Before every game, Miami Heat assistant coach Keith Askins stuffs an ear plug in his left ear, not coincidentally the one closest to Heat Coach Stan Van Gundy, who is so prone to explosions of opinion that another assistant, Erik Spoelstra, wrote a blunt -- even reproachful -- note to Van Gundy after one loss. It said, “You were an absolute lunatic last night.”
When guard Shandon Anderson misfired on an outlet pass late in the fourth quarter of a recent game against the San Antonio Spurs, Van Gundy informed him the unacceptable mistake warranted, um, attempted murder charges. “I’m like 40 pounds overweight,” Van Gundy explained during a calmer moment later. “I have high cholesterol. I could check out at any time, and he’s throwing away an outlet pass.”
On the sideline for a team with the best record in the Eastern Conference, Van Gundy offers nearly as much entertainment as Shaquille O’Neal and Dwyane Wade on the court. He provides an occasionally ranting and often disheveled contrast to former Heat coach Pat Riley, the hyper-intense but ever-cool legend Van Gundy replaced before the start of the 2003-2004 season.
“I’ve calmed down,” Van Gundy said. “I’m not calm compared to most people, but I’m a lot calmer than I was last year.”
This season Van Gundy, 45, has tried to adapt his full-throttle style to a squad that went from promising and youthful to unexpectedly dominant and veteran-led with the addition last summer of O’Neal.
In the coming weeks, he will try to ensure that the Heat can weather stretches without O’Neal, who has a mildly sprained left knee and is listed as day to day, while adapting to the addition of Alonzo Mourning, the once-dominant big man who is known for his volatile personality and whose career has been sidetracked by kidney disease. Mourning is expected to be signed in the next few days.
As Van Gundy tinkers with his team and his temperament, Riley, who assumed full-time team president duties when he voluntarily stepped down after 21 years of coaching, is making adjustments of his own. In fact, what amuses Heat owner Micky Arison most about the Van Gundy sideshow is Riley’s unanticipated role in it.
Riley has taken his infamous intensity and smoothed it out, or suppressed it, or worked it off on the Exercycles he now rides religiously after years of relying on stress to burn calories. While Van Gundy shrieks on the sideline, Riley has emerged from a year of hibernation -- he watched all games last year from his office -- and begun sitting in a third-row seat across the court from Miami’s bench. The Heat staff is nothing short of amazed. During a recent game against the Los Angeles Clippers, Riley entered the public seating about five minutes after the game’s start, dropping into a chair next to his wife. They chatted occasionally. He shook hands with well-wishers. He looked ... relaxed.
Of course, he has yet to make it through an entire game mingling with the masses. He watches the second halves from out of sight. “He’s like a little kid, learning to swim,” one member of the organization said. “He goes in, gets out, goes in a little deeper, gets out again.”
After games, Riley congratulates or consoles Van Gundy, who worked as a Heat assistant under Riley for eight years. Those interactions, several Heat coaches and officials said, involve no yelling, no nitpicking, no interrogation about strategy.
In fact, the once nearly tyrannical boss has become -- and this really cracks up Arison -- Van Gundy’s fatherly support system.
“Anybody is more easygoing than Pat,” Arison said. “He was the worst guy you would ever want to see after a loss. Now, after a game, to see him trying to calm Stan down -- that is pretty funny.”
After two losses to the Michael Jordan-led Bulls in the playoffs; followed by three playoff losses to his detested former employer, the New York Knicks; followed by the diagnosis of a major kidney disease to his marquee player at the time (Mourning); Riley decided he had enough misery for several lifetimes. During the 2002-2003 season, he began telling Van Gundy: “Get ready.”
Riley said he planned to step down before training camp last season, but couldn’t. He felt guilty, having assembled a handful of promising young players including Caron Butler and Lamar Odom -- sent to Los Angeles in the O’Neal deal -- who looked forward to playing under him. But after three or four sleepless nights as the start of the regular season approached, Riley finally made the move. He was comfortable, he said, turning the team over to Van Gundy, one of the few people in the world who obsessed about basketball as much as he did.
“I didn’t want to hire somebody I didn’t know,” Riley said. “I know Stan. I know how he operates. ... His preparation and his caring creates a 24/7 thing.”
Van Gundy -- who spent eight years leading college programs, including the University of Wisconsin, before joining the Heat in 1995 -- found out he would replace Riley five days before the start of the season. The rest of the NBA found out a day later.
“I was,” said Van Gundy, sipping a soft drink in a lounge in the Heat’s American Airlines Arena offices, “more than surprised.”
But in fact, the most surprising part was yet to come. Riley, so demanding as a coach that he occasionally put his teams through four-hour practices and so controlling that he had been known to fine players for looking at cheerleaders during timeouts, virtually disappeared -- at least from the public spotlight -- after stepping down. As the youthful Heat rebounded from an 0-7 start to finish 42-40 under Van Gundy, Riley refused most interview requests. He stayed purposefully out of sight on game nights. He only occasionally stepped into practice, and only for a few minutes at a time. He said he has not ventured inside the locker room -- at least when players are in there -- since he left coaching.
Though Riley has stayed out of Van Gundy’s way, he has remained deeply involved in the team in which he is part owner. It is strange that history might show that Riley’s biggest achievement for the Heat was accomplished while he sat behind the oval, seven-foot cherry wood desk in his office. On July 14, 2004, he acquired O’Neal, sacrificing young stars Butler, Odom and veteran Brian Grant while, to the astonishment of many observers, managing to hold onto Wade.
Riley, however, played down the deal.
“It wasn’t any grandiose trade where I outsmarted anybody,” Riley said. The Lakers “were highly motivated to make it happen fast.”
“I think (Van Gundy) is the difference in this team,” Riley added. “While Shaq and Wade are the stars, I think he is the difference-maker.”