|The relationship between player and coach has been dependent upon team success. (Getty Images)|
You heard the quotes, saw the men speak the words. If anyone thought the Dwight Howard drama in Orlando ended March 15 when he decided to stay with the Magic another season, those delusions came crashing down Thursday in one of the most bizarre media sessions in NBA history.
We all knew better, didn't we?
Stan Van Gundy taking the bold step of admitting publicly that he knows Howard has asked for him to be fired, followed by Howard sauntering over, unaware of the scoop his coach had just tossed to the wolf pack, and placing his arm around Van Gundy before craftily sort of denying it all, was an instant classic of NBA dysfunction. Within minutes, the exchange was causing Twitter to tremble, and video of the event burst forth on the Internet -- testing the limits of the absurd, or at least our tolerance for the absurd. In this NBA, during these days of superstar wanderlust and control, that's saying something.
Here's what we know: Van Gundy couldn't possibly be back to coach the Magic next season, which is a shame. Not for him, mind you, because he'll either have another job faster than Dwight can brick a free throw, or he'll simply "find something to do," as he put it Thursday. It will be a shame for the Magic, and for the eternal struggle between star and coach, in which the star is always the last man standing.
In the NBA, the coach never wins these skirmishes in the Kangaroo Court of Supreme Idiocy, and I can cite precedent, your honor: LeBron v. Brown, for one, and more recently, Melo v. D'Antoni, et al. So in Dwight v. Van Gundy, there isn't so much a winner and a loser but an inevitable outcome. The necessary and proper clause, in these cases, is trumped by the unnecessary and improper. Always.
Also, we know this: According to a person familiar with the situation, Howard did, in fact, express his desire for a coaching change -- in a meeting with Orlando's management before the season. Howard and Van Gundy have a long history of falling off and climbing back onto the same page, their relationship ebbing and flowing with the team's performance. In the midst of a hideous four-game losing streak, their relationship isn't so much ebbing and flowing as imploding. All of this is just a rehash of Howard's stated desire for a new coach before the season, fanned by the flames of losing. And when the Magic are losing, Van Gundy -- by his own admission -- goes from being a demanding coach to being a maniacal one.
One of the first times the tension between them blew up publicly was after a 92-88 loss to the Celtics in Game 5 of the 2009 Eastern Conference semifinals. After the Magic had surrendered a 17-3 run in the fourth quarter, Howard complained in the postgame news conference about Van Gundy's substitution patterns.
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Van Gundy has had his fill of Dwightmare in Orlando
"Our coach has to recognize when he has a certain group out there and they are getting the job done, we have to leave those guys on the floor," Howard said.
They've been touch-and-go ever since. Oh, by the way, the Magic won the series and beat Cleveland in the conference finals before losing to the Lakers in the Finals. This season, despite the Dwight-driven drama over whether he would be dealt to New Jersey, the Magic had the third-best record in the conference at the trade deadline. Their current slide -- which began with a no-show in New York against the Knicks, their opponent again Thursday night -- has dropped them to fifth.
Fifth in the conference, but center stage of the clown show.
Somehow, the best part about Thursday wasn't Van Gundy standing there in front of the team banner and calmly sipping a can of soda as he dropped on the local and New York media contingents that he'd been told of Howard's quest for his ouster. ("By people in our management," Van Gundy said, cold-bloodedly, in between belts of fizzy goodness. "Right from the top.") Juicy as that little morsel was, it was nothing compared to Howard's feeble attempt at a denial.
Howard is the same guy who sat in the Magic's interview room March 15, after 72 hours of flip-flopping that held three franchises and a lot of good people hostage, and said, "I'm loyal. That's just who I am." Thursday, he was forced to confront the trait that he's lacking. Let's call it plausible believability.
Thus, the non-denial denial. Thus, the transparent attempt to flip the story he created onto those with the pens, notebooks and digital recorders who ask the questions. If you notice, watching Howard on Thursday, he never did actually say he hadn't asked that Van Gundy be fired. He just hasn't done it recently.
"I said that?" Howard said, a look of bemusement on his face. "Who'd I say that to? I'm asking you, since you guys got so many sources."
"Your coach said he heard it from management," a reporter replied, as Howard bobbed his head back and forth, thinking he had his audience right where he has the Magic, in the palm of his hand.
"I didn't hear anything," Howard said.
Now stop right there. The question wasn't about what Howard heard, but rather what he said. To management. About wanting Van Gundy fired.
"The only thing I'm ever uncomfortable with is bull----," Van Gundy had said earlier, in a bit of foreshadowing that made the storytelling part of this job so much easier. "... The only thing that ever liberates me is to be honest with what's out there."
And there you have it.
In the end, all this he-said, he-said isn't going to matter. In the end, Van Gundy is going to be gone and the next coach -- and possibly, the next GM, too -- will be left to figure out a way to turn the world upside down for Howard so he doesn't threaten to leave again. Good luck with that.
Howard isn't believed to have met with Magic CEO Alex Martins, the key figure in persuading him to opt in with the Magic for next season, since the trade deadline. He doesn't need to. Everybody knows where Howard stands: With one foot out the door and the other one on his coach's neck.
Maybe what Van Gundy was doing Thursday was trying to squirm free -- trying to get fired. He'll be successful, eventually. The only thing Van Gundy cares about, he said Thursday, is wins and losses. And while he doesn't know how many games the Magic will win or lose the rest of this season, he already knows who wins the game he's involved in.