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Stan Van Gundy’s Still Here, And Has Plenty To Say

Before hearing it, there’s an understanding of what the voice will be like. Because there have been 15 years worth of press conferences, fifteen years worth. There’s been the voice ratcheted to its breaking point, screaming hoarse and vaguely architectural instructions with the kind of vehement, austere assurance even Rem Koolhaas couldn’t hope to muster. And most recently, there’s been the voice superimposed over basketball games he’s not coaching, explaining with punch and luster exactly what you’re seeing on a court and why it matters.

Still, when Stan Van Gundy sails over speakerphone with a breezy, “Hel-lo,” there is a suspended second of disbelief that the inventor of all of it — the career, the triumphs and wincing wrecks, the personality, the occasionally fuming lodestar — is simply calling from his home in Orlando.

This is the nucleus of Van Gundy’s career: excelling in the self-possession of showing up. He did it in Miami, when he coached the team out of the swampy dregs of the bottom East and made them shine enough for Pat Riley to want them back. He did it in Orlando, a near-Sisyphean set-up with Dwight Howard as the boulder. He did it in Detroit, all-in as head coach and president of basketball operations with a roster on the edge of almost. And with coaching reluctantly behind him, Van Gundy gamely sat where ESPN might want him as a sub for a season before landing, this past fall, a multi-year contract with Turner as a game and studio analyst. Between every stop there was a year or so off, as if he had simply taken a scenic route, but he always arrived.

This sense of pacing was partially set by opportunity, and for a coach as tenured as Van Gundy, the rhythm of its knocking may never be absent for too long. But whatever you think of his coaching record, his history, even his personality, it’s always been the tungsten of tenacity at his core that has cast the most enticing light. In his determination, even when it hurt him, there’s resolve and a lasting quality that feels so largely absent from the world at hand.

“I think honestly I’ve been pretty adaptable,” Van Gundy says, a vocal shrug, when we start in on his coaching trajectory. “I’ve done things differently in all three situations both on the court and the way that I felt with my superiors and my relationships with players. Everything’s evolved for me over the years. I’ve been different in all three stops and I think I’ve been willing to adapt.”

Van Gundy, in stark contrast to coaches of his era, didn’t arrive as a prototype. Unlike Phil Jackson’s Type-A Bohemian tycoonery, or Pat Riley’s gritty-wise-guy-gone-south swagger, Van Gundy arrived as-is. There was no brand. He was loud, could be gruff on court and in pressers, tipped occasionally close to frantic, but was almost sprightly in how agile he could be game planning. As a coach he gave as good as he got, but he also listened, adapted.

The mismatch in Miami, now with over a decade of distance, could be chalked up to optics. Van Gundy was never going to be the slick, Vice Nights coach Riley seemed destined to be. He was short and blustery, but he also helped create the regimented system for which the Heat are infamous, working closely with its earliest prototype, Dwyane Wade, in his formative years.

The offer from the Magic came after Van Gundy had declined the Pacers, and after Orlando had already offered the gig to Billy Donovan, who’d accepted and backed out. There was something in that team Van Gundy waited for, and whether it was a fresh start or autonomy, nearly everything on the team ramped up. Their offensive rating climbed from 22nd to seventh, pace from 26th to ninth, defensive rating eventually hit first in the league along with the team’s record, and the Magic made their second-ever appearance in the NBA Finals against Jackson’s Lakers. Orlando saw the postseason every year under Van Gundy, but despite it, he was fired in 2012 after the Pacers, the team he’d turned down, beat the Magic four out of five in the first round.

When asked if, retrospectively, there was a time when his desire for autonomy as a coach overrode what could have been a better decision in the long run, he digs in.

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“In those moments, I mean I’m not afraid of conflict. I don’t think conflict is a bad thing,” Van Gundy says. “I think you’re gonna have disagreements with players and other people that you work with and you can have those conflicts and be respectful, find answers, find solutions, find things like that. But you do have to be wiling to stand your ground at certain times.”

He had every right to stand it in Orlando, even facing a rebuild. But if the fabled presser, since doubled-down on by Howard, was any indication, the franchise had already decided to dismantle the ground under him. It was an early sign of trends to come league-wide, coaches flipped for someone more “aligned” with a franchise.

Stubbornness is a quality that has shortened or stalled out careers of coaches and players both, but without it there’d be no magic, no double-takes of “Did he?” as a player comes loose from gravity, no guts. Like most things worth working hard for, sustainable nerve takes balance and composure.

“I think finding that balance is a lot the same as what goes on with players. Players need to be coachable, but the best players I’ve been around also have a level of stubbornness. I think that’s part of what makes you who you are, those major things, you’ve gotta stick to your guns on those,” Van Gundy says on finding the midpoint between staying true to yourself and seeing the larger picture. “I think that’s true of high performers in any field. There is a level of stubbornness involved in things that you really believe in, are musts for team success, for winning games. You’ve gotta be willing to stick to your guns.”

It’s when entrusted with other people’s livelihoods Van Gundy yields, “I don’t think that you can be stubborn as an NBA coach and have your style of play, your system, and that’s the only way you can play. Because I think you have to develop your system to the talents of the players that you have and you have to be adaptable in that regard. The way we played in Orlando was a lot different than the way we played in Miami, and then we had to play a lot differently in Detroit. I think those are just necessities.”

In Detroit, a team and civic ethos that felt in many ways better shaped for the work ethic of its incoming coach, Van Gundy never got the full runway, partially because of inhabiting two roles simultaneously. Coaches look at what a team needs and presidents balance that with what a team can, or should, get. As president of basketball operations and head coach, Van Gundy shuffled and upgraded where he could, sacrificing, in some cases, the short-term for the long. Leveraging the future for a star like Blake Griffin backfired, but it was the most aspirational move the franchise had in years. What felt like the forward impulsion the team needed to get out of a decade long rebuild turned into a further hobbling by salary.

Griffin’s swapping conferences and Van Gundy’s eventual departure from Detroit feel like decades ago instead of 16 months. The pace of the league, along with the rest of the world, is accelerating. Team overhauls, playing style and player development are happening faster, the pressure on players to transcend any one position feels like a new kind of insurance, or future-proofing when looking ahead at the league’s next evolutions.

Did Van Gundy have to deal with this?

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“I wouldn’t say that it was a matter of actually ‘future-proofing,'” Van Gundy says. “I think two things. I think the main thing you’re doing is you’re taking the team you have and you’re trying to figure out the best way to play that gives them their best chance to be successful and win games. But I do think also, you have to look around and see, always sort of see, where the game is headed. And be prepared to be able to be successful in that realm and so you’ve got to be able to, you know.”

When he begins to get into specifics, there is the sense that he’s seeing these things from the sidelines, his voice taking on the lilt and rise of a coach calling out instructions. “Adjust your defensive schemes as teams went smaller and shot more threes, played smaller guys, things like that, your defensive schemes, your system, that has to change,” he says. “You certainly don’t want to be behind the curve, you’d love to be ahead of it, but you certainly don’t want to be behind it and have things happening on the floor that you’re not prepared for.”

It’s the last sentence of his answer, as straightforward as it sounds, that reveals what unsettles a coach — to be without a plan on the floor, to watch the game unfold as if you were a spectator, could be the first step toward losing a team, a job, a career. Your brain lives in basketball instead of your body.

“Coaching is,” Van Gundy sighs, “you’re going at it long days all the time. Even in the offseason your mind never turns off. You’re thinking about it all the time.”

When it comes time for a coach to transplant their brain back inside their own head, especially a brain like Van Gundy’s that has witnessed coaching firsthand since he was a kid (his father coached in high schools and colleges across the U.S., family in tow), there’s bound to be an adjustment. In an interview Van Gundy did the summer after the Pistons let him go, he confessed to feeling “really lost right now,” that he had planned to coach the next season and was unsure on what to do next. So much of the business of basketball is done behind closed doors with authorized leaks to insiders, the truth coming out a little at a time in interviews the years after, if at all. Coaches are changing, many are vocal on political and social issues, but it is a job that requires a certain remove. To hear Van Gundy admit to feeling untethered in losing what so much of his identity had become tied up in was relatable, if a little heartbreaking.

Asked if he’s let himself slow down since then, he’s loose: “Oh, there’s no question.”

“I think about the game a lot, in broadcasting, I certainly watch a lot of games, but it’s a whole different level of … you know, I’m trying to look for a better word than ‘pressure,’ because I didn’t really ever feel pressure as a coach,” Van Gundy notes. “I guess there’s not the sense of urgency, would be the word that I would use. Where you’ve got the next game to get ready for and everything else. And so I’ve had a lot more time to spend with my wife, we’ve been able to do a lot more things — well, until the pandemic. And then you can’t do anything.”

Van Gundy says he’s been reading and spending more time with family. At the same time, there’s also the small point of his starting an entirely new career.

When his ESPN contract was up, his criteria for a new job was a more well-defined role, less hopping around and filling in, and the opportunity to call games. TNT’s analysis team consists mainly of former players, so when they approached Van Gundy, he admitted feeling surprised. Since he started with the network in earnest this season, it’s been a role he’s approached with modesty.

“I’ve had a lot of experience coaching, thought I was pretty good at it, the broadcasting’s a whole new thing,” Van Gundy says. “I’m trying to learn something new. I’m a beginner, and I need a lot of help. And that challenge has been good for me too. Trying to gain confidence in an entirely new endeavor.”

That help has come from veterans like Ian Eagle, who Van Gundy says he is “really, really lucky” to be paired with for eight games in the Orlando bubble and who has “mentored” him and offered feedback. It’s a trait he realizes is not typical. “A lot of times somebody might be good at their job but they just do their job and expect you to do yours.”

Van Gundy’s excitement is apparent in his on-air commentary. He is joyful, sharp, proximally enlivened by being back alongside a sport he’s spent most of his life dissecting. His voice adds an additional element to games where he deviates from the traditional birds-eye approach, grappling in real-time with the urge to get in close that makes for an animated, two-fold experience: watching the game and watching Stan Van Gundy watch the game. When asked to stylistically compare himself to his brother, who has been a color commentator with ESPN since 2007, he balks almost instantly.

“This will be his 13th, 14th straight year of doing the NBA Finals,” Jeff’s older brother says. “He’s been at this a long time, after his coaching career, he’s one of the best in the business, if not the best. So there’s no comparison.”

Aside from being a job that allows him, as he says, to have his “mind back in the game,” broadcasting gives Van Gundy the outlet to showcase what made him such an impassioned coach: communication. One of the things that made him so fascinating to watch was his press for getting his message out, loud and clear, even when he’d lost the voice to do it. He could be a desperate communicator only in the sense that he needed you to hear what he was saying, not that he was in any way unclear of what he wanted to say. With broadcasting, he gains a new platform from which to build the widest bridge he’s had yet for translating what happens on court via the fierce interpreter of his brain.

That makes the fact that it’s so surprising he’s only recently joined Twitter, the platform that’s become the largest conduit for communication — fraught, frantic, sincere, absolute trash, heartbreaking, a quagmire of everything all the time. There was no a-ha moment when it came to getting an account now. Van Gundy has always been political, but he had more time on his hands, was looking for a way to tap into a larger, local community, and his wife suggested he do it.

“My wife and I have always been pretty involved politically,” Van Gundy says. “[But] I think when you’re not coaching you have more time to really follow what’s going and to get involved in campaigns and things like that. And then the pandemic obviously brought that to a new level, I had a lot more time. So we were actually on a call with a candidate for State Attorney, down here in Orlando, Monique Worrell, and we were on with her and her advisors and some of her key supporters. And they were talking, you know, strategy for the campaign and several of them were talking about things on social media, and I just asked my wife, ‘Do you think I should get on social media to be able to promote some of these candidates and issues?’ And she thought that I should, and that was really the impetus behind it. So I dunno, I’ve been on a couple of weeks.”

In those couple weeks he’s amassed more than 65,000 followers, a slight uptick from “a few more people” that he said he was hoping to reach by creating an account. And even if for him there was no strategic motivation behind his timing, that like much of his career he arrived at this point by taking his own route, he acknowledges that we’re in a critical time.

“I think 2020 — I think every year is really important — but I think where we are, it’s really an important time,” Van Gundy notes. “This election’s important. But also I think because of the murders of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd and then the resulting protests, and COVID and everything else, what’s going on in the world, I think everybody’s engaging a little bit more, and wanting to learn about these issues, talk about these issues. So, I think it’s a good time to be engaged right now. And hopefully if I can get just a couple of people who will maybe tune into a campaign or listen to a candidate or think about an issue that they haven’t before, then it’s worth my time.”

Earnest without pandering, sharp, and smarm-free, scrolling through his timeline is a balm. When I tell him a friend of mine said his feed has been giving her life, he laughs. You can spend five minutes in Van Gundy’s feed — mass incarceration, education reform, equal representation in politics, racial injustice, voter registration, local community engagement, student loan relief, pandemic response — and feel better informed and more balanced from it than the news alerts Apple pushes into the palm of your hand.

This full roster of causes and issues deserving of attention can quickly turn overwhelming, but in Van Gundy’s thumbs hands, there’s a thoughtful pacing that avoids the dreaded doom scroll and its resulting fatigue. Unlike vocal coaches we know to be political via soundbite, like Gregg Popovich or Steve Kerr, Van Gundy’s dissemination of issues on his radar isn’t solely reactionary or radicalized, just a steady, well-informed stream. There’s relief, especially on Twitter, of not having to get worked up anew with every post. Even the frequency that Van Gundy shares to the platform isn’t overwhelming to keep up with. If anything he’s a lighthouse, a steady pulse in the storm of information and vitriol.

“I think being around athletes in coaching has solidified views I already had, and really solidified views in terms of racial justice. It’s been more of an evolution than a one moment thing,” Van Gundy says when asked if there was a moment that shifted his perspective and subsequent politics.

But there was a jolt, “It was the election of 2016,” he recalls, “I would say to [my wife and I], both of us, our major issue is equality. Gender equality. LGBTQ equality. Racial equality. And when we elected President Trump and some of the other people that we elected in 2016, it was a wake-up, if not a wake-up because I already knew, certainly a heightened sense of alert that this can’t be going on.”

To watch Van Gundy coach is to have seen galvanizing bursts of fury in action. It’s this anger of forward impulsion, and what’s spilling out now from pent up pain and frustration in the form of civil unrest in the streets, that I reference when I ask if he thinks people could stand to be angrier given everything that’s on the line. But with this he’s more measured.

“Anger, like you say, sometimes it can be good,” Van Gundy says. “I think hopefully it will lead to a greater commitment to changing things. I think we’ve seen that with some of the protests. I think the question is how sustainable all this will be? Are people willing to do the not so noticeable work that it takes? To get out and vote, to contribute to campaigns, to promote candidates, to learn the candidates, to learn the issues. We need a heightened level of engagement from a lot people.”

It was this kind of actionable work Van Gundy was doing with his family “pretty much every day this year, in 2020, knowing what we’re leading into.” Whether looking for races he views as competitive that could use time and money, or getting behind issues he finds important, it was committing, and re-committing, to an engaged civic role he saw as most imperative, and what he cautions is going to take the most sustained energy once the anger burns out.

“I think it’s commitment more than anger,” Van Gundy says, “and a lot of perseverance. Because these things should be, but they’re not going to be, changed overnight. And it’s not going be just even a straight line upward of things being solved. You’ll get some wins, you’ll get some losses, just like you do in a basketball season and you’ve got to keep moving forward.

The advice to dig in might seem disingenuous if it was coming from someone who had not made a career from their natural inclination toward it. It is difficult, and potentially dangerous, to be stubborn in the real world depending where you are and what you look like. But Van Gundy’s approach, as always, is to get there through sustainable pace and push.

“We’ve seen that lesson from some of the great leaders — John Lewis who just passed away,” Van Gundy says. “If you look at all he had to go through in the Civil Rights movement and even since then, it’s been a lot of times two steps forward and a step back, and then two more steps forward, maybe two steps back, and you just keep going. That’s what it’s going to take. That’s what I hope people will have, the resolve to just continue the fight until we have a much more equal society than what we have right now.”

What is comforting about Van Gundy’s reemergence into the frame now is that it feels as much like a fresh voice to rally around as it does familiar. He was new to the platform, gamely holding up a piece of lined paper with his name as proof, but there was no need to catch him up because he’d been on his way here all along. Perseverance, whether in the NBA or the course of a coach’s career, is rarely the thing that gets written about or lauded. We want the big, instant, resounding force, the splash and flash.

Van Gundy has stayed evergreen because he’s never been elegiac about his career, the choices he made or where he ended up because of them. And he’s never been prepared to mourn any of it because it wasn’t over, he was still moving forward. The fluke of his arrival when we collectively need his kind of sustained, rational, won’t-back-down-able energy most could be serendipitous, or it could just be the next, self-possessed step in a career of showing up.

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