Stan Van Gundy had worked his whole life for this chance, tagging along with his father, Bill, to small-time gymnasiums in California and upstate New York. He held college assistant jobs in Buffalo, Burlington and the Bronx. Yes, Van Gundy kept going and going and going, catching his big break with Pat Riley and the Heat, the way that his younger brother, Jeff, had with the Knicks.
His whole life, Stan Van Gundy waited for this chance to be at the top of his profession, to chase a championship with Shaquille O'Neal and Dwyane Wade. He waited and worked, worked and waited and finally he's here and he . . . just . . . quits? Suddenly, his pangs for fatherhood became so overwhelming that he wouldn't go the distance of what would've been a do-or-die season on the job?
Whatever happened Monday morning in Miami, it had been a co-production of Riley and Shaq, who together doomed Van Gundy. In the end for Stan, this would be a call out of Jeff's playbook with the Knicks, when he decided that life at home beat that with James Dolan's dysfunctional Madison Square Garden. Jeff beat the Knicks to the punch in 2001, the way Stan beat his boss to it in Miami.
"A toxic, poisonous environment that carried over to Shaquille O'Neal," is the way that one longtime Van Gundy friend described the scene in South Florida on Monday. "Stan knew what the inevitable fate was for him. He had been submarined."
Riley and Shaq wanted to be together, a seven-championship ring force of nature that was impossible for a title-less Van Gundy to stop. So, he politely stepped out of the way on Monday, sparing himself a much messier departure at a later date. He needed to win to keep his job, but he couldn't win because Riley had so successfully seduced Shaq. There was no way out, so Van Gundy walked now.
To the end, he was a good, loyal lieutenant.
Once Riley left his coach's status hanging in the summer - ultimately backing down on firing Van Gundy out of fear of public fallout - Van Gundy was done. When O'Neal was traded to the Heat, he kept talking about "Coach Riley," despite the fact that he had become President Riley. Riley and Shaq want that post-Lakers championship to validate themselves, and running out of time, they've forged a partnership that their egos demanded.
O'Neal was still angry over Van Gundy choosing to give the ball to Wade in the final minutes of the Eastern Conference finals' Game 7 against Detroit - the absolute proper call, by the way - and nothing soothed him more this summer than Riley rewarding Shaq with the five-year, US$100 million extension that the Lakers didn't want to give him.
Riley playing games
Considering that O'Neal doesn't have the durability to dominate another season or two, this was a charity contract. Shaq and Riley have been making eyes across the room since the beginning, and a grinder such as Van Gundy stood no chance in this triangle. The South Beach star gazers need to understand something, though: Riley would've never accomplished what Van Gundy did in those two years.
The Heat would've beaten the Pistons without Wade missing time with those bruised ribs, and Shaq shockingly immobile with his deep thigh bruise. Two years ago, Riley had consecutive seasons of 25 and 36 victories, and believed so little in the possibilities of that 2003-2004 team that he resigned on the eve of the season.
What Van Gundy ultimately did with those kids such as Caron Butler and Lamar Odom, was win 42 games and a playoff series after an 0-7 start. He helped elevate their value so Riley had the chips to get Shaq without shipping Wade to the Lakers. And last year, Van Gundy won 59 regular-season games and despite Shaq and Wade hobbling, was within 125 seconds of reaching the NBA Finals.
After that series, Riley started a passive-aggressive campaign that turned into the beginning of the end for Van Gundy. Heat managing general partner Micky Arison made sure to tell everyone on Monday that he wanted his coach out of the job the moment his coach suggested to Riley that maybe his heart wasn't in the job anymore after the opening-night victory against Memphis.
This was Arison's way of covering Riley's back, trying to show that Riley hadn't been too eager to get Van Gundy out of the way.
Only, remember something: In the next game against Indiana, Shaq went down with his sprained ankle. Riley wanted no part of taking over that team, preferring to play the part of the counseling mentor to Van Gundy until Shaq returned to the rotation. That was Sunday, and finally Riley was done trying to talk him out of resigning.
At the news conference Monday, Riley framed himself as the reluctant replacement, going so far as to describe the state of the team as a "mess," just to set himself up for more credit when the Heat inevitably start winning games.
Van Gundy is relentlessly loyal. As he said, he was "an unknown fired college coach," when Riley hired him with the Heat. He'll coach again in the NBA, just like Jeff has done with the Rockets. This should've been Stan Van Gundy's team, his time, his shot at a championship season. Only a team has to be yours to coach it, and that was never possible with Pat Riley lurking in the shadows.
A cold, calculated betrayal is over, and it's Showtime on South Beach now. Showtime or bust.