Posted Mar 25 2010 8:33AM
If you could draw up the perfect sketch of a basketball coach, how could you go wrong with Stan Van Gundy as the model?
Really: He's shorter than his point guards, a bit rumpled-looking in suits that scream off-the-rack, has a worried expression on his face and moans for respect from the refs. Also, in interviews, he sometimes comes across as suspicious of "you guys" (reporters) and rarely laughs or shows a sense of humor, unless it's self-deprecating every now and then.
Basically, Van Gundy never seems to be satisfied or secure. And that's what makes him a good coach, and why his team is tearing through the home stretch as the playoffs draw near.
When training camp began, the Magic were wounded from a rather decisive defeat in the NBA Finals and also working in new faces, with Vince Carter's the prettiest. Van Gundy's job was to lift confidence in the locker room, find a way to maximize Carter's skills, build a tighter relationship with his franchise center and keep the Magic among the NBA elite. All of those boxes have been checked.
There's one more task -- win the NBA title -- that will be settled, one way or another, in a few months.
So how's he feeling? Optimistic about the future? Thrilled with the progress? Just hunky-dory overall?
"Miserable," he said. "It's been tiring. Always worried about the next game, next problem, you know, what needs to be corrected. That's just a personality problem, not a reflection of our team or our guys."
See? He's the splitting image of the stereotypical basketball coach. That's understandable, given he's the son of a coach and brother of a coach. Van Gundy is a gym rat who, once outside the home, finds peace and even enjoyment with a dry-eraser board and 12 committed players. The other stuff, he can do without.
Typical Van Gundy: Ask him about the chances of the Magic stretching their surge deep into June, and he is both grumpy and giddy at the same time.
Giddy: "Well, yeah, that's the goal and that's what we're trying to achieve."
Grumpy: "Ah, it's important not to get too ahead of yourself. You don't want to start thinking about those things."
Well, place his hand on a Bible, and Van Gundy would probably admit to thinking about that trophy a lot. For a variety of reasons. He has a championship ring already but confesses to never looking at it much. That ring wouldn't weigh as much as a new one, mainly because it's hollow. Van Gundy was given that ring in Miami under suspicious circumstances. He didn't coach the Heat to the 2006 championship, Pat Riley did. Van Gundy famously left the bench a month into the season, either to "spend time with family" (the wink-wink company line) or because Riley/Shaquille O'Neal wanted him out, whichever scenario you choose to believe (remember Shaq calling Van Gundy "the master of panic?"). In any event, the ring doesn't quite sparkle as it should to the owner. That, you can believe.
Winning with Orlando would carry much more weight. One: Because it would validate Van Gundy as a solid coach, in the minds of those who still aren't sure. Two: It would bring a tear to the eye of his father, who taught sons Stan and Jeff the basics of the job and the work ethic necessary to do it right. Three: It would erase any lingering memories of Miami.
Four: It might force a smile and a laugh from Van Gundy.
Undoubtedly, it would mean Van Gundy and Dwight Howard are on the same page, not that they were ever completely off it. There was one episode that got plenty of ink, when Howard openly questioned the gameplan last year in the playoffs. But their relationship, from the outside anyway, appears respectable now. Howard even does a dead-on Van Gundy impersonation, for laughs.
"There's no problem," Howard said. "We're fine."
And so are the Magic. They will approach 55-plus wins, keep the homecourt at least through two rounds of the playoffs, and bring some swagger into any postseason matchup, Cleveland included. It's hard to easily dismiss a team with Howard's presence on defense and the glass, along with a handful of outside shooters.
"Our confidence is very high," Van Gundy said. "I think our guys believe we have a chance to do some good things. Our heads are in the right place, I think. You don't know until you get to the end."
And you can bet Van Gundy will worry until the very end. Orlando could skate past the Cavaliers, reach the NBA Finals, go up 3-0 in the series and hold a big lead late in Game 4, and knowing Van Gundy, he would fear his team might relax.
Then again, maybe he'd finally relax. For once.
Shaun Powell is a veteran NBA writer and columnist. You can e-mail him here.
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