Stan Van Gundy does not want to do what you expect him to do. If you were expecting him to bash Dwight Howard at his lowest point – in a week where Howard was thrown out of a game against Toronto and made into a non-entity offensively in a loss to Chicago – Van Gundy will tell you that they both continue to communicate and that he understood his interest in departing Orlando. If you want him to rip former Magic GM Otis Smith’s personnel moves, he’ll refuse to while aligning with his former boss.
And if the NBA is expecting Van Gundy to keep quiet and wait out David Stern’s 2014 retirement in order to pave the way for a comfortable TV gig for the former Heat and Magic coach? Stop expecting such sheepishness.
In an interview with USA Today’s Jon Saraceno published today, Van Gundy details his failed attempts to land a job covering the NBA as a color analyst with ABC/ESPN. A job that would have seen him crossing paths with his brother Jeff (who warned him out of taking a studio job that Jeff said Stan “would not enjoy doing”), and no doubt immediately turning into one of the best in the business before David Stern, (reportedly, as ESPN denied such influence) put the kibosh on things:
Q: Do you believe you were submarined out of that job?
A: I'm pretty sure I was by David [Stern]. It's funny. People say it all the time that when an opportunity closes, you end up in a better place. It happened to me in Wisconsin. I lasted one season and got fired. I was 36 and absolutely depressed — like I just blew the best opportunity I ever will have in my life. A few months later, I'm in the NBA.
(The ESPN job) would have been more money but I would have been basically flying to LA all the time. Now I work Wednesdays, a little on Fridays and do a college game on a Saturday every couple of weeks. I stay in touch with the game and I'm having fun with it.
Q: Why do you see Stern's footprints?
A: (ESPN) contacted me – they drove the whole thing. All of a sudden, it came to a stop. Whether it was Stern directly, the league office making a call or someone at the top at ESPN . . . There's no question the comments I've made about David Stern kept them from hiring me. I said things that pissed him off.
Q: What do you believe upset him the most?
A: There was the time that the Arab Spring was in full bloom. I compared him to other world leaders in that he didn't tolerate dissenting opinions very well.
In the interest of supporting ESPN’s take on things, we remind you what an ESPN spokesman told our Dan Devine last October when rumors of Stern’s influence on the non-hire hit:
An ESPN spokesperson said, "We reaffirm our previous statement" — in which they'd "had discussions with Stan Van Gundy and were interested in a role for him," before differing on assignments and deciding to go another way — "and have no further comment." An NBA spokesperson also declined to respond to Van Gundy's claims.)
With their statements and “no comments” in place, it’s fair to wonder why the head of a billion dollar NBA industry would be so petty as go out of his way to deny a former coach his chance at calling a Nuggets/Warriors game broadcast at 10:30 on the East coast on a basic cable network in January. David Stern is petty, though. It’s why he’s good at this, and it’s why he’s damaged quite a bit of all this. And he has a hard enough time stomaching the national broadcast when Jeff Van Gundy goes into talk radio mode during the course of the game to talk about anything and everything NBA-related outside of the play that just took place in front of him.
So would David Stern go out of his way to pressure and hint that stations not hire one person in what is a relatively tight crew? Sure. Do we know if he did, three months later? ESPN says he didn’t. Stan Van Gundy thinks there’s “no question.” We’ll leave that up to you to decide.
What’s already been decided on is the flameout of what was once a promising Orlando Magic squad. The team took what seemed at the time to be sane and sensible directions following its appearance in the 2009 NBA Finals, but quickly the fallout of those decisions turned into panic and overreaction. And immediately boredom and distaste for Howard, who started seeing his contemporaries either receive help (with Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum flourishing along Kobe Bryant in Los Angeles) or use sway or smart free agent machinations to move toward the destination of their choice (players like LeBron James, Chris Bosh, Carmelo Anthony, Chris Paul, Deron Williams … and eventually Dwight Howard).
Entering 2011-12, Dwight Howard was faced with a pretty lousy supporting cast, and he seemed to be the only NBA superstar outside of Bryant and the younger Kevin Durant and Derrick Rose to not have a uniform switch to their credit. Team ownership and CEO Alex Martins, frustrated at paying too much for an above-average team and knowing that teams can hire and fire coaches and GMs whenever they want, clearly sided with kowtowing (which is a type of candy bar Dwight loves) to Howard throughout the campaign. And they won, as Dwight was molly-coddled and guilted into picking up a player option for 2012-13 that he obviously wanted nothing to do with.
All while everyone involved, save for Van Gundy, looked like damn fools in the process. From the Saraceno interview:
I had some real disagreements with (Magic CEO) Alex Martins. Otis and I were on the same page and I didn't have any problems with Dwight. I had problems with how our organization approached the situation, how they decided to cater to (Howard) in ways that I thought were counter-productive for our team.
I thought we should have dealt with some of the rumors (about his coaching future). I made it known that it wasn't a matter of my fate. They could have ended all the speculation and fired me right then — I said that to them. That stops the speculation and gets you back to basketball. They wouldn't do anything about it.
Van Gundy isn’t wrong about it getting back to basketball, but it would have been a brief respite. As brief as the respite the Magic and Howard enjoyed (say for, oh, three hours) once he signed that contract option and ruined the world “loyalty” forever.
Stan told USA Today that he and Howard stay in touch, but “it's not like we hang out.” Kind words from someone who’s coaching career and perhaps best shot at a title was upended by the petulant superstar.
(And what’s ironic to me, in the wake of much recent talk of midseason switches, is that most NBA teams are after what Stan’s brother Jeff brought to the New York Knicks when he took over as an interim coach in 1996.
Van Gundy took over a team that had been slightly dismantled at the trade deadline in order to clear cap space for the upcoming offseason. Don Nelson, out of place and working with a 34-25 record, was cast aside to let the well-regarded assistant work; and though Jeff’s winning percentage was worse – he won 13 of 23 games – the Knicks looked to be in better shape and gave an impressive two-series playoff performance. He’s the ideal in the rough that is rarely discovered in February.)
From there, Saraceno and SVG discuss the usual topics. Stan thinks Jeremy Lin is the NBA’s most overrated player, but only brings that up in relation to his high ranking All-Star votes. Like his brother, Stan would never interview for a team midseason, when an interim coach is working with a squad. He thinks the Lakers should have held on to Mike Brown, if only because the team’s entire training camp was “a total waste,” which is true but it’s also another reason why the Lakers should have never come to camp with Brown in the first place.
That’s just scratching the surface. Give it a read, and count down the days until Stan Van Gundy can be a daily NBA fixture all over again.