ORLANDO — Another coach, and Phil Jackson comes to mind, would have left you talking about how smart he was.
Why, he coached his team back from the brink. He instilled calm. And so the coach would have stood in the front of the room, and he would talk about his team's poise. And if you wanted to write that it got that poise from him, well, that would be fine.
Another coach, maybe Pat Riley, would have left you thinking about how slick he was.
After all, did you see the way the guard play improved? He built confidence. And so the coach would have taken care to praise his team's intelligence. And if you wanted to mention that intelligence flowed from him, well, who is going to argue?
This is the way the game, the other game, is played. A coach stands regally enough, tall enough, and darned if the world doesn't proclaim him to be a genius.
Then there is Stan Van Gundy, the lovable schlub, who just happens to watch the game from the end of the Magic bench. And, man, didn't his players make him look smart?
Ask yourself this: Of all the stories you might have seen since the Magic found its way back into the NBA playoffs Tuesday night, how many of them contained this phrase?
"Van Gundy outcoached Jackson."
None of them, probably. For all the games Van Gundy has won in the NBA, have you ever seen it written that he outcoached anyone? Me, neither. And that's a shame. Van Gundy keeps laughing at Van Gundy, and he keeps talking about how he has little to do with this, and sure enough, people seem willing to believe him.
Which is, of course, bunk.
All in all, Van Gundy had a pretty good night Tuesday night. His team's guard play improved, and its confidence was restored, and its shooting touch was rediscovered. It was fast at the start, and it was the better team in the end. It won the first Finals victory in franchise history.
Imagine if Jackson had done all of that. The media would be writing sonnets in his name today.
Not Van Gundy, 49, the everyman of NBA coaches. Other coaches look like lawyers, sharp and regal. Van Gundy looks like the guy in charge of the sausage for the company picnic.
"I've never thought I outcoached anyone," Van Gundy said. "I say that because it's the truth. I'm not smart enough for that."
And there he goes again. That's the endearing part of Van Gundy. There has never been a more self-effacing coach in professional sports.
Consider, for instance, the improved play of point guard Rafer Alston. In the first two games of the series, Alston hit only three of 17 shots and averaged only five points. In Game 3, Alston responded by hitting eight of 12 shots and scored 20.
Gee. It must have been some pep talk Van Gundy gave to Alston, right?
"I'm a motivational genius, that's what I am," Van Gundy said. "I thought for two days about what to say to him, and I said, 'Play your game.' You can write that down. That's a quote. It took me two days to come up with that."
But, Stan. What did you do to improve the field goal shooting? "I have no idea. The ball just went in."
Oh, and Stan. What about the composure you showed down the stretch? "I do not think in my entire life I have ever demonstrated composure."
The thing is, you get the idea Van Gundy isn't just playing humble here. He really believes what he's saying. Other coaches are going to hate the guy, because as a profession, they like for you to think of them as such deep thinkers that any question about strategy is like Einstein playing connect-the-dots. Van Gundy? He acts as if coaching just isn't that hard.
It's amazing what a ride this postseason has been for Van Gundy, isn't it? His job security has been questioned (after the Magic struggled to hold leads against Boston), and his opponents have criticized him (Ben Wallace, noted flopper), and his star has grumbled about wanting more touches (Dwight Howard), and the NBA's resident grumpy old man (Shaq O'Neal) has called him "The Master of Panic."
The truth is, people talk a lot more about Van Gundy when the Magic loses than when it wins. Remember Game 2, when Orlando made the perfect call with 0.6 seconds to go, only to have Courtney Lee miss a makeable shot? Did anyone talk about the great call? Nope. They talked about how Van Gundy was making a mistake by letting Jameer Nelson return too soon.
Yet, Van Gundy's team survives.
Look, Van Gundy still has his work cut out for him. The truth is, Jackson is a darned fine coach. All the Lakers have to do is win one of the next two in Orlando, then one of the next two in Los Angeles, and the title is theirs.
In the meantime, Van Gundy has some thinking to do.