Impromptus

One man’s coaches, &c.

Detroit Pistons head coach Stan Van Gundy (left) and former Detroit Lions head coach Jim Caldwell (photos: Noah K. Murray, Aaron Doster / USA TODAY Sports)
Stan Van Gundy, Jim Caldwell, Dan Gurney, Jo Jo White, and more

Like most guys named Stan, Stan Van Gundy is sometimes called “Stan the Man” — by Clyde Frazier, for example — and he is certainly my man. Van Gundy is the coach of the Detroit Pistons, which is my NBA team. (I’m a Piston, a Tiger, a Lion, and a Red Wing — you know the drill.) But even if he were the coach of another team, I would admire Van Gundy, not least for his candor. He is exceptionally open to the press, and he will answer most any question, with amazing honesty.

In fact, I’ve sometimes thought him too candid with the press — saying things about his players that might best be left private. But, look, as a fan, and as a journalist, I’m not complaining. I follow Van Gundy’s comments daily during the basketball season. I watch video clips of his press conferences with relish. Sometimes I go to bed with them.

That doesn’t sound quite right, does it?

Anyway, listen to Stan’s brother, Jeff Van Gundy, who is a former NBA coach and is now an analyst for ESPN. (The brothers’ father, Bill, was a basketball coach.) Jeff said of Stan, “If you ask him a question, he’s going to give an answer.” Period. That is a journalist’s dream.

Jeff also noted that coaches who are frank are often called “outspoken.” Is Stan “outspoken”? “If you ask Stan a question,” said Jeff, “he’s going to give you an answer that you may not agree with, or that many coaches would try to sidestep, but I think he’s going to try and answer your question. I don’t think that makes him ‘outspoken’; I think it just makes him cooperative.”

By the way, I’m drawing from an article by James L. Edwards III in The Athletic, here.

Recently, there was a bit of a brouhaha over comments made by LaVar Ball, a truly outspoken father of three basketball players, including Lonzo Ball, a guard for the Lakers. Ball père knocked the Lakers’ coach, Luke Walton, in an interview with ESPN, here.

Rick Carlisle, the coach of the Dallas Mavericks, and the head of the coaches’ association, reacted sharply to this. To be specific: He reacted sharply to ESPN, not to LaVar Ball. He said that ESPN’s interview was a “disgrace.” He said, “Printing an article where the father of an NBA player has an opinion, that’s printed as anything like legitimate, erodes trust. It erodes the trust that we’ve built with ESPN, and our coaches are upset, because Luke Walton does not deserve that.”

Stan Van Gundy agreed with Carlisle. Here he is, talking to the press (candidly, as always):

“I don’t think there’s anything wrong with you guys criticizing coaches. You guys cover the team, and you’re paid in part to report the games, you’re paid in part to analyze what’s going on. I’ve never had an issue with anybody who has criticized me. It’s not that [Coach Walton] got criticized. If you go to a player and a player is bitching about a coach, well, yeah, you got to report that. But searching out a parent? What? Are you going to go in our section now behind the bench and see what our parents think about the coaching? That’s journalism? And in Luke’s case, it’s cheap. Luke can’t even really respond. He can’t really respond based on team dynamics and things. I just thought it was a cheap shot, and ESPN showed total disrespect.”

Van Gundy has announced that, in Edwards’s words, he will not “give ESPN extra access when his team is broadcasted by the network.” (As Edwards goes on to say, this puts Brother Jeff, the ESPN analyst, in a bit of a spot!)

This whole brouhaha brings up interesting issues. Non-journalists are always saying, or asking, “That’s journalism?” — just as Stan did. Actually, it is journalism. And LaVar Ball, whatever else he is, is damn good copy.

Also, what is ESPN? Is it an independent entity or is it kind of an adjunct of the NBA? A partner of the NBA? That is, in fact, what Rick Carlisle said. Listen to him: “ESPN is an NBA partner, and they’ve been a great one, but part of that partnership is that the coaches do a lot of things to help them with access — interviews and all those kinds of things. And in exchange for that, they should back up the coaches.”

That makes ESPN something else. Something else altogether. They then have a role akin to state media (with the NBA being the state).

I have a special interest in these questions because of the house I live in. I am a political journalist, an opinion journalist, and a music critic. It will not shock you that many journalists are cozy with the people they cover. They ought not to be — but they are. They also fear to offend. “If I write this, will so-and-so talk to me again? If I say this, what will the repercussions be?”

On journalists, there are many pressures: from bosses, colleagues, friends, readers, listeners, viewers, donors, subjects, you name it.

Journalists are no strangers to trimming and corner-cutting. To punch-pulling and tongue-biting. Sometimes, this is as it ought to be, frankly. And sometimes not. Rare, rare, is the journalist who is utterly disinterested, independent, and pure. (If you find him, never let him go.) “Without fear or favor!” we like to say. This is easier to say than to demonstrate.

I guess every journo has to ask himself, “What am I? What is my purpose? What am I doing here?” Similarly, each outlet, or organ, has to ask itself, “What are we? Why do we exist? To whom are we beholden, if to anyone? What do we owe, and to whom?”

ESPN knows its raison d’être better than I do. But I think they ought to hold their ground. If my man Stan and others block their access, so be it. ESPN can get its work done regardless. And eventually, people will want attention, i.e., coverage. This is entirely human.

Rick Carlisle felt for Luke Walton when (Uncool) Papa Ball said his stuff about Walton. “To have to deal with these kinds of ignorant distractions is deplorable,” said Carlisle. Yeah, well, join the club, buddy. You should hear what comes at me from political nutjobs and nasties every day.

Anyway, I look forward to Stan Van Gundy’s next interview, as I always do. He is a national treasure, or certainly a Detroit treasure, and a personal treasure, for many of us. I’ve learned a lot about basketball from him. I’d like to sit down with him myself one day. I’m not too interested in talking with LaVar Ball — but if others are, I understand.

•  Talk about a national treasure — one of my favorite people in America is Jim Caldwell, the head coach of the Detroit Lions from 2014 to 2017. (He was fired a couple of weeks ago.) First, he is an excellent football coach. The record is unambiguous. Second, he personifies dignity, honor, and grace in sports. Good sense, too. It has been a joy to watch Caldwell, and to listen to him.

Reporters often press him, or invite him, to comment on himself. To defend himself (his decisions, his methods, his record). To assess himself. He always refuses. “You’ll never hear me defend myself,” he says. “And you’ll never hear me make excuses.” Moreover, “I’ll leave the assessing to you guys.” And Caldwell will not blame anyone for anything, ever.

After the final game this season, Caldwell was asked, “What is more important? Teaching players about life or about football?” His answer:

“Obviously, winning is the most important thing in the business that we’re in. That’s key. But I also think that we try to tell them that there are some other important things — to use their platform properly, to make certain that they’re good citizens as well. We spend a lot of time just talking about, there’s a high cost for low living, and the guys I think overall understand that. We care about them outside of what they do for us in terms of football.”

I love that expression: “a high cost for low living.”

Asked about his future, Caldwell said he did not want to look beyond spending time with his family, which includes grandchildren: “We got a new year coming up and all we’re going to do is go home and see if we can find some black-eyed peas and eat and have a great time with one another.”

On December 27, an article began, “Detroit Lions head coach Jim Caldwell rejected on Wednesday the notion his race has been a factor in the way he’s been covered.” (Caldwell is black.) The coach said, “You’ve never heard me blame anything at any point in time — make up excuses about anything that we’ve ever done — and I never will. I’ve been around a long time. My father wouldn’t allow me to do it when I was a kid. So, no difference today.”

I think I’ll give you one more Caldwell nugget, from another article. Now, everyone knows that Caldwell helped Detroit’s great quarterback, Matthew Stafford, get even better. Asked to say this, Caldwell, of course, refused. What he said was,

“Oftentimes I think that man takes too much credit for God’s handiwork. This guy’s got talent, he’s got ability. He’s got drive. He’s got work ethic. And I think what you’ve seen with him since I’ve been around him, he had great games before we got here, he’s had some great games since we’ve been here, and he keeps getting better.”

Caldwell is like Reagan in that he’s reluctant to say “I” or “me.” He says “we” and “us,” referring to the coaching staff at large.

Stafford? I want to talk about him, too, and do some quoting of him, too, but you’ve been very patient with me and my Detroit sports, so I think I’ll leave MattStaff for another column.

•  The New York Times ran an obit of Dan Gurney, “whose storied career as a racecar driver included numerous firsts, and who went on to become equally successful as a team owner and car builder.” Several things in the obit stood out to me, including something about language.

The obit quotes a Times profile from 1967, which refers to Gurney’s “blue tennis sneakers.” Not “tennis shoes” or “sneakers” but “tennis sneakers.” I had never heard that expression. I imagine it was the original. (My grandmother, in a jocular way, used to say “tenny runners.”)

Also, I would not have guessed that this racecar driver’s father was an opera singer: John Gurney, of the Met. His obit in the Los Angeles Times (1997) included the following bit of information, which made me smile: The elder Mr. Gurney “sang the national anthem at the inaugural Long Beach Grand Prix and at other racing events featuring his son.”

•  End with Jo Jo White, that excellent Boston Celtic, whose obit ran on Tuesday. He was known for, among other things, peak physical condition. “In Game 5 of the 1976 N.B.A. finals, White played 60 of the 63 minutes in a triple-overtime thriller often called the greatest game ever played.” (The Celtics wound up beating the Suns in this game, and in the series.)

“Asked about how he managed to play almost the entire Game 5, White credited his conditioning. ‘I was tired, but I was conditioned to go the distance,’ he said in an interview several years ago. ‘My thinking was that if I was tired, the other players were close to death.’”

I loved that. Thanks for listening to the sports talk, y’all. See you.

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