It was one of the most bizzare and strange moments in NBA history. It turned out to be unintentional comedy and a sign of how bad things had gotten, or were about to get, in Orlando during interminable Dwight-mare that enveloped the 2012 Magic.
Van Gundy revealed publicly back in April that Dwight Howard had talked to management about getting him fired back and then, in the msot bizzare twist of the Dwight-mare, Howard came up to him, put his arm around his shoulder and joked with his coach, completely oblivious to the bombshell Van Gundy had just dropped. When Howard was asked directly about the incident, he denied it and asked who had told the media. He seemed in disbelief at what had happened moments before he stepped into the media scrum.
No one knew how much thought and planning went into what Stan Van Gundy did that Thursday morning in April. Perhaps it was the circumstances that made it worse.
Before all the insanity that ensued that day, the Magic were embroiled in a swarm of rumors the entire season. Things were getting worse even after Howard decided to opt-in to the final year of his deal. The focus had turned toward Stan Van Gundy, one of the rumored reasons for Howard's discontent. All the while, the Magic were fighting for Playoff positioning, trying to hold off the Celtics, Pacers and Hawks for home court advantage in the first round.
Still the focus was on the long-term future for Howard and Orlando. And Van Gundy wanted to turn it back to the immediate focus of the season at hand. As Van Gundy explains (h/t Ben Golliver of Eye on Basketball for transcribing):
My intent at the time was, there was so much speculation, I knew it would be a big deal for a day or two, get all of the BS done. Let's put it out in the open and it will sort of die as a story. Speculation can be ongoing. Once it's out there, you can talk about it for a while and then it dies. I think that's what would have happened and we could have gotten back, yeah, there's disagreements between Stan and Dwight but we can get back to playing basketball.
An admirable goal, perhaps. But one that completely backfired when Howard sauntered up to Van Gundy with a smile on his face and no idea the trap he was walking into. At that point, Van Gundy said "I didn't think it was funny. I just wanted to get the hell out of there."
Glad Van Gundy sensed the awkwardness too as he fed his superstar center to the lions. Howard floundered around as the media asked him specifically about what Van Gundy said. Howard seemed in disbelief that Van Gundy had just said publicly that Howard had gone to management to ask that he was fired. He continues to deny the meeting or demand ever happened despite several reports dating back to May 2011 after Orlando lost to Atlanta in the first round of the Playoffs.
At this point though, Van Gundy probably cared less about his job and more about clearing the air, solidifying some semblance of leadership and certainty and focusing on basketball. That was something the Magic had been unable to do throughout the season last year because of all the Dwight distractions.
Then with the Dwight distraction mostly gone thanks to his opting-in, Van Gundy seemed to be the focus of attention. He did not want to lose that locker room. Van Gundy said by clearing the air and cutting through the "BS" and focusing on the team and the task at hand:
You could poll everybody. I think it actually played out the way I would have wanted it, with everyone. Dwight was obviously pissed off about it. The rest of them, I thought it played out the way everybody wanted it to… I think they got a respect. I think they had respect for me, anyway, but I think they got a respect of, basically, he doesn't give a damn. Dwight wants him out of here. He knows it, number one. He's not in the dark wondering what's going on. He's not naive, he knows what's going on. He wants to just stay focused.
Van Gundy said the team never really got to see it play out. Dwight Howard played only two more games in a Magic uniform. The night Van Gundy gave that press conference, New York blew out Orlando. The second came two days later as Howard, barely able to walk according to Van Gundy, had a 20/20 performance and led the Magic to a gutsy win over the 76ers. Van Gundy said the locker room was more together than ever at that point int he season.
But injury kept Howard from playing the rest of the season and separated him from the franchise as the two differed on how to treat his injury.
If you choose to believe Howard's profession of loyalty after the trade deadline, then these two events — Van Gundy's press conference and the disagreement over treating his back — may have finally severed Howard from Orlando.
What about Van Gundy's part in this?
Van Gundy said he had prepared and thought about what he would say if he was asked this question before it actually occurred. The timing though was a bit odd.
A few days prior to this media gathering, reports began surfacing in Orlando that Howard had gone to management to ask that Van Gundy be fired. Knowing the Magic were doing everything they could to keep Howard, Van Gundy probably sensed he was not going to coach in Orlando for the 2013 season. There was no sense hiding from it.
All Van Gundy did, and he says as much, was answer a question honestly. He was asked directly about the report and he confirmed it publicly. No sources. No… BS.
The odd timing of it came in both the absurdity of Howard walking up and playing dumb after it happened but also in who was there. The Knicks were in town to play a nationally televised game that Thursday night (notice the TNT microphone in the media horde?). It was a bigger than usual media gathering for Orlando because the New York media was getting its first chance to quiz Howard since he opted in to his contract (Orlando did play New Jersey the day after the deadline in bizzare twist).
Van Gundy picked a very odd stage if he expected the story to die down pretty quickly and go relatively unnoticed.
He is right that it did not get to play out. And the Magic were more united afterward. That may have been because they needed to rally around each other without their superstar center for the remainder of the season.
The question remains whether Van Gundy made a mistake here? Perhaps that cannot be fairly evluated because of how things played out. He certainly could have protected his job better by keeping it internal. But who knows if that would have accomplished what he wanted.
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