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The Mercy Rule

Contemporary Magic

There's something remarkable about the fact that acerbic gnome and mock-turtleneck aficionado Stan Van Gundy is the most recognizably human player in the chain of events that cost him his job.

The most important thing to know about former Orlando Magic head coach Stan Van Gundy—more than his more-remarked-upon-than-actual, but also kind-of-actual resemblance to bepenised yam/veteran porn personage Ron Jeremy, more than his (generally quite successful) record as an NBA coach—is that he's unbalanced. Not chemically, but with his time. This is a man who quite possibly does not know the identity of the current President of the United States and doesn't feel badly about it, who hasn't seen a movie in a theater since Regarding Henry, and who almost certainly slips up on a regular basis and says things like, “transition defense, you guys!” to his wife during sex. In other words, Stan Van Gundy is a fairly prototypical NBA coach, which means that the most important thing to know about labeling him “unbalanced” is that it's a compliment, given his profession.


There was a time when NBA coaches were a more diverse group than the present fraternity. Don Nelson, who, over several decades, made a bunch of teams much more fun and somewhat more likely to win games, was basically @DadBoner—at least insofar as he did a lot of media interviews while drinking Bud tallboys and wearing Big Johnson t-shirts—but actually funny. Lenny Wilkens and Chuck Daly won a ton of games and projected some faintly American Dream vibes, in that both were blue-collar dudes who became really good at a difficult job, and were therefore able to both recognize and afford really sharp suits.

Today's coaching community, however, is divided between crustoid vets and jittery, vampirically pale video-room grinds who, despite clearly residing somewhere on the less-likely-to-get-laid half of the autistic spectrum, have parlayed a dedication to basketball's nuts-and-bolts into coaching legitimacy. Stan Van Gundy, like his brother, Jeff—an arguably better coach who looks as much like a depressed thumb as his brother looks like a furry adult film icon—is a member of the latter cohort who has evolved into one of the former. He is also, almost certainly, an unbearable guy to work for. Stan Van Gundy is smart and skilled and amusingly honest, but he has the same lack of basic human idioms and baseline functioning-professional-adult charm as his fellow Former Longtime Assistants Who Have Never Slept Even Seven Hours Per Night. The only recognizably likable thing about Stan Van Gundy The Person is that he annoys ball bearing-eyed giant and mumbling travesty of a broadcaster Shaquille O'Neal. So it's meaningful, or at least odd, that Van Gundy was pretty clearly the most sympathetic figure in his own firing, which happened earlier this week, after his worst, most drama-filled season in Orlando.


General manager Otis Smith, whose resignation was accepted on the same day Van Gundy was axed, was so lousy at his job as to be almost avant-garde—watching Smith construct a roster around Howard was the equivalent of being at a fantasy draft with someone who carefully consults his notes, strokes his chin, and then drafts Senator Barbara Boxer or a specific YouTube video of a Welsh Corgi with his first pick. It is easier to see why Smith lost his gig than it is to understand how he kept it for so long. But Van Gundy was exactly who he was—a disagreeable but very smart guy with an unforgivable mustache and a knack for improving his players by annoying them. What makes Van Gundy sympathetic has less to do with that fact than it does with the people responsible for his firing.

Those people, in this case, are Orlando's superstar center Dwight Howard (indirectly), and the DeVos family, who own the Magic. The DeVos clan are the Job Creators who invented Amway—the legal pyramid scheme built on guilt, “free market” clichés, and pestering acquaintances to buy ultra-shitty household products—and give tons of money to conservative causes every year. Howard is both the best center in the NBA and a uniquely vain and vexing ego-casualty who spent this season bickering with Van Gundy, phoning in multiple important games, and alternating between declarations of undying loyalty to the Magic and public demands the team trade him. Orlando's ownership, which displays every bit as much managerial acumen as you'd expect from people who got their jobs by being related to, or friendly with, the Megachurch Ponzis, spent the season literally drunk-dialing Howard and begging him not to go and otherwise being fathoms over their heads in an amusingly Floridian way.

And so there is something remarkable about the fact that Stan Van Gundy—acerbic gnome, lumpy but high-functioning sociopath, mock-turtleneck aficionado—wound up as the most recognizably human player in the chain of events that cost him his job. It says something that Van Gundy's competition was 1) an outsized, extravagantly coddled man-child who has been poisoned by the world's unwillingness to tell him to shut up and 2) a passel of Hapsburgianly feckless, broadly overmatched, and pyrotechnically self-satisfied elites, all of whom have unconvincingly and gratuitously fibbed to the public about things big and small. There is a broader parallel to be made between the way the Magic makes its decisions and the way contemporary American government works, but it's one entirely too depressing to construct.

Previously - Exit Sandman