Van Gundy's Strength is Motivation

By Michael Lee
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 11, 2009

ORLANDO, June 10 -- The camera moved over to Orlando Magic Coach Stan Van Gundy during Game 1 of the NBA Finals and ABC play-by-play announcer Mike Breen asked color commentator and Van Gundy's younger brother, Jeff, a question about Stan's wardrobe, which usually involves a dark suit jacket and a rumpled T-shirt.

"Does he ever wear a tie?" Breen asked.

"Yeah, he used to wear ties," Jeff Van Gundy said. "I think he wore one to start his first game with the Magic, and then he went with that look. Hey, when you look like us, there's no good look."

Stan Van Gundy wants to win over people with his acumen, not his appearance, which explains why the stocky coach often shows up for news conferences in T-shirts and sandals, as if he were a tourist who had just stumbled out of a hotel. He has an emotional, animated reaction to almost every mistake on the floor, which some interpret as panic, when in fact, the shouts, groans and grimaces are actually a sign of his passion.

That passion comes from being the son of a basketball coach, Bill Van Gundy, a former head coach at Division III Brockport State University in New York. "That's actually where I dreamed of coaching," Stan Van Gundy said. "I certainly didn't go into coaching thinking I'd ever make any money at it or coach on TV or any of that. I just wanted to coach. And that's what I think I got from my dad is just a pure love of coaching."

And now, after more than 25 years in the business, at almost every level, Van Gundy is making his first trip to the NBA Finals, matching wits with Los Angeles Lakers Coach Phil Jackson, who is seeking a record 10th NBA championship. He will also forever be known as the coach who delivered the first Finals victory in Magic franchise history.

The Magic trails 2-1 in the best-of-seven series, heading into Game 4 Thursday night at Amway Arena and Van Gundy has repeatedly shown a willingness to take risks and make bold moves. He gave Jameer Nelson heavy minutes in Game 1 even though Nelson hadn't played in more than four months after injuring his right shoulder. He used a lineup with one point guard and four players taller than 6 feet 10, and went nine minutes without a true point guard at all in Game 2.

"He works his tail off, as hard as anybody I've seen in this business," said Magic General Manager Otis Smith, who hired Van Gundy in 2007. "He's constantly trying to find the button to move a group or a guy to win."

Van Gundy often pushes those buttons through loud, screeching, impossible-to-ignore challenges. "I think our guys need to be challenged," Smith said. "I think our guys like to be challenged. It doesn't hurt that our best guy is also a young guy who wants to be pushed to be the best."

Smith doesn't believe Van Gundy's abrasive style will wear thin. "You guys say, 'He can't do that because guys get tired of it.' " Smith then shrugged, because he usually sides with his coach and notices the same mistakes. If Magic forward Hedo Turkoglu seeks sympathy from Smith about Van Gundy getting on him about letting Trevor Ariza getting an open shot, Smith will tell him, "Turk, you didn't close out on Ariza. So why say something about it?"

Before Orlando's 108-104 win in Game 3 on Tuesday, Van Gundy made the biggest adjustment simply by putting the ball in the hands of Rafer Alston, the former street-ball legend with the fragile psyche, and told him to play his game. "I'm a motivational genius," Van Gundy joked after the game. "That's what I am."

The Magic set Finals records in field goal percentage for a game (62.5) and a half (75) and Van Gundy again mocked his role in the performance. "Tremendous game plan on my part, that's what I would attribute it to," Van Gundy said.

Van Gundy said he never wastes too much time patting himself on the back, because he knows there is some coach who beat him at the Division III or Division II level that is watching him in the Finals and saying, 'You've got to be kidding me."

"You've got to be good in this business, but you've got to get a lot of breaks," said Van Gundy, who joined Pat Riley's staff as an assistant in Miami in 1995, before coaching the team from 2003 to 2006. "If you don't realize that, if you really think you're sitting here because of your genius or anything, I don't know, maybe your background is different, but I got my butt kicked a lot at every level, including this one, so I sort of know where I stand in this postseason."

Van Gundy is the rare coach who constantly takes the blame after losses, such as Game 4 of the Eastern Conference semifinals against Boston, when the Magic double-teamed Paul Pierce to make Glen "Big Baby" Davis beat them with a game-winning jumper; and Game 2 of the Eastern Conference finals, when LeBron James buried a game-winning three-pointer at the buzzer.

"We lose a game, Stan is the first one to say, 'It's my fault.' We tell him, 'We win as a team, we lose as a team,' " said Magic center Dwight Howard, who publicly called out Van Gundy during the conference semifinals. "He's a great motivator. Even when we lose games or even if we win, he keeps us motivated."

"Our players, as I have told them, have earned the respect," Van Gundy said. "I mean, you can't do what we've done, you can't be at this level, you can't bounce back as many times as we have, you can't lose and all-star midseason and bounce back, you can't do all of those things if you don't have great character, resilience, not to mention talent on your team. So to me, anyway, it's not about proving any of those things now. It's about trying to win a championship, and that's it. That's the only thing on my mind."

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