Slate’s Sports Podcast on Adrian Peterson’s Miraculous Return from a Torn ACL

Slate's sports podcast.
Dec. 17 2012 6:18 PM

Hang Up and Listen: The Bionic Running Back Edition

Slate’s sports podcast on Adrian Peterson’s incredible return from ACL surgery and baseball’s West Coast power shift. Plus, an interview with NBC Sports’ Stan Van Gundy.

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In this week’s episode of Slate’s sports podcast Hang Up and Listen, Stefan Fatsis, Josh Levin, and Mike Pesca discuss the NFL’s response to the Newtown shooting, Paul Tagliabue’s bounty ruling, and Adrian Peterson’s return from a torn ACL. Next, they examine the power shift in Major League Baseball, with the Angels landing Josh Hamilton, the Dodgers spending like crazy, R.A. Dickey heading to Toronto, and the Yankees and Red Sox staying relatively quiet. Finally, NBC Sports’ Stan Van Gundy joins the show to talk about the Lakers’ slow start, coach-player relationships, and the hypocrisy of the NCAA.

You can read the transcript of the interview with Stan Van Gundy below.

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Transcript of interview with Stan Van Gundy.

JOSH: For our last segment of the day, we’re joined by Stan Van Gundy, who coached the Miami Heat from 2003 to 2005 and the Orlando Magic from 2007 through the end of last season. Stan is now a regular contributor to NBC Sports Radio and a college basketball analyst for NBC Sports Network where he’ll be calling the Drexel-Davidson game this coming Saturday at 8 p.m. Stan Van Gundy, thanks for coming on the show.

STAN VAN GUNDY: Absolutely, glad to be here.

JOSH: I want to start by asking you about the Lakers and your former star Dwight Howard. You called the Lakers’ firing of Mike Brown earlier this season “the most ridiculous firing in the history of the NBA.” Can you comment on what you’re seeing out of the Lakers and Dwight right now in the D’Antoni era?

STAN VAN GUNDY: I think the Lakers right now are probably the most out-of-sync team in the NBA, and I think for good reason. I mean, they’re on their third head coach already, less than 25 games into the season. They’ve really been hit hard by injuries. Dwight didn’t start playing until the last couple of games of the exhibition season. When he was playing, Kobe wasn’t. So the first time that they got their four main guys together was at the start of the regular season, and then Steve Nash played about a game and a quarter and went down. Lately they’ve had Pau Gasol out. So this team, really to me, is way behind the eight ball. They haven’t even started. Mike D’Antoni hasn’t even had a chance to get all of his people together and start putting his system in place. And it shows on the floor. It looks like a team that has never played together. And for good reason, and that’s why they’re not playing as well as people had expected them to play.

STEFAN: In what ways, Stan? Because when we think of, as fans, professional basketball players, we think you know you roll the ball out and there’s a lot that they should be able to do without an enormous amount of weeks and months of preparation. I know that’s not the case, but when you see a team out of sync like the Lakers, as you describe it, what are you talking about?

STAN VAN GUNDY: I think when they were healthy, the guy you saw it in the most was Pau Gasol. A guy that, you know, had had great success in Phil Jackson’s triangle offense. Had had great success with Hubie Brown, as a primary post-up player. One of the best post-up players in the league, because he can score and he can pass. And now, Mike D’Antoni comes in and Mike wants the floor spread out, and so Pau Gasol is spending most of his time on the perimeter. He’s clearly uncomfortable and they’re not getting great production out of him. Also, Mike D’Antoni’s system really requires special point guard play. You know, he had that when he had Steve Nash, and now with Nash and Steve Blake out, he’s down to his third and fourth point guards. Those guys are actually playing pretty well—Chris Duhon and Darius Morris had a great game last night, both of them—but they’re just not at optimum efficiency. And then, Mike’s system also relies on a lot of perimeter shooting to spread the floor out, and, so they’ve got guys like Metta World Peace and Devin Ebanks is playing, and Antawn Jamison. And none of those guys, at least at this point, are great range shooters, great three-point shooters. And so, Mike’s going to have to tweak some things, but it’s hard to do that until he gets everybody back. And right now, they’re just in a real state of flux.

MIKE: So do you think it was a mismatch of coach and talent?

STAN VAN GUNDY: That would be hard to judge, again, until they get their people back. I mean, right now, the team they’re putting out there—it sounds crazy to say when you have Kobe Bryant and Dwight Howard—but right now the team they are putting out there simply doesn’t have enough good players. They’re just, the rest of those guys are not going to scare you. Now, when they get Steve Nash and Pau Gasol, and you give them a couple of weeks, at least, together, now you can start seeing if it’s all going to fit or not. And I think that’s what Mitch Kupchak in their front office needs to figure out, too. Because if it’s not going to fit, then they probably do need to make a move with Pau Gasol. But it’s way premature to do that right now before you get them all out on the floor together.

JOSH: So Stan, last we saw you in Orlando, you had the kind of famous impromptu press conference where you talked about how Dwight wanted to get you fired. You were eventually fired and Dwight Howard left in a trade. Can you talk about what it’s like as an NBA coach to have the kind of ups and downs in a relationship with a star player, when it seems to us, at least as outside observers, the star players seem to have a lot of power?

STAN VAN GUNDY: Well, they do have a lot of power, and probably in a lot of ways, should. But I’ve said this many times and it’s really absolutely true. I don’t care what the sport is. The players, in terms of coaching changes, changes to the roster, whatever, really the power they have is whatever power the front office decides to give them. And so ultimately, it’s the front office that decides how things are going to be run in any organization, how things are going to be done. On every team in every sport right now, I guarantee you that there is at least one key player who’s unhappy about something, and if the front office is just going to be afraid of those people ever being upset, and make changes, and give in to that, well then yeah, that’s what’s going to happen. A lot of them will simply wait for the inevitable shift back to normalcy. Look, relationships between coaches and players, because of the nature of the game and winning and losing and everything else, those relationships are going to be volatile. You’ll go from players being very upset with coaches to that relationship being OK, and several times throughout a season. And I think coaches and players both understand that, and it’s not overreacted to by either side. But at times, when you get people in a front office involved, particularly guys who haven’t played, haven’t coached, don’t understand the nature of the sport itself, more just business-type people, they tend to overreact to those things and panic a little bit about what could happen. And I think that’s what happened in our situation.

STEFAN: And that’s what distinguishes the NBA, I think, from the rest of basketball. You grew up in a basketball family.  Your dad was a coach. You spent many years coaching at college. It’s a different kind of relationship when you’re talking about both dealing with players and evaluating talent, and having the final say in terms of what matters for a team.

STAN VAN GUNDY: The only way it’s ever going to work in the NBA is when your front office and your coach are all on the same page. If you look at the best organizations in this league—San Antonio probably being the best right now, Miami certainly—I think you see a group of people all on the same page, and the players just sort of naturally fall in line with that. The players, even new ones coming in, it doesn’t take long for them to observe and see, OK, this is how things are done here. But, when you don’t have your front office and your coaching staff on the same page, then confusion reigns. And I think that’s certainly what’s happened with the Lakers right now. Confusion. And confusion is never a good thing in any business, and especially not in the NBA.

MIKE: Here’s a quote from Rafer Alston about you. And Rafer Alston liked you, he professed, in this article I read in Sports Illustrated. “The only [problem] that a lot of us have with Stan is we may take it in a way that he’s [criticizing] our character towards the game, our approach, our manhood. Him and Jeff, [your brother] they’re the two coaches I’ve allowed to say a lot of things to me. And the reason is, I understand the amount of work they put into their job, how much it means to them and how much they care. They can cross the line with me because I know exactly where they’re coming from.” The fact that Alston perceived it as, you know, you crossing the line—it seems that Alston’s heart is in the right place with his quote. But what he’s really saying is, talking about you coaching, right, you challenging him, and players thinking that this is an affront or an assault, or something. Is this one of the hardest parts of coaching? I would imagine it would be. The perception that, you know, you’re doing something other than coaching. That you’re attacking.

STAN VAN GUNDY: Well, and there are times like that. Look, I think as a coach, you are, to get the most out of players, always going to have to be pushing the envelope in terms of what you demand. And I think for at least some of us, and I put myself in that category, at the end of the day I would much rather have to deal with the possibility that I went too far in pushing guys than thinking I didn’t go far enough. I actually like Rafer’s quote. He’s saying he allowed people to cross the line. Well, if he’s allowed it, then clearly you haven’t crossed the line, at least with him.

MIKE: He’s moved the line, is what he’s really saying.

STAN VAN GUNDY: Well, what he’s saying is, is that it’s gone a long way, maybe further than what other coaches have done, but he understands the commitment from where it [has] come from, with my brother and I. And I think that is what happened. I would hope that guys that have played for me understand that it has never been a personal thing. Not with any guy I’ve ever coached. It’s simply being about trying to get to playing our absolute best and our team winning. And that’s all it’s about. And there may be times, certainly, where people are upset at you. And that’s not anything that has really bothered me. I think one of the things I learned early on in coaching from my father and other people I’ve been around, that if you’re going to be concerned about whether or not players like you, or they’re happy with you, then it’s hard for you to get the most out of them.

MIKE: In your evolution as a coach, would you say that you, maybe I would guess that in terms of X’s and O’s, you know a lot and maybe aren’t adding to that knowledge significantly every year. Basketball is basketball. But is it the case that the thing that grows with you as a coach is your ability to relate to other professionals and the players you coach?

STAN VAN GUNDY: I would hope you get better at every area, but here’s the thing I don’t think that people understand, in an athletic realm anyway, about coach-player relationships. These are business relationships. And what’s important, if you want to know how good a coach’s relationship is with a player in that sense, there’s only one place to look. Look at the player’s production. Look at how the player is playing. That is all that matters in the coach-player relationship. It isn’t a matter of, is the player happy with what you’re doing? Look, I’ve heard guys talk about coaches they absolutely loved. And then I looked at their production when they were playing for those guys, and it was subpar. I’m not trying—this is not a romantic relationship, this isn’t a relationship where I’m looking to fall in love with somebody. It’s a working relationship. It has to be a good, working relationship. But at the end of the day, what it’s all about is the player’s production and helping the team win. And so, Shaquille O’Neal, probably the best example, clearly did not like playing for me. But go back and look what he did the year before he got the Miami Heat, when he was in L.A., and look what he did after he wasn’t playing for me. And, I’m happy. That relationship worked well. Shaquille O’Neal played very well. Our team played very well. That is a good player-coach relationship.

JOSH: You have had your moments with David Stern, with him fining you, with you not being happy with it. We were just talking earlier in the show about Roger Goodell and sort of his model of authoritarian commissioner-ship. Do you have any kind of broader thoughts about the role of commissioners in sports, and given your critiques of Stern over the years, do you think that there is kind of a better approach, or a different approach, that would work better for the NBA, or the NFL?

STAN VAN GUNDY: There’s going to be a natural friction because—and I’m just speaking to the NBA. Look, David Stern has done some great things in the NBA. In terms of marketing, he has done an unbelievable job. I mean the global expansion of the league, where the TV contracts have gotten to, it’s primarily because of the great product and the great players we have in the league, but I don’t know if anybody could have done a better job than David Stern. And, but you have to understand, he’s just coming at it from a marketing standpoint. As coaches, we’re coming at it differently. We’re coming at it in terms of being able to do our jobs, and make the team the best that it can be. And, my problems with David Stern have been, I don’t think David has much respect for coaches in our league. I think most guys, if they were being honest, most of the coaches in the league, because I know I’ve talked to them, would say the same thing. It’s pretty clear David doesn’t have great respect for coaches. He’s condescending to us. So right away, I don’t think it’s a very good relationship. And beyond that, where I’ve picked up problems is, David’s the one, as part of his marketing effort, that has demanded that we be ultra-accessible to the media. So, for instance, coaches on a game day, as soon as the walkthrough is over, you’re going to meet with the media. Now you’re going to meet with the media again before the game. Now nothing has happened between those two periods, but you’re going to meet with them again. Almost all of us in the league do a pregame radio show before that. If it’s a national TV game, you have to meet with the crew that’s on that game. So you’ve possibly, before the game, done four media availabilities. And then after the game, clearly, you have to talk to the media. So, a lot of days, if you’re with a good team, you’re doing five media availabilities on a game day. That’s demanded by David Stern. And yet, if we say anything wrong, that David doesn’t think presents the league in a good light, you know, it’s a $35,000 fine or more. I think it’s unrealistic to ask people to do that much media, thinking they’re never going to say anything you don’t like. And, if that’s going to be the case, I think we should have the right to say, I don’t want to meet with media here.

STEFAN: Stan, you’re in the media now. You’re moving over to college. In 2009, when you were asked about the age-limit for NBA players, you said, “To me, it’s a sham. But I don’t want to get going in this press conference on the NCAA because I think that’s about the worst organization going.” Have your feelings changed about college basketball? Are you approaching it more from, again, a coach’s perspective and a player’s perspective?

STAN VAN GUNDY: Look, the atmosphere of college basketball is great. I love the coaches, I love the players. Have my feelings changed about the NCAA? No. And I really liked Mick Cronin’s comments the other day. I thought it put it into perspective. You look at all this league realignment, and it’s clear that college athletics are about one thing and one thing only. And that’s chasing every last dollar for the institution. If that’s going to be the case, then the players deserve to get paid. My problem with the NCAA is, the one group that they don’t care anything about, are the players—are the student-athletes. People get no money. They’ve got to sit out if they transfer. Coaches can do whatever they want. College presidents can move leagues whenever they want. The only people that don’t have the freedom of movement are the athletes. I mean, it is just an organization that exploits the athletes. And I have a lot of problems with that.

MIKE: Will you be using the phrase “student-athlete” a lot in your broadcasts?

STAN VAN GUNDY: Some people are student-athletes, some are not student-athletes. For them to sit there and act like every one of those kids is a student-athlete, is ridiculous. I mean in basketball in particular, with the rules entering the NBA, where we basically force kids who don’t want to be in college, to go to college for a year, rather than allowing them, like any other high school graduate can do, to just go to work. And so what you’ve got is a system where, essentially, the kids know that they’re only going to stay for one year. Those kids, here’s what they have to do. They’ve got to enroll in four classes in the first semester, and they’ve got to pass two of them to stay eligible for the second semester. And then in the second semester, all they have to do is enroll full-time. They don’t even ever have to attend a class. Not ever attend a class. I mean, it’s a sham. Everybody knows it’s going on, and yet by the NCAA rules, we’re going to refer to all those kids as student-athletes when they’re up at the podium. It’s a joke. The hypocrisy of the NCAA is what bothers me. If we’d be honest about what’s going on and just be up front about it. But again, the people who run organizations, whether it’s a professional commissioner or whoever’s running the NCAA, it’s all about perception. It’s not about reality, and it’s not about honesty, and I’m going to have problems with it.

MIKE: Yeah, I once calculated that the University of Kentucky students who just left the team for the pros were physically on their campus a maximum, I think it was 70 days. So when people asked them, Hey, did you go to this local hotspot? You know, they had almost no experiences of the actual University of Kentucky undergrad. It’s funny.

STAN VAN GUNDY: No, it’s a minor league basketball program. Not every college program is like that, certainly. In fact, the vast majority are not. I don’t have a problem with what John Calipari or the University of Kentucky is doing. They’re playing within the rules that were set up and they’re producing a lot of excitement on their campus. It’s the rules that don’t make a lot of sense. I don’t, still to this day, understand why—and this isn’t the NCAA making the rule, it’s the NBA—but I don’t understand why a kid can’t graduate from high school and go straight to the NBA. He can go to pro baseball. He can go to pro hockey. But he can’t go to the NBA. I don’t understand it.

JOSH: You mentioned Shaq being an example of a player where you thought that you coached him really well. Who do you think you did the worst job with as a player? Who do you regret the techniques, or however you coached him?

STAN VAN GUNDY: I don’t necessarily regret how I coached anybody. The one guy recently that I didn’t think that I got a lot out of was Jason Richardson. I mean, he’s nearing, getting closer to the end of his career. And it was more a system thing. J-Rich and I didn’t ever have any problems. I just felt I didn’t really utilize him in our offense maybe as well as I could have.

STEFAN: Stan, you and your brother both played in college. You went to SUNY-Brockport. Jeff went to Nazareth College. I’m looking at a picture of you right now from 1981. Excellent ‘do. You looked like you were a tough, scrappy guard. Your brother looked like he was completely annoying and you would hate playing against him. You also made 53 consecutive free throws, I just read, over three seasons.

STAN VAN GUNDY: No, it was actually over two seasons. I don’t know where it got to three seasons. It was over two seasons, because I wasn’t good enough to do anything that would actually draw a foul. But if you did happen to foul me, I could make free throws. I wasn’t going to shoot very many of them. So my sophomore year, I think I was 33-for-33. That’s not very many free throw attempts in a year, but I wasn’t a guy who was going to get in the paint very much, that’s for sure.

STEFAN: My question was going to be, who was really better, you or Jeff?

STAN VAN GUNDY: Oh, Jeff was—a much better player. As a small college player, Jeff was outstanding. And I was below average. So it wasn’t close.

MIKE: Am I right to say that Ryan Anderson’s unbelievably underrated?

STAN VAN GUNDY: Absolutely. The one move that Orlando made after I left, that I was shocked by—I could understand everything they were doing, I couldn’t understand the move with Ryan. He’s only 24-years-old, was already a proven guy getting 16 points and eight rebounds. He didn’t play well in the playoffs last year. There were a couple reasons for that, but the real point is, is that people, just like with the NCAA tournament, and then the draft, people overreact either good or bad to a very small sample of games at the end of the year. And there came this myth that Ryan was just a creation of Dwight Howard—that the only way he could be successful was playing with Dwight, which has clearly not been the case. He’s playing with Robin Lopez now, who’s a very hard worker, but certainly not one of the best centers in the league from an offensive standpoint. And Ryan’s averaging 18 points and eight rebounds a game. A rare combination of a guy who shoots the three and rebounds the ball, Kevin Love being about the only other one in the league that does it. Most of the guys who shoot the ball, especially power forwards—that’s almost a misnomer now in the league—but power forwards who shoot the ball in the perimeter [are] usually guys who don’t get near the basket to rebound it. Ryan does both. His contract was more than fair, and a very underrated player. He was underrated on a good team in Orlando, and now he’s being underrated on a bad team in New Orleans, so I have no idea what the answer to that is.

MIKE: I don’t know if you believe in win shares, but last year he was ninth in the league in that statistic. Offensively, he’s supposedly a better player than Russell Westbrook, according to offensive win shares.

STAN VAN GUNDY: I’m not sure on the whole win share thing. All of those stats I think are valuable to a degree. I don’t think our game is as easy to quantify as baseball is, because particularly from the defensive end of the floor. I’ve seen the defensive metrics that some people are trying to use, and I don’t buy any of them. And I’ve had pretty good defensive teams, and Ryan is a liability at the defensive end of the floor. So to say that he would be ninth in the league in terms of value, I think would actually overrate him. But I think most of the people in the league tend to underrate him. As an offensive player, he’s outstanding. I have a problem with ninth, but he’s outstanding.

JOSH: So you think the only way to evaluate defense is to watch a team and not look at any numbers?

STAN VAN GUNDY: Yeah, well, I’m not saying that. I mean, I’d love it if you could come up with numbers. The problem I have, when I watch, is I’m watching other teams. Unless I know what your schemes are, it’s hard for me to tell how many mistakes a guy is actually making. Now with my own team, I’ve been able to do that and it’s been funny with me at times, to watch guys who are regarded as really good defenders and yet I see them making all kinds of mistakes, or vice versa. I just don’t know if there’s a way to quantify team defense in the NBA. Guys who don’t make mistakes, who are guys you can count on in terms of rotations, J.J. Redick being a great example. Not a great individual defender—he lacks both size and quickness. In a one-on-one situation, people can get shots over the top of him fairly easily. But as a team defender, he’s a guy you can count on to very, very rarely make a mistake that’s going to lead to an easy shot by an opponent. He is going to be where he’s supposed to be. He is going to help his teammates defensively. And so, to me, J.J. Redick is an above-average defender. But, most of the metrics that I have seen would not indicate that.

JOSH: Stan, thanks for spending all of this time with us. One final question. I don’t know if this is another rumor perpetuated by the media, but I was reading that you were friendly with Dwight Howard. Is that correct?

STAN VAN GUNDY: Well, yeah. I mean, look, he’s on the other coast. And my communication with him is basically by text—which is sort of the preferred communication of Dwight’s entire generation. That’s how you ended up communicating with players a lot. I’d have many times where I’d call a guy, he wouldn’t answer, and then you text him and five seconds later, and he texts right back. And so, yeah, we text, I don’t know, every couple of weeks. We were going back and forth last week for quite a while about the Lakers’ defense and his thoughts on it and the whole thing. So, yeah, we’re still on good terms and hopefully always will be.

JOSH: Thanks so much, Stan. Really appreciate it.

STAN VAN GUNDY: Thank you.

Stefan Fatsis is the author of Word Freak and A Few Seconds of Panic, a regular guest on NPR's All Things Considered, and a panelist on Hang Up and Listen

Josh Levin is Slate's executive editor.

Mike Pesca is the host of the Slate daily podcast The Gist. He also contributes reports and commentary to NPR.

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