The nostalgia flowed freely in a text exchange between two men near the top of their profession. John Calipari, now king of Kentucky, recently found a photo more than three decades old, one that captured an eager assistant on the University of Vermont staff, someone Calipari had planned to join before Larry Brown kept him at Kansas. He felt the need to share the snapshot with Stan Van Gundy.
"We got into the whole thing," Van Gundy told Bleacher Report last week, shaking his head. "He was a Division II player, I was a Division III player. We were both nobodies. I think about that stuff all the time. When I go all the way back, you just say, wow."
It is veritable Van Gundy to credit his coaching career, the one restarting in Detroit after a two-year interruption, largely to serendipity—a series of happy accidents marked by sublime timing. His brother Jeff cracking the NBA door for him with Pat Riley and the Miami Heat, after a six-stop collegiate rise stalled with a single unsatisfying season at Wisconsin. Riley burning out after two frustrating Heat seasons, elevating him to lead a team that just drafted Dwyane Wade. Tony Battie getting hurt prior to the 2007 preseason, giving him little choice but to try Rashard Lewis as Dwight Howard's complement at power forward, a move that would eventually fuel an NBA Finals appearance.
"So many things have to happen," Van Gundy said. "I've always been really aware of that, that this is not a meritocracy, as least not purely. Now, I'm not trying to be overly humble. You've got to be able to do the job when you get the chance. But there's a lot of really good coaches at every level out there, high school, small college, who just haven't gotten the right break, met the right guy, whatever. And that's what I expected. I expected coming out I'd be a small college coach, hopefully get a really good small college job. I would have been happy as hell with that."
"I would have."
Not now. Not really. Otherwise, he wouldn't have relocated to the Midwest, many miles north and many degrees south of the Sunshine State, where he spent the past two decades. Otherwise, he wouldn't have foregone his cushy media lifestyle—radio guest spots, college basketball commentating—for the exhausting endeavor of redirecting a franchise that hasn't reached the playoffs in any of the past five seasons, and has fired six coaches since June 3, 2008. Otherwise, he wouldn't have relocated his family, including a daughter about to enter 12th grade, just a year from graduating with her Central Florida friends.
"Next year we will be down to one," said Van Gundy, whose oldest daughter is in graduate school at the University of Miami and whose only son is at the University of Detroit Mercy, not popping in at home as often as Mom and Dad expected. "That part is not fun, as most parents will tell you. That sort of hits you. Like, where did it all go?"
Many wondered why he would go to Detroit, of all places, even for the hefty sum of $7 million per season. He actually wasn't sure he would return to coaching at all, not after his Orlando tenure ended tumultuously and his life became leisurely. At 55, he wasn't expecting to find the right situation, the one that fit. His family felt differently, though. They knew he'd go back. They knew this is who he is, what he does.
So he did.
Then he started 5-23.
So, did he doubt his decision?
"Hell yes," Van Gundy said. "What I started doubting, quite honestly, at 5-23, was myself."
"After being out two years and being 5-23, I'd be lying if I tell you I wasn't doubting myself as a coach. There's no question, as a coach. I've never doubted our organization and what we're doing and the ability we have down the road. Even at 5-23, I had confidence in everybody else in the organization but myself. Yes. That's where it suffered."
His confidence and his spirit are not suffering so much now.
Not in the midst of the Pistons' best stretch since the 2007-08 season, 9-2 even after a home loss to the New Orleans Pelicans, all following his unprecedented personnel move: waiving inefficient forward Josh Smith. Not with the team playing consistently hard on defense, and at times quite well on defense, and often looking like some of his better Orlando squads with its barrage of open three-point attempts.
Not after wins since Christmas against eight teams that, at the time, had better records, including the Cavaliers, Mavericks, Raptors and Spurs, the last of which produced an instant cult coaching classic: Van Gundy, leading by one with 0.1 seconds left after Brandon Jennings' transition bank shot, urging his players to "form a (bleeping) wall!" After that clip was captured on the Pistons' broadcast, it not only became a social media sensation, but it inspired the Pistons' marketing department to print up "The Wall Vs. Everybody" T-shirts for the dancers and the P.A. announcer to bellow "Stan Van Gundy. To the wall, y'all!" prior to the Pistons' next home game, a hubbub that Van Gundy deemed "a little weird."
The Smith decision was of greater consequence, with Van Gundy getting owner Tom Gores' approval to use a scalpel and extract the 11-year veteran, with more than two seasons and $30 million left on a contract signed during the 2013 offseason, prior to Van Gundy's arrival. Van Gundy has gone to great pains to explain that he was not upset at Smith, nor is he aligned with those who, in his view, "have tried to paint him as a villain" in the weeks since, as the Pistons have won at a higher rate than Smith's new team in Houston. Yet, even if this wasn't a rotten tooth, it was still crowding the mouth, meaning its absence allowed more room for others to break through the gums.
And while Van Gundy doesn't mention Smith specifically when riffing about the creation of a new Pistons culture, you don't need to dig especially deep to find correlation. He argues that the primary method of culture creation is "the people you put on your roster. At the end of the day, you can say what you want, but guys are going to be who they are. You've always got some guys, maybe half your team, who can go either way. If you put them around positive people who are professional and know how to do things, they become positive. And if you don't, they don't. And especially when you've got the young guys we have. Who they're around is a lot more important than what I do. A lot more important."
He learned this in Miami, under Riley, and it was also emphasized in Orlando by general manager Otis Smith. You can see it already in Detroit, in the adults he's added, from Caron Butler (a longtime ally) to Anthony Tolliver to Jodie Meeks to D.J. Augustin to Joel Anthony (part of two Heat championships).
On the surface, this would also seem why Van Gundy sought the dual roles of coach and president, so he could craft the character of the roster to his liking, not someone else's. He insists, however, that the titles and the power didn't matter to him as much as the overall unity.
In talking to other coaches, Van Gundy was struck by tales of "nightmare situations where the front office and the coaches are not on the same page, and ownership may not be on the same page with all of them," Van Gundy said. "To me, that just saps the energy. And I wasn't willing to do that."
So he took the dual roles. He has the ear of the owner, with whom he communicates by phone or email almost daily. He also has more to do than he did at his previous stops, where striking a work/life balance was sometimes a struggle. ("I'm a little better at that, not a lot," Van Gundy admits.) Jeff Bower, the former New Orleans Hornets GM whom he hired, handles and coordinates much of the day-to-day work. But Van Gundy regularly scours through the salary books on available players. And he does cut into his own downtime, spending, for instance, a recent New York night watching second-round pick Spencer Dinwiddie play in the D-League.
"These are things that I never thought of, maybe in the offseason, but never in the season," Van Gundy said. "And I've got to put time in on that every single day."
He does so as he thinks of the future, a future that he maintains will only include Detroit, whether it's for the full five years of his contract or perhaps longer.
"I told my wife, this is it," Van Gundy said. "We ride this as long as we can, as long as we're doing a good job for Tom and the whole thing. But we're not going to pick up and do it again." .
Has he come up with a vision of what this team becomes under him, in that future?
"Oh yeah," Van Gundy said. "Absolutely. Absolutely. You know, we want to be a contender. Three, four years, I don't know what it will take. Andre (Drummond) is 21. (Kentavious Caldwell-Pope) is 21. Dinwiddie's 21. We'll get another first-round pick this year, it will be a young guy, I'm sure. Brandon Jennings is 25. I don't know what will happen with Greg Monroe, but he's 24. (Kyle) Singler's 26, third year in the league. So I don't know how long it will take.
"But what I really want to see is a team that, more than the number of wins even, is a team that plays with great energy and great spirit together, and really works hard. Hard, smart, together, that's been our three words. But that's the Bill Belichick thing, if you want a smart, tough football team, get smart, tough football players. But you have to give up on your ego thinking that I could take anybody and get them to play the way I want, through the force of my persuasion. That's not it at all. Those guys decide what the culture is going to be ultimately."
Still, that doesn't mean, as a coach, that you can't continue to better yourself.
If you want to elicit a confused expression, mention to members of the Pistons that Stan Van Gundy seems to have mellowed some, at least lately.
"I don't know if he's mellowed but, if that's mellow, man...," Anthony said, shaking his head. "He's definitely the most high-intensity coach I've been around."
"If this is mellow, I guess so," Pistons assistant Tim Hardaway said, chuckling loudly. "I'm gonna tell you this: He's always fired up."
"Yeah, I don't know about that," Meeks said, with a sly smile.
Nor would you necessarily know it after an evening of in-game observation, analyzing Van Gundy in all his animation and aggravation, as he scampers the sideline in his scrunched suit jacket sans the tie, forward and back, stop and start and stop and start and spin and scowl and sigh and spin again. You wouldn't know it as you enjoyed this performance art, the Pistons coach and president pacing as if awaiting medical results, striking the poses of a professional wrestler, contorting to follow the flight of every shot.
You might not know anything about him was any different, as, over a series of possessions—and sometimes all on a single one—he shakes his head hard, drops his chin down, folds his arms high, spreads his arms wide, rolls his eyes 'round, twists his torso left, twists his torso right, claps his hands low, grits his teeth hard, pinches his nose tight, sucks his breath in, shrugs his shoulders south, points his finger north (east and west), kicks his legs up and, above all, wears out his shoes and voice and pockets and glasses and pen and hair.
"I can't sit still," Van Gundy said after last Saturday's victory against Brooklyn, which caused him to unleash a couple of celebratory fist pumps, albeit close enough to his side to conceal from his players. "I've just got too much nervous energy."
He certainly couldn't meet the requirements of the Queen's guard. But he wasn't hired in May to protect Buckingham Palace. He was hired to fortify the Palace of Auburn Hills, a place pillaged by far too many visitors of late. He was hired to be himself, a detail-oriented tactician who, with a 371-208 record and 48 playoff wins in his two previous spots, had earned the elevated status of coaches' coach, widely respected and even (in the case of Miami's Erik Spoelstra) revered by peers.
But this time, in this situation, Van Gundy was also determined to be somewhat different. Over the years, criticism of him has typically centered on the way he wore on players, by being overly excitable, irritable and critical. That signature then became a caricature when Shaquille O'Neal, apparently still sour over his touch count while playing in Game 7 of the 2005 Eastern Conference finals, referred to him as "a master of panic" after facing him as an opponent in 2009. Some players (Lamar Odom among them) have quipped that, when playing for Van Gundy, they thought their names had been officially changed to expletives.
Van Gundy did some soul-searching before stepping back into the fray, talking to players he'd coached, players he liked, players with whom he'd connected, such as Jameer Nelson, J.J. Redick, Hedo Turkoglu and Rashard Lewis. "So [I wasn't asking for] complaints," Van Gundy said. "I was asking for constructive things. And really the only thing, the main thing, anyway, that came up. Everything else is great. But [not] yelling at us in the packed arena. Yelling at somebody to run back, that's one thing. But to publicly criticize them, I've tried to stay away from that."
He believes that, this season, he has "done a much better job of that" and is "far calmer" on the sideline now, more carefully picking his fights and spots.
"I'll still get after guys, and I'll get after them in timeout huddles, but I'm not as demonstrative as I was before," Van Gundy said. "I'll get on them as a group, and I'll get on them in here. But I haven't really had game time explosions at individuals. I haven't thrown a water bottle. I'm still not the calmest guy in the league, by any means, but I'm not like I was before. I'm not really as bad with that now. I'm really not."
Caron Butler was a rising star for the Heat in Van Gundy's first season as a head coach, 2003-04, a season that started 0-7 and ended with a 42-40 record and a trip to the second round. He remembers well the reaction whenever Butler would slip into a streetball style in an attempt to make his name.
"Coach always used to reel me back in," Butler said. "He did it with screaming and yelling and watching film and breaking down stuff so I got the concepts of things. Once I got it, it would stay with me forever."
Their relationship had staying power too because, in Butler's words, the connection with Van Gundy and players is "real," going beyond the court. They communicated often throughout the next decade, with Butler even texting Van Gundy whenever a coaching job came open. After Van Gundy took the Detroit job, Butler jumped at the chance to join him. Once with the Pistons, Butler initially saw Van Gundy setting a strong tone and knew that approach would be a shock to some systems. But he's seen Van Gundy toning it down some since, even on the sideline, where Butler can see him "doing a great job of channeling that energy, and saying something positive and getting guys going. I can appreciate it. The other guys don't see that transition, but I see the growth right there."
Van Gundy acknowledges that he has never been "easy to play for," but also notes that he stays in touch with "90 percent" of those who played for him. Many, like Butler, have told him they want to come back and play for him again. Others have chosen to collaborate in another capacity. Like Hardaway, who played for Van Gundy when the latter was a Heat assistant, and called for an interview immediately upon Van Gundy's hiring. Former Heat forward Malik Allen is on staff too. Quentin Richardson, a Van Gundy favorite in Orlando, has a player development post.
"I think [players] sort of give you a get-out-of-jail-free card," said Van Gundy, who fondly recalled supportive visits from Nelson, Turkoglu and Redick during the Pistons' poor start. "I think they just, after a while, go, 'OK, that's Stan.' They don't like it. But there are enough other things. I think they do know that I try to do the right thing, and I care enough about them as people and I want to win. So they give me a chance."
Sometimes, he'll even give players a smile, especially during the recent streak.
They may even give a few back.
"Over the last (several) games, you've seen the guys buying in more because, oh s--t, this guy knows what he is talking about," Butler said.
Brandon Jennings, who has blossomed since Smith's departure, compared Van Gundy to his first NBA coach, the more-maniacal-than-mellow Scott Skiles, "a guy who was really on me, who really pushed me, who made me play every possession hard." A guy like Van Gundy, who won't let you relax, even with just 0.1 seconds left, after you've made a miraculous shot to seemingly secure the victory against the Spurs.
Jennings brought up that possession to Van Gundy at a recent shootaround.
"I got a laugh," said Jennings, eyes gleaming at the accomplishment. "I said a little joke. We were talking, and I said, 'You see that (crazy) shot from Utah? The [Trevor] Booker shot?' I said, 'Yeah, that's why we got to build the wall!' It was funny. He started laughing."
Then Van Gundy, nobody's nobody, went back to the serious business of building something bigger.
Ethan Skolnick covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter at@EthanJSkolnick.