Though the Denver Nuggets evened up the Western Conference Finals with the Los Angeles Lakers last night and the Orlando Magic pulled ahead of the Cleveland Cavaliers on Sunday, it seems pretty much a forgone conclusion that it will be Kobe vs. LeBron at the end of the day–or at least that’s what the television networks, print media and corporate sponsors–not to mention Spike Lee, the ghost of Michael Jordan and basketball fans all over the world seem to be planning on.
But while everybody’s oo-ing and ah-ing as Kobe effortlessly nails long-distance jumpers with hands in his face and LeBron drives to the basket as defenders helplessly richochet off him, I can’t seem to pull my eyes away from the bench of the Orlando Magic where Head Coach Stan Van Gundy presides, looking less like a battle-tested warrior than that uncle of yours who asks you to pull his finger at the end of the meal.
With Dennis Rodman out of the league, Ron Artest acting like a good citizen and Allen Iverson basically irrelevant, Van Gundy is now the NBA’s de facto anti-hero. One of the league’s most beloved players, Shaquille O’Neal publicly ripped him as a "master of panic," and a little over a week ago, his own star player Dwight Howard questioned his coaching competence. Still he forges on, defying the critics, consistently outcoaching his opponents–grimacing and complaining all the while.
Orlando’s Rashard Lewis recently tried as hard as he could to say something nice about his coach, but ended up sounding like Obama telling Hilary she was "likable enough":
"We like him. I mean, sometimes we don’t because he screams and yells all the time, but that’s just a part of him being the coach. As long as we continue to win games, you can’t complain too much."
As much as I root for Stan Van Gundy, yes, the man is a schmuck. He constantly harps on the limitations of the people around him, is combative in even the most benign of situations, and perhaps more strangely, wears a mock turtleneck under a blazer. (You can almost imagine his wife yelling at him to put the blazer on as he’s leaving the house. "You’re going to be on television!") If Kobe is a quiet assasin, then Van Gundy is a bumbling Inspector Clouseau. If LeBron is King James, then SVG is court jester. But wouldn’t that make it all the more darkly comic if he ended up a champion?