The same coach who proclaimed last season that Dwight Howard wanted him fired has come to his defense.
Stan Van Gundy heard the comments Howard made in a recent interview with CBS2/KCAL9.
“My team in Orlando was a team full of people who nobody wanted,” he said. “I was the leader and I led that team with a smile on my face.”
The former Magic coach took no offense to it whatsoever.
“He did not in my opinion mean to say I didn’t play with good players in Orlando,” Van Gundy said in a phone interview with this newspaper. “The question was about his demeanor. He’s been criticized for his demeanor on the court. He was basically trying to defend himself in his demeanor saying he can be smiling and still be serious about winning. What he meant to say is ‘We had an underrated or under the radar team in Orlando and we won a lot of games and I was the best player on that team and this was my demeanor. So what’s the problem now?’
Well, there’s plenty.
Former Magic teammates took offense to Howard’s comments considering his eight-year tenure (2004-2012) entailed five playoff stints, including an NBA Finals appearance in 2009 against the Lakers.
“At some point, when are you (Dwight) gonna as a man, when are you going to take ownership and stay out of the media in a professional manner?” Magic point guard Jameer Nelson told the Orlando Sentinel. “We had a great run as a group, as core guys, and he was a part of it. For him to say things about anybody in a negative manner, that’s up to him.”
“It’s disrespectful more than anything. We helped Dwight become the player he was,” said Rashard Lewis, who’s currently with the Miami Heat. “Look at those (conference and division) banners hanging in the stands. They don’t say Dwight Howard on them. … Everybody should get a little piece of the credit.”
The immediate backlash led to Howard and Van Gundy to exchange text messages about the incident. The two have said they frequently text message each other despite an adversarial offseason.
Van Gundy told reporters at a morning shoot-around in March that the front office indicated Howard wanted him fired. Moments later, Howard entered the media scrum placing his arm around Van Gundy as a way to deflect varying reports that sugested the same thing. Unaware that Van Gundy unleashed that bombshell, the former Magic coach then left Howard by himself to address the revelations.
“He’s in that position now where people are going to jump on everything he says,” said Van Gundy, who’s currently a college basketball analyst for NBC. “Quite honestly, none of you in the media would like it, but he’d be better off if he didn’t talk to you anymore. To me, what would’ve been fair in that situation when I heard is say, ‘Wait a minute, did you mean the players you played with were no good? I think he would’ve cleared it up.’ He was very upset today. When he texted me, he said I would never disrespect any of those guys. Unfortunately, it came out that way and he hurt some feelings I don’t thinkeh meant to hurt by any means. He was trying to defend himself and his demeanor. I feel badly for him on that one. I didn’t think for a second that’s what he meant to say.”
That’s why Van Gundy said he also planned to text with Nelson, Lewis and J.J. Redick.
“If I heard that as a teammate, I’d probably react the same way,” Van Gundy said. “But I don’t think that’s the way he meant it to come out and I don’t think that’s what he meant to say, “God I didn’t play with anybody good.”
That support led Howard to reveal that he and Van Gundy have a “good relationship.”
“We text each other and we continue to talk to each other to this day,” Howard said. “We’ve kept the business side out of it. He understands how I feel. He understands I would never disrespect my teamamtes. He understood exactly what I was saying. That’s what he expressed.”
Nonetheless, Howard’s braving for more backlash when the Lakers play next Tuesday in Orlando, which will mark the first time he returns there sine the Magic sent him here this offseason in a four-team, 12-player trade.
“I love that city, had eight great years there and we accomplished a lot,” Howard said. “It’s over with and in the past. We all have to move forward. I know people are hurt and upset. We have to move forward.”
Will Howard be ready?
“I have no choice but to be ready,” Howard said. “I know things are going to happen. I know a lot of people are upset with the way I left. I always think about 8 great years in Orlando. It was an unbelievable time. It ended on a bad note. That should never erase the years that we had of happiness. It’s over with now.”
One thing isn’t over: Howard and Van Gundy still plan to stay in touch.
“We talked a lot this season. He’s been one of my biggest supporters,” Howard said. “He always tells me to keep playing. He knows I’m not 100 percent. I just keep working. He knows how hard I work. He’s been upset with things being said. He tells me to stay strong and stay with it.”
Follow L.A. Daily News Lakers beat writer Mark Medina on Twitter. E-mail him at email@example.com