Why the NBA Doesn't Want Stan Van Gundy at ESPN

Stephen BabbFeatured ColumnistOctober 24, 2012

April 21, 2012; Salt Lake City, UT, USA; Orlando Magic head coach Stan Van Gundy reacts to his team falling behind during overtime against the Utah Jazz at Energy Solutions Arena. The Jazz defeated the Magic 117-107. Mandatory Credit: Russ Isabella-US PRESSWIRE
Russ Isabella-US PRESSWIRE

Putting Stan Van Gundy in a position to regularly sound off about all things NBA would be a dangerous scenario for a league that hasn't been especially receptive to criticism lately.

It would be a bit like Mitt Romney making Vice President Biden his campaign spokesman. You never really know what he's going to say, but you can be fairly certain it won't be in your best interests.

Whether the NBA had anything to do with the breakdown in a deal between ESPN and Stan Van Gundy, it certainly had the motive. The very things that make the former Orlando Magic head coach such an appealing analyst are the things that strike fear in the heart of league commissioner David Stern.

He's outspoken and unafraid.

So, it's not entirely surprising that ESPN nixed whatever progress the two sides had made on a deal to make Van Gundy the cable network's newest personality. ESPN claims they couldn't reach an agreement on what exactly SVG would do—SVG suggested otherwise to Dan LeBatard on The Ticket in Miami (via Big Lead Sports' Jason McIntyre):

We actually did agree on a role, but then they came back and pulled that. That’s when we knew something was up.

Nobody is going to give a straight answer because …that’s just the way a lot of people operate…nobody there has the guts to say anything, so that’s what you deal with.

Distortion is indeed "the way a lot of people operate." It's just not how Van Gundy operates, and that's ultimately the problem in this instance.

He's too hung up on the truth.

He's spoken out against the league's tradition of making Christmas Day all about basketball. He's complained about the postseason schedule. He's accused officials of allowing opponents to manhandle Dwight Howard—and gotten fined for it.

Given the success and popularity of brother Jeff Van Gundy (a color analyst for ESPN), you'd think ESPN would be more open-minded to taking on that kind of baggage.

Jeff had plenty of his own coming into his current role.

Perhaps that's part of the problem, though. If the NBA or ESPN went after Jeff, there would be riots in the streets—or anyway, there should be. His popularity with fans makes him virtually untouchable.

The same would almost certainly happen in Stan's case, leaving the powers that be surprisingly powerless to remove him should he go too far.

Putting SVG behind a microphone might be especially dangerous this season, one in which his wounds are still fresh, wounds incurred on account of a guy who's become the league's biggest story.

The public at large—sans bandwagon fans—is already pretty fed up with the continued formation of big-market super teams. The league has failed miserably in its attempts to promote competitive parity, and that's never been more evident than when Dwight Howard's season-ruining antics were rewarded with a trade to the Los Angeles Lakers.

That's not a can of worms the NBA wants opened before the masses, and Van Gundy is one heck of a can opener, especially when he has an ax to grind.

Take a look around the NBA media landscape. For every Jeff Van Gundy or Charles Barkley, there are countless yes-men more interested in puff pieces and promotional spots than anything resembling hard-nosed journalism. Harsh opinions are wasted on easy targets (e.g., Amar'e Stoudemire) and rarely directed at league policy.

Every now and then, you'll see David Stern interviewed and thrown a perfunctory question about league corruption, a vague straw man ready-made for the commissioner's scoffing.

But even those scenarios are outliers. By and large, those covering this game are risk-averse, more interested in making friends than making real news.

That suits the league just fine. It's happy to tolerate the occasional firebrand, so long as he or she doesn't go off the deep end and say something, ya know, too honest.

So long as he doesn't say something like this (via ESPN.com staff):

"This is the system David Stern and his minions like. So that's the system you have...I certainly can't have an opinion because David Stern, like a lot of leaders we've seen in this world lately, don't really tolerate other people's opinions or free speech or anything. So I'm not really allowed to have an opinion."

And that was said before the deal with ESPN blew up.

The NBA almost certainly needs a voice like Van Gundy's—it just doesn't want it. It prefers illusions of dissension and legitimacy to the real things.

Perhaps this is a blessing in disguise for Stan. He might not have a tongue with which to speak after having to bite it with such frequency on the air.

Besides, if history is any guide, he'll still find a way to have his say. 

We'll all be listening, too.