The Magic, it's been said, are not a team built for the playoffs, an assessment based on their lack of bangers and slashers and their heavy reliance on one man down low and four artistes on the perimeter. Orlando might continue to hear such criticism right up to the moment when Rashard Lewis tears off the gold-plated basketball atop the Larry O'Brien trophy cradled in Dwight Howard's arms and lets it fly from 23-9.
Ditto for the Magic coach.
Stan Van Gundy isn't your standard-issue, central-casting NBA coach. He is rumpled where others are creased, hot where they are cool, a screamer, a pleader, a celebrator, a reactor. He'd be perfect as the "before'' in one of those never-let-them-see-you-sweat deodorant commercials. He's your neighbor who has been plopped down, Walter Mitty-like, on the bench in these playoffs or, since we know him mostly through TV, he's Kramer bursting through Jerry's door, dropping by in full foible as hilarity ensues. Comic relief, in a way, to the intensity and drama so evident elsewhere in the postseason -- think of his bemused shrug after LeBron James' stunner to win Game 2 of the Eastern Conference finals.
Van Gundy is as likely to begin a postgame news conference with a shout-out to the kids at Seminole High, plugging daughter Shannon's campaign for student council, as he is to explain how the Magic solved a rival team's half-court trap. From the outside looking in, the glimpses of his pregame speeches and timeout huddles, courtesy of NBA cameras, have way more spontaneity, even an anything-might-happen edginess, than most coaches.
But darn if Orlando doesn't come out of halftimes thoroughly adjusted and primed to dismantle the other guys' big leads.
"The people who know me, some of them think I'm crazy, too," Van Gundy said during the conference finals against Cleveland. "But most of them just think I'm crazy when I coach."
It is atypical in a field in which men try to remain measured, where job security is carefully calculated in points on a scoreboard, minutes on a clock, victories in the won-lost columns and guaranteed years left on their contracts. If unflappable is the ideal, Van Gundy most definitely seems flappable.
"He shows his emotions," said Philadelphia's Tony DiLeo, who coached the Sixers in the first round against Van Gundy and will move back into the team's front office next season. "He's a very good coach, as far as X's and O's and taking advantage of his talent. But he's an emotional coach."
How emotional? Enough that Van Gundy has replaced Avery Johnson and newly retired Dikembe Mutombo as the league's most imitated voice. Everyone from staid NBA-TV analyst Steve Smith to Van Gundy's own big man, Howard, does, or at least tries, to do a Stan Van impersonation because, well, it's fun. A little rasp, a high-volume "Hey!" followed by some exhortation or other, and you're halfway there.
"I'm really glad he's around, even though he gets on my nerves," a smiling Howard told the Los Angeles Times in January. "I hate to hear his voice all the time, but he pushes us to be better. ... I could score 50 points, but if I don't have two blocks, four blocks, he's going to kill me."
Guard Jameer Nelson had been in Orlando for three years before Van Gundy arrived in June 2007. "In the beginning, I don't think anybody understood how intense he was and how passionate he was about playing the right way, doing everything right, everything being perfect," Nelson said during this season. "But he's a great coach. We understand him now. We never hold grudges. He's allowed to say something to you, you can say something back and then we go play."
And that's OK?
"I think it is," said DiLeo, whose own style was, by contrast, as cool and calm as a museum patron during his stint on the Sixers' sideline. "If the players know, you know, that he has a passion. He's always on their side. ... The other thing I like, he takes responsibility. A couple of these games, he's said, 'I made a mistake. I should have covered this way,' like when [Boston's] Glen Davis made that jump shot or when LeBron James made his shot. Not a lot of coaches will stand up and say, 'Hey, I made a mistake.' Publicly, anyway."
Mistakes are just bumps in a long road that delivered Van Gundy to this moment. The broad strokes of his life and career are pretty well-documented: son of mother Cindy and father Bill, a coaching lifer in high schools and colleges in California and New York; older brother of Jeff Van Gundy, who beat him to the big time as Riley's assistant and eventual replacement with the Knicks; a plugger whose stops included the University of Vermont, Castleton State, Canisius, Fordham, Massachusetts-Lowell and Wisconsin, where he spent two years as Stu Jackson's assistant and then went 13-14 in the Big Ten with Michael Finley and Rashard Griffith on his team.
Some alleged Van Gundy only got that Badgers job for his ability to recruit Sam Okey, a state preps phenom, one of several slights the coach has endured through the years. He was famously nudged aside -- or stepped down willingly, depending on the version you prefer -- from Miami's top job in December 2005 when Riley un-retired as a coach and guided the Heat to the NBA title that June. Van Gundy got the Orlando job as the second choice after Florida's Billy Donovan changed his mind, a move that led the Magic to refund tickets bought in the initial excitement about the Gators' coach. Three months ago, after Van Gundy tweaked Shaquille O'Neal about flopping in an Orlando-Phoenix game, the Suns' center went big caliber on him, blasting the Magic coach as a "front-runner" and "a master of panic."
And yet, O'Neal missed the playoffs entirely. Donovan still is in Gainesville after a 9-7 SEC finish and an NIT berth this spring. Stanko Barac -- the 7-foot-1 Bosnian chosen at No. 39 with the 2007 draft pick Miami demanded from Orlando as compensation for losing "consultant" Van Gundy -- has a five-year deal with Tau Ceramica in the Euroleague. Meanwhile, here is Van Gundy, the fastest coach in Magic history to reach 100 victories, still working games while brother Jeff figures out what to say about him from the ABC broadcast table, most likely cutting through the style-vs.-substance junk.
"I know people analyze his facial expression a lot," Jeff Van Gundy said in a pre-Finals conference call, "but if you look at most coaches when they're in the midst of the playoffs, you don't see a lot of joy until you finish off a series or a championship, because basically, when you win it's a relief and when you lose it's one step closer to elimination."
Said Nets president Rod Thorn: "I think he's one of the better coaches in the league. They made nice adjustments in their games. I thought he did a heck of a job in Miami when he was there. ... He's like a stream of consciousness. Whatever comes out, comes out, more so than most coaches. Sometimes it may upset players a little bit, but he's a passionate guy, he cares, and I think they take it for what it is for the most part."
Don't look now, but the second banana, one with more than a few bruises, is in the spotlight now. He's not LeBron-Kobe, but Stan Van is entertainment of a different sort for these Finals.