By John Denton
December 23, 2011

ORLANDO – Stan Van Gundy’s relentless pursuit of self-improvement led him this past offseason to engage in conversation and undergo skull sessions with noted psychologists in Florida and California. And the person who emerged is a somewhat kinder, gentler and more patient coach of the Orlando Magic.

Well, at least until the games begin.

Cognizant that his hyper-critical ways can sometimes have a negative effect on his basketball team, Van Gundy went to work on his in-game demeanor and the way that he deals with players in pressurized situations. He said he has learned that at times he needs to back off and also that he should treat mistakes as ``teaching opportunities.’’ Van Gundy knows that he’ll never be able to totally bite his tongue along the sidelines and those around him don’t want him to change his passionate approach, but he is willing to try a new tact for the betterment of the Magic.

Maybe it’s a Christmas miracle of sorts.

``My responsibility is to make sure that we’re going in the direction we should be going in. I have to set the standards and make sure they are adhered to in terms of guys playing hard, playing together and doing what we’re supposed to do,’’ Van Gundy said. ``But if the players can take some of the leadership themselves and police once another all the better for me. I would love that and it would be an ideal situation.

``Now, if I see things that aren’t being done, I’ll step in,’’ Van Gundy continued, long after practice had ended earlier this week. ``Some of the players felt in the past that they could have done more in terms of leadership and that I was too quick to jump in. I’m going to try to keep it more to the Xs and Os on the bench.’’

Van Gundy’s new demeanor received high marks from Magic captains Dwight Howard and Jameer Nelson in the preseason, and the attitude adjustment will be on display for the first time in a regular-season game on Sunday when Orlando plays in Oklahoma City. The start of the season comes after a truncated training camp and just a two-game preseason because of a five-month lockout. The hurried schedule forced teams into cram sessions, but Van Gundy resisted the notion of two-a-day practices and gave his team a rest every fourth day so far.

Another area where Van Gundy has worked to make progress is his relationship with Howard, Orlando’s franchise center. The two have experienced great highs together, compiling the third most regular-season and postseason wins in the NBA over the past four seasons. But they have also butted heads at time because Howard’s playful nature and Van Gundy fury sometimes clash.

The two met for more than an hour last week, discussing the season ahead and their need to not only coexist, but also thrive as the unquestioned leaders of the team. Howard said he left the meeting with a greater understanding of Van Gundy’s mission, and he believes the two will be able to work together better than ever this season.

``Me and Stan did have a long talk and the biggest thing I told him is that we have to be on the same page, no matter what goes on on the court. We still have to show our teammates that we’re on the same page and one accord,’’ Howard said. ``One thing I told Stan is that with our relationship, we have to have a great relationship and the relationship has to grow in order for this team to get to where we want to get. We have to be the leaders of the team.’’

Van Gundy’s calmer, more positive demeanor was put to a severe test on Wednesday night when the Magic hosted the Miami Heat in the preseason finale. Orlando had been embarrassed three nights earlier in South Florida, and it looked as if the same thing would happen again when Orlando fell behind by as much as 23 points in the first half. Van Gundy called several timeouts along the way – most notably after Orlando missed its first 12 shots and at a point when it had 10 turnovers in the first 14 minutes of the game. But because effort wasn’t an issue and players were speaking up in the huddle, Van Gundy worked more on Xs and Os to fix the problem than creating a stir with a verbal tirade.

``The message from the guys coming through was to not let the fact that we weren’t making shots affect our defense, and that was exactly the right thing to say,’’ Van Gundy said. ``It’s easy to sit there and listen in that situation because I wouldn’t have said anything different.’’

Nelson, the Magic’s point guard who has spent the past four seasons with Van Gundy, is glad that more of the leadership responsibilities are being heaped onto his shoulders. Nelson said if players can hear criticism from their teammates sometimes instead of the coach it could be highly beneficial for the Magic.

``It’s basically about us captains doing our jobs and policing the guys and us being policed as well,’’ Nelson said. ``Stan’s a great coach with the Xs and Os and he knows what we need. But one thing me and Dwight need to do is lead. He’s going to allow us to do that and it’ll take some pressure off him. Then, everybody doesn’t have to hear the same voice and be told to do things by the same person. … I’m comfortable with having the uncomfortable conversations because guys want to be led. I consider myself a natural-born leader so I’m comfortable doing that.’’

With extra time off because of the lockout, Van Gundy reviewed his relationship with his players and his performance from last season. He had several candid conversations with Magic President of Basketball Operations/GM Otis Smith, who has tried to push the coach through the years to focus less on the negative. Van Gundy said he believes whole-heartedly in the trust he has with Smith and the two are committed to the same goal of bringing a championship to Orlando.

Van Gundy also sought the opinion of Anders Eriksson, a Florida State professor who studies behavior patterns of elite performers in several fields. And he also dined and philosophized with Stanford University psychology professor Carol Dweck, author of the book ``Mindset.’’

Van Gundy asked what qualified as too much criticism, and Dweck said the amount of criticism didn’t matter nearly as much as the subject matters that the coach chose to be critical about at times. Van Gundy emerged knowing that if he can introduce some patience and temper his anger that he could ultimately be a better coach and the Magic could be a better team.

``I’ve always been pretty self-analytical, knowing that I can have an effect on people that I don’t want when I’m too hard on them,’’ Van Gundy said. ``I’m always going to be very demanding regarding commitment and effort. The thing I have to try and do is treat mistakes as teaching opportunities. Then hopefully I won’t make as many of the comments that everyone on our bench has heard in the past.’’

John Denton writes for John has covered the Magic since 1997 and recently authored ``All You Can Be’’ with Magic center Dwight Howard. E-mail John at

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