Honest rebellion: Stan Van Gundy reflects
blog by Ben Tsujimoto • December 07, 2012 @ 10:31am
You can’t quantify the amount of talent and luck it took Stan Van Gundy to vault from Canisius College assistant men’s basketball coach in 1987 to coaching the Orlando Magic to the NBA Finals in 2009, but the SUNY Brockport graduate took a path rarely traveled—one of brutal honesty and integrity in the face of an NBA world oft-marred by selfishness and deceit.
Van Gundy has coached probable Hall-of-Famers in Shaquille O’Neal, Dwight Howard and Dwyane Wade, a dream scenario for a former eager assistant who soaked up knowledge from Canisius head coach Nick Macarchuk inside the Koessler Athletic Center over a quarter century ago. It’s funny to reminisce that Van Gundy’s dreams weren’t even that grand.
“I pretty much expected to be a career small college coach, and I think I would have really enjoyed doing that. I got some breaks along the way—one of them was coming here. I was a [Division III] coach at Castleton State College in Vermont, and we were having some success, but I was nobody until Nick Macarchuk gave me a chance to come here and go to Fordham with him, and then I got big breaks to move along and to get into the NBA. I don’t care what the profession is, it’s probably the same. You have to be good, but you have to get lucky along the way too.”
“i remember when i lost the job at Wisconsin—I was 36, I think—a head coach at a Big 10 school and last nine months and I get fired,” Van Gundy said while shaking his head, a little perplexed by the good fortune he’s experienced. “I remember being so down in the dumps, this great opportunity now I lost it and I screwed it up—and, a few months later I end up in the NBA and I spend 17 years there.”
For the first time in 25 years, Van Gundy returned to Canisius’ campus Tuesday to speak with the college’s boosters at the Cage Club luncheon and then address Jim Baron’s Griffins men’s basketball team. A media man himself now with NBC Sports Network, where he’s an NBA radio analyst and a college basketball commentator, Van Gundy found time to field questions from Buffalo’s media as well.
Entering the interview, we knew what to expect from Van Gundy, whose brother Jeff is equally as well-known for his coaching and announcing exploits. Stan Van Gundy is outspoken and thoughtful—but won’t mince his words. He’s also a man who’s been through the ringer in terms of recent NBA drama, including last summer’s bizarre dispute with Dwight Howard, a spat with NBA commissioner David Stern over employment at ESPN and several other instances where his views have been very anti-NBA authority.
Here’s Van Gundy’s take on Stern’s recent decision to fine the San Antonio Spurs $250,000 for sitting three star players and four starters before a nationally-televised game against the Miami Heat.
“[Stern] just totally arbitrarily—there’s no rule in the book—fines an organization $250,000. And we still don’t know for what—he didn’t lay out specific violations because there was no policy to violate.”
While the three examples above occurred in the last year, Van Gundy has a history of not blindly accepting the NBA and surrounding media’s antics. Here’s his reaction to ESPN’s running of “The Decision,” the hour-long show featuring LeBron James to announce his free agent destination.
“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 said to the Orlando Sentinel in July 2010.
During Van Gundy’s chat with the media, the immediate questions focused on Van Gundy’s well-publicized dispute with Dwight Howard.
Basically, Van Gundy admitted to the media that he’d heard that his star player Howard went over his head and wanted him fired. Unaware of what Van Gundy had said, Howard denied making the comments while he was standing right next to his head coach. Long story short, things got awkward, Howard moved on to Los Angeles and Van Gundy was not invited back to coach Orlando.
“It’s good,” Van Gundy responded when asked how his present relationship with Dwight was. “We had some tough moments, but that wasn’t just last year—when you coach somebody, there’s a lot of egos involved, and it’s not just the players, it’s coaches too. You have different opinions, and your relationship as far as how much players like the coach goes up and down anyway. That whole thing would have been fine had it just been left up to GM Otis Smith, myself and Dwight, I’m not saying he would have stayed in Orlando, but we would have worked through the situation fine. Some other people got involved, that had no business getting involved, that made it worse.”
“Dwight’s a good guy who we wouldn’t have won as many games as we did without him,” Van Gundy admitted. “He’s a hard working guy, he’s smart and did everything we wanted to do, and you have to judge people in that totality of your relationship with them, not on one or two things. I’d welcome the opportunity to come and coach him again.”
While the local media continued to pepper Van Gundy with national questions, I was more interested in Van Gundy’s personal development—how he handled the gradual transition from a rising, confident Division I assistant to embattled former NBA head coach.
He seamlessly delivered a thoughtful response when I asked him to describe the Stan Van Gundy of 1987, his year as an assistant at Canisius:
“Oh, God. Here’s the thing—when I look back and talk about this with friends from time to time—25 years ago, I thought I had all the answers, both basketball-wise and everything else. Now, 25 years later, I’m not even sure what the questions are, and I certainly don’t have all the answers. I was coming from a Division III experience where we were 69-19, and I start thinking that I’m pretty smart, and then I realized maybe I just had a lot better players than everyone else.
Then you take enough losses and see tough situations, and it’s good—because you still have confidence in what you do, but you realize it’s not all you and there’s a lot you have to learn. At 53, I probably feel like I have more to learn than I thought I did at 27.”
To a certain degree, Van Gundy’s passion for basketball and coaching stems from the energy he felt starting his career in Western New York, even if he looks back at his playing experience at Brockport as largely negative. Sure, the Macarchuk-Van Gundy coaching duo only guided the Griffs to a 7-20 record, but it was the positive memories that were lasting for SVG.
“Western New York fans in general tend to be very good—very involved and very supportive—and what I really remember here is working for Nick Macarchuk,” Van Gundy explained Tuesday. “I could have literally sat and told stories all day long, and [current Canisius associate athletic director] John Maddock’s still a good friend. It’s been a long time—25 years has been a long time.”
Some timeless things, like food, never change.
“Western New York is a special place,” Van Gundy added. “Look, the food too. If you look at me, you know I eat a lot. I got into Buffalo at 9:30 last night and was to the Anchor Bar by 10. That’s a pretty good memory—living in a city where they deliver wings and not just pizza? Come on, it’s hard to beat that.”
Although Canisius, UB and Niagara haven’t produced an NCAA Tournament team since the Purple Eagles went dancing in 2007, Van Gundy still feels the buzz surrounding college basketball in the Buffalo-Niagara region.
“I was talking to people I hadn’t seen in 25 years, and the first thing they’re talking about are the home games here against St. Bonaventure and Buffalo, and the place being sold out and the noise—you can’t beat that,” Van Gundy explained excitedly. “You don’t get that in the NBA or anywhere else, that atmosphere that you can get in college basketball when people are excited.”
For now, Van Gundy is content reflecting rather than acting. He’s comfortable with his announcing gig, but he hasn’t lost the itch to coach. While he deadpanned that “someone needs to want him to coach a team first,” he’s candid about being reluctant to uproot his family.
“I’ve now got one kid in college and three high school age, and my wife’s basically had to raise them on her own, and I’m pretty sure none of them want to pick up and move across the country,” Van Gundy said. “It would have to be a family decision that we all bought into.”
Regardless of his future, there’s still plenty of charm in revisiting a memory of your distant past, one of the stepping stones that furthered an illustrious career. For that day alone, Van Gundy was able to absorb the experience.
“Things have changed a great deal. John [Maddock] was just walking me around the Koessler Center, and it’s a lot different. Still some familiar faces, though, and a lot of fond memories here at Canisius, and it’s great to be back.