“I was told it was true by people in our management,” Van Gundy said Thursday, just hours before the Magic lost to the New York Knicks 96-80. “So right from the top.”
In what had to be one of the most bizarre game-day scenes in NBA history, Van Gundy confirmed a WKMG-TV report that Howard is pushing for his ouster, and did so right before the center walked through a circle of news media members and embraced his coach.
“They haven’t told me anything,” Van Gundy said of Orlando management, “and they don’t need to. I’m the coach right now, and I’m the coach until they decide I’m not the coach. It’s 12:02 right now. If they want to fire me at 12:05, I’ll go home and find something to do. I’ll have a good day.”
Clearly unaware of the stunning claim Van Gundy had made, Howard suddenly appeared at his side and put his right arm around the coach.
“Stan, we’re not worried about that, right?” Howard asked.
“I’m the coach right now, and I’m the coach until they decide I’m not the coach. It’s 12:02 right now. If they want to fire me at 12:05, I’ll go home and find something to do. I’ll have a good day.” — Stan Van Gundy
“That’s what I just said,” Van Gundy responded. “We’ve got to be worried about winning games.”
Howard and Van Gundy exchanged a little small talk about the Knicks game before the coach asked reporters: “Are you guys done with me? You talk to him now.”
A day after denying to ESPN The Magazine’s Chris Broussard in a text message that he wanted his coach out, Howard appeared taken aback when informed of Van Gundy’s disclosure. The center asked reporters to cite the source for the claim, and reporters kept reminding him that his coach had offered confirmation.
“I haven’t said nothing to anybody,” Howard said in the text message Wednesday to Broussard. “My main focus is that me and Stan and the team are on the same page for the playoffs. Whatever happens at the end of the season is up to the management.”
Howard said before the game Thursday the “only thing that we’re concerned with is winning a championship right now.
“Whatever happens at the end of the season is not under my control. I am a player for the Magic. I am not the GM. I am not (owner) Rich DeVos. I am not (president) Alex Martins. That is not my job. … I haven’t said anything to anybody about anything.
“I woke up just like you did yesterday, and I saw all of a sudden I want Stan out of here. Why would I want Stan to be fired with 12 games left in the season? Who’s going to be the coach?”
Van Gundy didn’t sound like a man too worried about the answer to that question. After saying Howard’s back was healthy enough for the center to play against the Knicks, the Orlando coach sounded less certain about his own status for tipoff.
“Nobody has to go anywhere if they fire me,” Van Gundy said. “I don’t think (the players) are too worried about that. I don’t take anybody with me. … When it comes out that one of the highest-profile players in the league has asked for his coach to be fired, it’s going to be a story. … But nobody needs to worry about me.
“I’ll be fine. If I need to, I can get another job. I have money put away, so there’s no concern about job security, and there shouldn’t be any real concern about what Dwight wants right now, quite honestly. That’s not what it’s about.”
After the loss to the Knicks, Van Gundy downplayed his earlier comments, saying: “My job security is not what is important right now. What Dwight wants is not what’s important right now. What’s important is we focus on getting better as a team. It’s not like we’ve played five awful games in a row.”
Howard struggled against New York, finishing with only eight points and eight rebounds in 40 minutes.
ESPN.com reported before last month’s trade deadline that Orlando’s front office had given Howard the power to determine the fates of general manager Otis Smith and Van Gundy at the end of the season if he agreed not to opt out of his contract.
“Whatever happens at the end of the season is not under my control. I am a player for the Magic. I am not the GM. I am not [owner] Rich DeVos. I am not [president] Alex Martins. That is not my job. … I haven’t said anything to anybody about anything.” — Dwight Howard
Howard decided against opting out and becoming a free agent after this season, but has said he does not want the responsibility of determining the futures of Smith and Van Gundy.
Van Gundy’s current contract runs through the end of the season. He has guided the Magic to at least 50 wins in each of his previous four seasons and led Orlando to the NBA Finals in 2009.
Howard and Van Gundy seemingly have always been on cordial terms, though Howard sometimes has been critical of Van Gundy’s direct and vocal coaching style, which he has previously said can be counterproductive to team morale.
Smith and Van Gundy met during the offseason. Van Gundy left the meeting pledging to tone down some of his intensity during games with both officials and players. So far this season, he has yet to receive a technical foul.
Asked this week to address the status of Van Gundy and Smith, Martins said only that both he and Smith will undergo end-of-the-season evaluations, as do all Magic employees.
Information from ESPN The Magazine senior NBA writer Chris Broussard and The Associated Press was used in this report.