get fired, and at least he'll be "liberated," or the Magic will turn it around and other coaches will follow SVG's courageous lead. Imagine that.
So pop open a cold one, Mike Brown. Here's a six-pack for you, Paul Westhead. And back up a Diet Pepsi truck for P.J. Carlesimo. None of them deserved the poor treatment. But all deserve a drink.
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- Stan Van Gundy