Below is a Q&A with former Magic coach Stan Van Gundy on his time coaching Dwight Howard through five seasons in Orlando. Van Gundy is currently a college basketball analyst for NBC.
What reflections pop to mind on your time coaching Dwight?
What really stands out is his greatness. He was unbelievable for the full five years. Obviously he had the injuryin the last year. But we won a lot of games. He was a huge part of it at both ends on the floor and I thought he was a guy who really bought into the defense and what we were trying to do there. I said to him at one point, ‘We think you’re capable of leading the league in blocked shots and rebounding, which is what you don’t see done. We thought he was capable of being the defensive player of the year. I think if you look around at most of the stars in our league, their approach is very much on offense. Dwight understood the defensive end of the floor and was really the key to some very defensive teams. That’s what I reflect on.
What was your coaching approach toward him?
I didn’t really have a different approach coaching him than anybody else. I pushed him very very hard. I thought I was pretty demanding of him. Maybe in some ways, more so than other people. I know said to him on several occasions. It’s the old quote, “To whom much is given, much is expected.’ He’s a guy with great ability and I always wanted more. Maybe I didn’t make him feel appreciated as he was at times because I always thought there was always even more there as great as he was. I wanted to see him get there. He was an absolutely great player for us. I thought the most dominant guy in the league in terms of he could affect every possession on both ends of the floor more than anybody in the league so he was great.
Where do you think that helped elevate his game?
No No no. Whatever players accomplish, that’s to the players credit. Really. I believe that with any coach. All we’re trying to do as coaches is put a team together, put a system in that will maximize people’s potential and play to their strengths. Especially to buy into the defensive end of the floor and make that a real priority, that’s rare among the real stars in our game. If you look around on most teams, the stars focus on the offense. Then you have some role players who focus on the defense. We had a first team all NBA guy who focused on the defensive end of the floor. The point I always made to him. Its’ tough wherever you play as a center. You’re dependent on other people to get the ball and things like that. You can’t do that on your own. There’s always a little bit of frustration. Every big guy that I’ve been with that say they’re not getting the ball enough and everything else, my point to Dwight was he didn’t even need to get the ball to dominate the game. He was one of the rare guys that is capable of dominating just with his defense and rebounding. While everybody wants the ball, he was no different in that regard. He didn’t need the ball to be the dominant force in any game that he played in.
How would you evaluate his time with the Lakers?
I think a lot of things have been going on. I think it’s been a tough year for him. I think he’s gotten hammered on a little too much, to be quite honest. I don’t think people are really taking a realistic look at the situation, which is number one, he’s coming off a major injury. It’s the most major injury he’s ever had in his career. I’d argue with anybody after having watched him for five years is he’s not physically at 100 percent. I’m watching him and he does not quite have the quickness or explosiveness that the quick jumping that he’s had in the past. Even by his own admission, it affected his conditioning.
He took six months off basically doing nothing and is not in as good of shape as he’s been in the past. On top of that, he’s had to adjust like a lot of guys. But to put the physical injury on top, he’s had to adjust to a new system and a new role. I think the system is a great one for him. I really do. I think Mike’ system, I disagree with everybody out there that’s questioning that. I think Mike’s system is great for Dwight> But it’s still a little bit different than what we did. It’s still an adjustment. He’s always played as the number one guy and number one option. With Kobe there, he’s not going to be that. That’s not wrong. The Lakers aren’t doing anything wrong. Mike D’Antoni isn’t doing anything wrong. Kobe Bryant’s not doing anything wrong. And Dwight’s not doing anything wrong. But it’s an adjustment. I think people have been unfair in a lot of their criticisms of him and haven’t been realistic. This is a pretty difficult situation and this guy has still played pretty well.
We all do it. I understand it. We certainly did it as coaches. If you’re out there and are able to play, we don’t want to hear any excuses. I agree with that approach certainly from the inside. I don’t think Dwight has made excuses. But from the outside when you’re looking at it, the guy is not 100 percent. Yet, everyone wants 100 percent production. I understand that. But he’s not physically 100 percent.
And I understand you stay in touch with Dwight pretty frequently?
We do. Most of my communication with Dwight is when we weren’t in the same building. Obviously I talked to him everyday with practices and games. Offseason and stuff, most of it text. That’s the 21st century. Really with of the players. You call them and you can’t get an answer. But you text and they get right back to you. It’s an easy way to go. He and I were texting back and forth today. Every couple of weeks probably. Certainly not every day for anything. But I’m not giving him advice on how to play or what to do or anything else.
He’s got a coaching staff doing that. He’s got a great coaching staff doing that. My texts are basically good game last night, trying to encourage him. I think they’re looking better. I said that to him that today, you guys are looking better, the team is playing better. The whole thing and understanding what he’s gone through from a year. I’m not coaching him from afar that’s for sure. That’s not my role. I’ve stayed in touch with most of the guys that I used to coach, some more than others depending on how much they get back to you. But that’s with most everybody I’ve coached here.
What do you say to him?
Look, nothing. Good luck. Hang in there. I’m not going to step on the toes . I’m not trying to get into anything technically, emotionally or anything. He’s a guy who played here for us for five years and helped us win a lot of games that I have an appreciation for and trying to be a friendly voice at times in a tough year, that’s it.
Did you two touch base about how some of Dwight’s former teammates reacted negatively toward his recent comments about them? [Howard said in a recent interview with CBS2/KCAL9, “My team in Orlando was a team full of people who nobody wanted. I was the leader and I led that team with a smile on my face.”]
That’s actually why he texted me. He felt really really bad about the way things came out. He was wondering why that everybody wants to take all of his comments at their worst and the whole thing. I said even before I heard from him I said [Wednesday night] on a couple radio shows, he did not in my opinion mean to say I didn’t play with good players in Orlando. 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. I really think that’s what he meant to say.
As someone myself who’s not always able to find the right word, he said I had a lot of guys nobody wanted. What he meant to say was we had a lot of players who weren’t respected as they should’ve been yet we were still able to win and I was a key guy in that. He’s in that position now where people are going to jump on everything he says. 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 think he 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.
He was legitimately upset. Most of the time quite honestly when we text back and forth, I’m usually the one who initiates it. That’s no different with any of the other players. Today it was him. That’s basically what he said. Why do they jump on everything I say and make it bad? That’s what initiated it. It was clear he felt really badly about it.
Have you reached out to Jameer Nelson, J.J. Redick and Rashard Lewis to help Dwight’s case?
I texted Jameer and I have not JJ or Rashard. I had been texting with JJ the other day. If I heard that as a teammate, I’d probably react the same way. 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. God I don’t mean that. It was unfortunate he did play with really good players here. They took it as him saying he didn’t. I feel for him, but I also feel for those guys because I understand what they’re saying. He had really good players around him in Orlando.
You don’t win a number of games that we won without Dwight and we don’t win the number of games we had in Orlando without outstanding talent around him. I always thought Otis Smith was one of the underrated guys in the league. I think he really understood how to put a team together and put people around him where Dwight helped them and he helped them. It was outstanding. It never quite got us to where we want to go, in winning a championship, but were damn good in those years. Everyone had a huge role in it, especially guys like Rashard and Jameer. I wouldn’t want to leave anybody out. We had good depth and a lot of good players. It’s just unfortunately more than anything it came out the way it did. Dwight wound up looking bad when I don’t think that’s what he meant and the other players looked disrespected and they shouldn’t be.
Considering everything that happened last year, including the press conference where you said Dwight wanted you fired, was there any reconciliation you two had to do?
No not really. We never stopped communicating. There were times he was very angry with me. After I had said what I said to say in that press conference, he was very very angry that had come out and it was something I thought about before I said it. That was a tough time. Any coach would tell you in the course of player coach relationships, there are always going to be up and downs and there’s going to be times you’re not seeing eye to eye and things like that. You always work through them. I think we would’ve been able to work through that. Had it been left to Dwight and I and Otis Smith, we would’ve worked through it.
It doesn’t mean he wouldn’t have ended up in L.A. or anything else. But I don’t think it would’ve been the situation that it was. We never stopped communicating even if there have been times he was very angry with me. Dwight and I may not have always seen eye to eye. But I think there is mutual respect. I know there is from my side toward him. I have great respect for what he did in the five years here and I have respect for the way he played and I have respect for the fact he went out every night in games and every day in practice. He played 40 minutes and came into practice the next day. He wasn’t a guy who was looking to take days off or anything like that. The last game he played for us after the injury, he was very very angry and the incident had come two days before he was angry. He and I talked before the walk through and he was upset and went out with a bad back. At the end of the game, he was barely moving and playing through it because he wanted to prove he was not going to quit on his team or anything else. The guy only missed 25 games in his whole career and some of those this year. That’s a guy who comes in every night and works and comes to practice. I had great respect for that.”
Did you two ever address the press conference incident?
We addressed it two days after and we talked about it.
What came out of it?
Well, once a decision got made that he was going to have surgery or whatever, he was not around. So look there are a lot of things I did in five years I coached him that Dwight didn’t like. There were some things that he did that I didn’t like. Anybody who says they coached anybody in this league, particularly a great player, for five years and those things wouldn’t be true would be lying. I don’t think we’re any different anywhere else as far as that. Obviously, he got to where he was unhappy and ended up leaving the organization. Certainly my side the respect remains. I would hope from his side but I can’t say that for sure.
So take me back to that day, what it was like for you. What do you remember about it?
The rest of the day was like any other game day. I twas a big day to the media. To me, I said what I had to say and then I did what I always do. I went upstairs and watched a little bit more film on the New York Knicks and game situations. I came down and put stuff on the board. I got a workout in and I had a pregame meal. I got a stuff prepared for the game and went out and coached the game. It’s basketball. I said what I had to say in the morning and then we went back to work.
What was your thought process behind going public?
I thought the drama surrounding our team in that situation and speculation had become more and more of a distraction. I thought we would be better off clearing the air saying basically this is what happened and to hell with it, we’re moving on. To me, that would end the speculation. There was no sense talking about did this happen or it didn’t. We’ll just say yeah it did and that’s it. Let’s go play basketball and get our focus on playing the way we needed to play. That was my intent. Whether it would’ve worked, I have no idea because we played two games. We lost at home to the Knicks and went to Philly and won. That was it and then he was done. I don’t have any idea.
Dwight received it one way. His teammates received it another way. I think everybody would have a different take on it. But again and I understand why that’s been the focus of everything that day. But that was one day and five years and I look at it a lot differently than everyone else. That’s what I see it as and it was one incident in five years. There were a lot of more good times than bad times. I hope as time goes on if he doesn’t right now, I hope Dwight sees it that way. He’s always going to be angry on what I did int hat situation and will always think I was wrong to have done it. But my hope is he can put that in perspective and see it as an incident he didn’t like I n five years. There was a lot of them he didn’t like in five years. But there were also some good things that helped us.
How did the idea come up for Dwight to help out with your campaign to raise property taxes [in Seminole County, Fla.] to help public schools?
We were sitting one night talking about needing to raise money for the campaign to get our message out to raise the mileage rate, which is a property tax rate to generate millions of dollars more for the schools. I said, ‘Dwight is a guy who cares deeply about kids and all kids from their education.’ I texted him and said are you keeping your house there? And he said this is what we’re doing. He didn’t hesitate he was in. it was great. He and Chris Duhon, both of them have their homes here in Seminole county. Chris’ wife was working in the school district. So I contacted both of them. They both jumped right in and were very appreciative. They helped ius a great deal and being able to get that issue passed.
What support did they provide?
Donations. They were both in L.A. and basically September and October and November. They weren’t involved in the campaign. Chris’ wife was a little bit. But they were both out there in L.A.. The support was very important and it meant a lot to me quite honest that they would help like that. It passed 56-44 in a county that is pretty notorious for being against taxes.
Did Dwight’s support tilt the balance or is that overstating it?
That would probably be overstating it. But to get the word out, you certainly need money and it’s hard to raise money for issues for campaigns as opposed to candidates. Its not easy. Those guys both contributed a substantial amount of money. It was important. I wouldn’t say it was the reason. We had a lot of people working hard and we have great school systems to sell. That is what was pivotal. Without the resources, we couldn’t get the word out. They were an important part of that.
Dwight was a big big charitable person here in Orlando and I’m sure he is in LA. He’s really active in terms of his foundation giving money to charitable causes to Central Florida. A lot of it focused on thing with kids. That’s why I thought with the education, he’d be interested in helping out. Hes a great philanthropist. He really is.
Would you say you’re friends with Dwight?
I always say this. I’m almost twice dwights age. I think when you say whether it’s Dwight, Jameer, JJ or Hedo Turkoglu or Rashard Lewis or any of those guys, I hesitate to use the word friend. We’re not hanging out, going to the same places and doing the same things. But I would say that I like Dwight and I respect him and I appreciate everything he did here in Orlando. I don’t know what word you use for that kind of person. It’s all good. But when I think of friends, I think we’re hanging out. But I don’t hang out with too many 25 or 26 year olds. And I’m sure Dwight is not hanging out with too many 50 year olds. We worked together. That was primarily the relationship. You work together.
That’s important when you’re working with someone toward a goal in a very public and at times emotional atmosphere, you’re going to have disagreements and flare ups and everything else. I think from the outside, fans and the media tend to magnify those things. In reality, we all have those situations in our lives. When you’re in something that’s very important to you, like winning games was to us and you’re in the heat of the moment, a lot of things are going to happen. That does not mean people involved don’t like each other or respect each other. Heck a lot of us have it in relationships. You’re going to get in arguments. Those are people you care about the most. Maybe that’s more you’re in more arguments. It means more to you and means you’re emotional. People on the outside blow things up. But I never had a problem. I dealt with a situation the best way I knew how and Dwight was upset by that. But never at any time does that mean I didn’t respect Dwight or anything else. We disagreed. I disagree with my kids sometimes. Still love them and still appreciate them. But disagree with them an argue with them on times. It happens on every basketball team I’ve been around and it’s happened with our kids.
How do you like your gig with NBC?
I enjoy it because I get a chance to still watch basketball. It makes me watch the NBA and gives me a reason to watch the NBA and gives me a chance to talk about it. I got to do something totally new and talked to really good people and really enjoyed that. Its fun. I get to talk a lot of different people every week. Ive had agood time doing it and its given me a lot more time to do other things. To be around my family a lot more and try different things when I wasn’t able to when I was coaching.
How much do you want to get back into coaching?
I miss it and it’s what I’ve been around my entire life. My dad coached for 41 years. This what I’ve done in my professional life. It ended not because I wanted it to end, but somebody else wanted it to end. It wasn’t like I went out on my own terms. Maybe that has something to do with it. I miss it. At the same time, I love what my life is right now for a lot of different things. Ive had a lot more time with my family and I’m able to try new things, I’m not stressed out nearly as often. I’m not as much of a bad mood when I was when I’m coaching. I’m easier to get along with now when I was coaching. For as long as I’m out of coaching and if I never go back to it, I’m sure ill always miss it. It’s something I put a lot of my life into and something I thought I became good at doing. I really missed the camaraderie of a team atmosphere of working toward a goal with somebody.”
Follow L.A. Daily News Lakers beat writer Mark Medina on Twitter. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org