Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images North America
I used to watch hoops with the same group of guys in undergrad. It always drove me insane and warmed my heart. Inane arguments, at which I’m adept, and inane proclamations — ask me about Harrison Barnes — are two of the things I cherish most in the world and they were always in supply when I got together with the dudes. In fact, one of the things that drove me to blogging was that I didn’t agree with my friends about anything. Like, not ever. And that was always fun, until it was too much.
Anyways, it was through this group of knuckleheads — most of whom, mind you, are very into “swagger” and “clutch” and WATCH THE GAMEZ, etc. — that I was first put in touch with the Van Gundy paradox. During the Magic’s run to the Finals, which I guess was my sophomore year at UNC, I was talking about how much I liked watching the team when my friend Matt said “Yeah, but Stan Van Gundy sucks.” I laughed and I did my best “get a load of THIS guy” face. And then everyone else was like “No, yeah, he totally sucks.”
I was baffled then and I continue to be. I can’t think of another coach whose obvious success was met with so much … disdain is probably too strong a word. Dismissiveness?
And now that Stan has caught his second impossible situation after turning a team around, having been dumped in Orlando only slightly more gracefully than he was in Miami, I will be rooting for him as hard as any player or team.
It’s not that hard to see why Stan’s image hasn’t caught up with his success in the eyes of every viewer. He’s short in a tall man’s game, shrill in the age of the Zen master, and wry in a league whose sense of humor which comes in the form of Rasheed Wallace beatboxing Christmas carols. When Shaq called him “the master of panic,” he was just making obvious what was already clear: Van Gundy is, put nicely, an original, and put harshly, an outsider to the game he’s spent his life in.
All of which is precisely why he’s one of my favorite figures in the league. He’s the Larry David of the 3/5 pick-and-roll, except actually good and not totally overrated (HEY-OH). I’ve always loved his approach to his work and the media. At times, he’s overtaken with a melodramatic devotion to the minutiae of the game. At other times, he’s sipping a Diet Pepsi telling reporters he’ll go home and have a nice day if he’s fired in ten minutes. I can’t watch him and think anything other than “this is a dude who gets it.”
In fact, that moment when Stan set Dwight up for the world’s most awkward interview ever was one of my favorite power moves of recent memory. Stan wasn’t issuing coach-speak denials or corporate-macho dead metaphors. He was flexing his candor and disarming the season’s most disingenuous soap opera with his awareness that, at the end of the day, he’s a basketball coach. Not more and not less.
Which is just another thing that makes Stan an outsider. There are other self-aware coaches, there are other people who see the limits of the basketball bubble, but Stan has always been the sort of coach who projected a craftsman’s approach. He berates the league for Christmas games with the same zeal he berates rookies that are late rotating defensively. Van Gundy projects a pride in practiced competence, a desire to present a game with the edges beveled and the finish applied evenly, but he refuses to indulge the pretense that it’s ever more than a game.
Of course that’s not to say his coaching ever wants for effort. In fact, Van Gundy and Gregg Popovich are the two coaches I would most trust to formulate a gameplan with any random assortment of basketball players. Wherever he ends up next, don’t expect to see the Magic’s style of play. After all, the next Van Gundy team likely won’t have an offensively un-refined Hall of Fame-caliber center. Just like the Magic didn’t have a young phenom shooting guard like the Heat did in the form of Dwyane Wade. Stan will adapt and he’ll win.
What he probably won’t do, though, is cater to the whims and egos that surround him in a league that sometimes lacks perspective. And that’s why there’s always been that ammunition for his detractors: Why can’t he get through to Dwight? Why’d Shaq hate him so much? Why couldn’t he draw out Vince Carter? The potential criticism of him is that he doesn’t understand the players he coaches, that he can’t relate to individuals that need to be given more leeway than a rigid system provides. And you know what? That’s fine.
Because in the end, Stan is not like Dwight Howard, he’s not like Shaq, and he’s not like VC. He’s comfortable with what he is in a league full of men constantly struggling to define or redefine themselves. If he were truly a master of panic, he’d have changed. He’d present a different persona. But he hasn’t and I hope he never does.