A seven-second video that appeared in my Twitter timeline last Friday night is still delighting me; the chance to watch one of my favorite coaches be so much himself, and every bit of it. The text reads “Just watch Stan Van Gundy,” but I was probably going to do that anyway.
The Pistons’ coach sees the play coming — Golden State forward Draymond Green has two high screens to use as interference for a back cut — and Van Gundy starts screaming at center Andre Drummond to stay with his man. Sure enough, Green flashes down the lane to get Klay Thompson’s pass from right in front of the Detroit bench, and dunks with nobody around.
Van Gundy watches helplessly as it all unfolds, then stomps his right foot as he drags the left, and rages at the heavens. It’s a distillation of every coach’s Sisyphean existence, and SVG at his essence.
This guy is the best.
I don’t mean he’s the best coach, or the best president of basketball operations or anything, but only that as every year goes by there are fewer and fewer like him in professional sports; people seemingly incapable of artifice or just too busy to want to bother with it. In enough time Gregg Popovich will retire and everybody will be some iteration of Bill Belichick, so we have to enjoy real personality while we can.
His team isn’t doing all that well. They are 15-18, and sit last in a Central division packed in a tight group well behind the Cavaliers. Some players initiated a meeting recently before a game against the Bulls in an effort to correct their slide, only to come out and lose 113-82. Van Gundy afterward was priceless.
“Team meeting, my ass,” he said. “That stuff means nothing. It’s what you do on the court. Talking’s easy. It was a disgusting performance by all of us, me included. It was unprofessional, embarrassing, humiliating, whatever you want to say.”
What’s great is that Van Gundy is like this even when his teams are playing well. He’s always obsessed with what can still be corrected and is completely open about it. It’s an NBA thing that isn’t often heard in optimistic baseball dugouts or paranoid NFL practice facilities, where a well-meant “How ya doin’, coach?” is likely to be answered with “We can’t guard anybody,” “We still need another shooter” or “Just once I’d like us to grab a damn rebound.”
Even the great coaches I covered deep into the NBA playoffs shared this trait, with Pat Riley leaning up against a concrete wall in Miami after shoot-around chatting with reporters about his frustration in defending Michael Jordan, or Larry Bird in his office in Market Square Arena before a conference finals game lamenting his team’s inability to execute a lob pass. And these were two Hall-of-Famers.
Van Gundy doesn’t have the custom-tailored suit, the playing resume or even a single championship ring, but he also doesn’t have any BS at a time when that’s all that so many coaches and teams want to provide. That in itself is appreciated.
My soft spot for him is also due to his connection to SUNY Brockport in upstate New York, where he and his brother played and his father once coached. Another longtime Brockport coach was Mauro Panaggio, who went on to become a minor-league pro coaching legend, winning more games than anyone in the Continental Basketball Association that was once the NBA’s feeder league. Panaggio coached the Rockford Lightning during my years there as a broadcaster and front-office executive and to this day informs so much of my understanding of the game, since that many postgame meals in diners from Fargo to Grand Rapids to Mexico City have a lasting effect.
Van Gundy’s foot-stomp recalls Panaggio’s — as does the primal scream toward the bench — but meant more for some angry and vengeful basketball gods. It is in no way acting out for the cameras to show how much he cares or how hard he wants the world to see he’s trying, because that layer of pretense is just not in him.
Nor was it when he weighed in on the election surprise by ripping the “brazenly racist” president-elect and quoting Martin Luther King as part of a lengthy post-practice monologue that expressed disbelief that “we have just thrown a good part of our population under the bus, and I have problems with thinking this is where we are as a country.”
He finished with “That’s it for me. I don’t have anything to say about the game tonight.”
And later it was out to the floor in Phoenix, where his team would lose to the Suns 107-100 and he would have enough to say about it afterward, trying to find a way to make it better.
It’s not easy to envision another like Stan Van Gundy coming to the NBA again any time soon, or ever; someone toiling on small-college benches with varying degrees of success before making a name as a respected pro assistant and being in the right place at the right time for a first, unlikely shot at a top job. That’s not the mechanism anymore.
Nor is Van Gundy’s kind of true and unguarded expression that make him something to be enjoyed.