Roughly six years ago, the NBA world was a few months removed from one of the oddest player-coach moments to unfold in the public eye.
On April 5, 2012, then-Orlando Magic coach Stan Van Gundy confirmed a report that had circulated a day earlier that then-Magic star center Dwight Howard wanted him fired. As he stood before the assembled media in Orlando, Van Gundy said he was “uncomfortable with BS” and that he knew Howard had requested to team management that Van Gundy be fired.
“When it comes out that one of the highest-profile guys in the league has asked his coach to be fired, it’s going to be a story,” Van Gundy said that day in 2012.
Moments later, Howard sidled up next to Van Gundy and said: “Yeah Stan, we’re not worried about that, right?” Howard says.
“That’s what I just said,” Van Gundy said, taking a sip from the soda he was holding. “We got to be worried about winning games.”
“What’s our main concern right now?” Howard said, after which he wrapped his right arm around Van Gundy.
“We have to stop Carmelo Anthony and the New York Knicks tonight” Van Gundy says before Howard repeats, saying: “And the New York Knicks.”
In an interview with ESPN’s “The Jump” yesterday, Howard recalled that day in 2012 and said it was the “worst day of my life.”
“The first question is like ‘Dwight, they said you wanted to get Stan fired.’ I was like ‘Oh, my God,’ ” Howard recalled. “That was literally the worst day of my life. We had a game that night. And that was the worst game I ever played. Like, I could not hit the basket for nothing. And you would have thought — I don’t know what was going on that night, but it was the worst ever.”
Howard told The Jump he had been standing aside as Van Gundy talked to reporters, when some in the media advised him to show that he was OK with Van Gundy.
“They said, ‘Hey you should go put your arm around Stan and let everybody know you all are OK,’ ” Howard said. “So I was like ‘OK, I don’t have a problem with Stan.’
“So I go out there, put my arm around Stan, he says a little line, I say something, and he just jets out of there.”
“That day, they said me and Stan had has some beef or something like that, where I wanted him fired,” Howard recalled Thursday to ESPN’s Rachel Nichols, Kevin Arnovitz and Jorge Sedano. “And I was like ‘What? I never said that.’ “
The Magic ended up losing 96-80 in that April 5 game against the Knicks, marking Orlando’s fifth straight loss. Howard played 39 minutes, scoring eight points (on 4-for-8 shooting), grabbing eight rebounds and blocking three shots. From there, the Magic would close out the 2011-12 season 5-6 and lost 4-1 to the Indiana Pacers in the first round of the playoffs.
Van Gundy was fired by the Magic on May 21 (as was then-GM Otis Smith) as Orlando began its process of rebuilding the franchise. On August 21, 2012, Howard was traded to the Los Angeles Lakers in a blockbuster deal also involving the Denver Nuggets, Minnesota Timberwolves and Philadelphia 76ers.
After Van Gundy was fired, Magic CEO Alex Martins told the team’s website that Howard never asked him to fire Van Gundy or Smith.
“I don’t think it’s any surprise that there were challenges in the relationship between Dwight and Stan. But let me say in no uncertain terms that Dwight did not want to be a part of this decision, did not want to make this decision and he never asked me to make this decision,” Martins said then. “Yes, their relationship was a challenge, but Dwight Howard never asked me to fire Stan Van Gundy. Over the time that I’ve dealt with Dwight Howard, particularly over this last year, he never asked me to fire Stan Van Gundy.”
Van Gundy took two years off from coaching after his firing, but was then named the Detroit Pistons’ coach and president of basketball operations. He was let go from that position last month, going 152-176 over four seasons as Detroit’s coach. In his coaching career, Van Gundy is 523-384 (.577 winning percentage) and led the Magic to The Finals in 2009.
Since the start of the 2012-13 season, the Magic are 157-335 and have had four coaches (Jacque Vaughn, James Borrego, Scott Skiles, Frank Vogel) at the helm. Vogel was fired after the 2017-18 season and the team hired former Charlotte Hornets coach Steve Clifford — who was an assistant coach during Van Gundy’s era in Orlando.