Jeff Van Gundy admits he has a horse in the race. That's the expression he uses and he's smart not to obfuscate and avoid the issue. About an hour before calling the Knicks' thrilling overtime win over the Bulls on Sunday afternoon, the ESPN/ABC announcer spoke to SI.com about the fractured relationship between his brother, Stan, the coach of the Orlando Magic, and star center Dwight Howard.
"People have in their own mind how I should answer that question which is, 'I'm unbiased and I'll just call it straight down the middle,' " Jeff said. "That's not true, and it would be disingenuous. I have a horse in the race and I think when you do, you say this is where I am coming from."
Last week, Stan Van Gundy revealed at a morning shootaround that he had been told by "people in management" that Howard had asked that he be fired. In the surreal scene that followed, Howard walked up and hugged his coach seconds after that revelation, unaware what Van Gundy had just said. After Van Gundy walked away, Howard was asked about Van Gundy's comments, and the All-Star center denied that he was Keyser Soze of the franchise. The dysfunction between star center and coach has since been analyzed from Orlando to Oslo.
"I don't feel the need to defend Stan's record," Jeff said. "That speaks for itself. Howard's actions and his play speak for themselves. And their time together speaks for itself. The fault to me lies in the burying your head in the sand, not [Orlando GM] Otis Smith, but those above him thinking that the problem will just resolve itself. I think certainly it should have been taking care of it at the trade deadline one way or another.
"The team has been divided by the drama and the energy has been sucked out. But I have to say Howard on Saturday, with his back [spasms] issues, played a courageous game," Jeff said of Howard's 20-point, 22-rebound performance as Orlando ended a five-game losing streak with an 88-82 victory at Philadelphia. They played as hard as they did all year, and I don't know what the reason for that is."
The objectivity issue regarding Jeff Van Gundy is not new. He has called Orlando games before, most notably when the Magic advanced to the NBA Finals in 2009 against the Lakers. He said then as he says now that he wants Stan's team to win. ABC/ESPN also has similar objectivity issues with studio analyst Magic Johnson, who owned 4.5 percent of the Lakers before selling in 2010.
"In this case, I try to be objective but I also think up front you say your objectivity is obviously somewhat compromised by your relationship," Jeff said. "I think very few do that in broadcasting and it would probably be better if they did."
Van Gundy is not scheduled to call the Magic again during the regular season. His next assignments come Tuesday (Knicks at Bulls, 9:30 p.m. ET, ESPN), Sunday (Heat at Knicks, 1 p.m. ET, ABC) and April 20 (Lakers at Spurs, 10:30 p.m., ESPN). Asked by SI.com how he could separate his feelings of Howard as a player with Howard's relationship with his brother, Jeff said: "Somebody at NBA.com wrote that if he was Stan, he would be mad at me because I said what I thought. I don't go on the air asking to talk about Stan or Dwight Howard, but when I am asked about it, I am supposed to do that so I have to give my take. I try to give it the way I see it. I'm probably slanted more from a coaching background than I am from a brotherly relationship. Frankly, they probably should give Howard's brother equal time. I don't know if he has one but if he did, they should give him equal time like they do politicians."
Jeff said he and Stan talk often and usually via text but they do not talk about the Magic, nor did they talk about their respective teams when Jeff was coaching in the league. "That's not an enjoyable conversation for us," Jeff said. Asked if the relationship between Howard and his brother can be mended, Jeff referenced the not-so-sturdy history of the Magic coaches.
"I think the larger message to Stan's answer, if people would have looked at the entire answer, was that it doesn't matter if Howard has asked for him to be fired," Jeff said. "The only thing that matters is doing right by the team. To me, the air is now cleared. Everyone knows where everyone stands and there is no more hiding behind semantics or any of that. Listen, if Stan wants to return I hope it happens, but let's face it, Orlando has had a history of this. It has not worked out well for a coach there.
"I think when he gave his answer it was truthful, but all he cares about is doing right by the team. He is going to coach hard and I think he just wants Howard to play like he did Saturday night. Now everything is out there and no one is hiding behind anything. Hopefully, they can play with pride they showed Saturday night."
The MLB Network is the midst of its "30 Games, 30 Clubs, 30 Days" initiative, which offers viewers 30 live games featuring every major league club. The highlights include the world champion Cardinals' home opener against the Cubs on Friday (3 p.m. ET) and a pair of Tuesday-night doubleheaders, including the Rangers at Red Sox (7 p.m. ET) and Phillies at Giants on April 17. MLBN will also air the Yankees at Red Sox on April 20. The network's first produced game comes Thursday with Bob Costas and Jim Kaat calling the Marlins at Phillies (7 p.m. ET).
MLBN, which debuted on Jan. 1, 2009, and is now available in 68 million homes, has also expanded its programming beyond its airwaves: Fox Sports and MLBN recently announced that they have teamed up this season for a 30-minute weekly pregame show that will run before the Fox Saturday Baseball Game of the Week. When Fox airs a prime-time game, the studio show will be reduced to 15 minutes.
The pregame show will originate live from MLBN's studio in Secaucus, N.J., and be hosted by Fox Sports and MLB Network broadcaster Matt Vasgersian. He'll be joined by a rotating roster of MLBN studio analysts, including Eric Byrnes, Kevin Millar, Harold Reynolds and Mitch Williams.
This column has never been besotted by Reynolds, long an enabler of the baseball establishment, nor the very loud but not very good Millar. But Fox's baseball pregame show has never been must-viewing, so an attempt to combine forces with MLBN is an experiment worth pursuing. Down the road, we'll offer an assessment of how the show rates for viewers.
• A free preview of the MLB Extra Innings package runs through Sunday, giving cable subscribers the opportunity to sample broadcasts around the country. (The cost for the package after Sunday is $199 and includes up to 80 games each week.) MLB Extra Innings says one of the changes this year is that it will deliver both the home and visiting team broadcasts of the same game whenever possible, so fans can choose which telecast they want to watch. More information about the package can be found at www.getbaseball.com.
• Finally, here are two additional media-related baseball pieces worth reading: The Boston Globe's Amalie Benjamin recently analyzed the path from the TV booth to the dugout, and Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reporter Bob Wolfley profiled new Brewers announcer Joe Block, who becomes Bob Uecker's eighth broadcast partner.