|Stan Van Gundy told reporters in April that Dwight Howard wanted him to be fired. (NBA.com video)|
According to former Magic coach Stan Van Gundy, the press conference that blew up Orlando's 2011-12 season was supposed to simply blow over after a few days.
Back on April 5, Van Gundy told a group of reporters that he was "uncomfortable with BS" and that he knew Magic All-Star center Dwight Howard had requested that management fire him. Moments later, Howard appeared next to Van Gundy and put his arm around his coach and, unaware of what he had just admitted, continued to deny that he had made such a request. The exchange represented the public height of Orlando's dysfunctional mess; now, a few months later, Van Gundy has been fired, the Magic have "parted ways" with GM Otis Smith, and Howard has been traded to the Los Angeles Lakers.
In a revealing, extended interview on a Grantland.com podcast, Van Gundy says that he was simply trying to resolve locker room tensions by being honest in public and not trying to fuel the flames of internal drama that had been raging for months.
"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," Van Gundy said. "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."
So what sidetracked Van Gundy's master plan? Howard's season-ending back injury.
"The hard part of the whole situation is that it never got to play out because of Dwight's injury," Van Gundy said. "I will say this: he only played in two games after that. One of them was one of the most, I hesitate to use this word with any athlete in any sport, but it was one of the most courageous games I've seen a guy play.
"When we played in Philadelphia, he could barely walk. And he stayed out there and played 40+ minutes and did everything he possibly could. And our whole team did. We gutted out a great win. Dwight was still pissed at me for what I had said afterwards but that locker room was the best it had been all year. But that was the last time he ever played. I can't say it would have continued that way, but nobody knows. That's the hard part."
Indeed, Howard scored 20 points, grabbed 22 rebounds, dished six assists and blocked two shots in an 88-82 victory over the Philadelphia 76ers on April 7. But it's also worth mentioning that Howard finished with eight points and eight rebounds while playing uninspired basketball and joking on the bench during a loss to the New York Knicks two days earlier, his first game after Van Gundy's comments.
The positive impact of the press conference wasn't just evident in Howard's play, according to Van Gundy. He also believed his admission to the press rallied the troops as he thought it would.
"You could poll everybody," Van Gundy said. "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."
Without Howard, the Magic finished the season 4-6 and were eliminated in the first round of the Eastern Conference playoffs by the Indiana Pacers.
Van Gundy went into significant detail about the circumstances before, during and after the press conference. Interestingly, he said that his answer to the "Does Dwight want you fired?" question was "calculated" beforehand and that he had sought advice from his brother, former NBA coach Jeff Van Gundy, and his assistant coaches before he took his last stand.
"That in particular was calculated," he said. "What you're calculating is not what the media response is going to be or anything else. You're making your decision on what my team needs. I didn't break a story there. That story had been out all year. All I did, basically, was confirm it, get it done hopefully, and try in our locker room to get rid of the BS. Saying, look, 'I know what's going on. I'm not afraid of what's going on. We're going to go play basketball now and get it done.' That's what the calculation came down to."
He was motivated, in part, by the distraction that the "Van Gundy is on the hot seat" stories represented. He worried that they could "take over everything in your locker room."
Another key motivating factor: Magic management's decision not to render a verdict on Van Gundy's future in the face of reports that Howard would be allowed to decide whether or not to replace Van Gundy and Smith at the end of the season.
"I knew the best approach was our management needed to resolve the situation one way or another," he said. "Fire me, extend me, or make some sort of statement. Our management chose not to do that. My choice then became, are we going to just let this go on? ... Or are we at least going to bring some closure to it?"
With that said, Van Gundy wanted to make it clear that his action wasn't anything personal toward Howard and that he wasn't acting out of revenge for Howard's desire to have him fired.
"I don't have a problem with Dwight in the situation," he said. "He was given a forum by management to express his opinions. They decided to do that and he did it. I just had to deal with it as a coach, that's all. He's entitled to his opinion and management asked him what he thought at some point. Dwight always played hard."
As for the press conference itself, Van Gundy said he didn't know that Howard would be joining him side-by-side or that he would offer an embrace, although he did see his center approaching after he finished meeting individually with a beat writer.
"[Howard] has no idea what I'm saying," Van Gundy remembered. "He walks in with his supposed show of support, having no idea what I just said. In that regard, he got caught in a very difficult situation because he had no idea what had been said."
"I didn't think it was funny," he added. "I just wanted the hell out of there."
Van Gundy did depart quickly upon Howard's arrival, leaving his center to deny claims that his coach had just publicly confirmed. Howard's hesitance to open up and tell the truth, following months of trade requests and rumors, clearly cost him in the public eye.
"It was already a big deal before he put his arm around me," Van Gundy concluded. "You knew the question was coming, so I had time to prepare for it. It's not like it came out of the blue [and] I just [answered] off the top of my head ... I gave some thought to whether I was going to answer this honestly, or no comment or just lie. I thought it through, but I knew it would be a big deal. I didn't really know what happened with Dwight and I would become a bigger deal."
His brother, as you might expect, offered his full support.
"I would never say what Stan did with Howard's situation was a mistake at all," Jeff Van Gundy, currently a television commentator, said. "I thought it was great."