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Don’t expect Pistons’ Van Gundy to stop speaking his mind

Last month, Stan Van Gundy got an email from a fan who said he wasn’t coming to any more Detroit Pistons games.

Van Gundy wrote him back.

They exchanged views on politics in sports, the reason for the fan’s disillusion. Van Gundy offered his take. The fan responded. Van Gundy answered his response. Back and forth they went.

“So, what happened?” I asked the Pistons coach in a recent conversation in his Auburn Hills office. “Did you talk the guy into coming back?”

He shrugged. “I don’t think we ever agreed.”

That right there should tell you something about Stanley Alan Van Gundy, born 58 years ago in Indio, Calif. The man is going to speak his mind, even if the result goes the wrong way.

Even if it’s with a fan.

Even if it’s with an angry fan.

If you spend any time with Van Gundy, you can’t help but observe this much: he is sincere. He oozes sincerity. He often takes three sentences to say what could be said in one, because he really, really wants to make a point. He’s passionate. He pleads. He’s earnest even when he’s aggressive.

But no matter what you think of his beliefs — and after his essay in TIME magazine calling protesting athletes “patriots,” many are talking about his beliefs — you cannot deny that he’s speaking from the heart.

I mean, how many coaches answer a fan’s angry email — twice.

‘Poster boy for white privilege’

In a long, freewheeling conversation about being lured into the Pistons job (he was “very happy” being out of the league), his previous coaching milestones (he “hated” Detroit for keeping his Miami squad from the NBA Finals), his heartbreak in cutting players (“It kills me”) and his mental habit of preparing for the worst (”I’m the wrong guy to talk to about optimism”), his most revealing words come in a prolonged exchange about race and protest.

Van Gundy, who calls himself “a poster boy for white privilege,” has clearly given deep thought to what his African-American players endure. He is empathetic.

Emphatically empathetic.

Here is some of our exchange, slightly edited, on the subject:

M: What’s the biggest challenge today to a white coach working in the predominantly African-America NBA?

SVG: First of all, as a coach, I have to try to understand what their experience is, and understand that it’s a lot different than mine.  I mean, I didn’t grow up rich or anything, but how comfortable and easy has my life been?  I can be a poster boy for white privilege, you know?

And then I think from a coaching standpoint, I’ve never been afraid to speak my mind … and I encourage them to speak their mind and do what they think is right.

One problem is that they tend to get pigeonholed.  And one of the most offensive things I’ve heard is that just because these athletes have these salaries, they should shut up and play football, or shut up and play basketball.

To me, that’s offensive. To say that this person doesn’t have as much right to speak up or to get involved as anyone else.  So I’m really supportive of the idea of these guys being bigger than basketball.

M: You made a comment right after Donald Trump was elected president. You said, “We have just thrown a good part of our population under the bus, and I have problems with thinking that this is where we are as a country.”  What reaction did you get from that?

SVG: I got some people who, you know, were happy that I had spoken up and some who weren’t. Same thing if you write a column.

M:  But a columnist is hired to opine on those things.

SVG:  Correct.  I get that. Look, I’m lucky in that I have an owner who allows me to do it. But as a citizen, away from the job, I think if you feel strongly about something, our country is built on you having a responsibility to speak up. …

When you see things and you feel strongly about ’em and you don’t speak out, I think that’s a problem. So for somebody like me, I know people disagree with me — I’ve gotten the comments — but when I see it and I feel strongly about it, I feel like I’ve got an obligation to say something.  I am someone who has a platform.

And I get that people resent that.  I do.  I get people who say, ‘Why does Stan Van Gundy’s opinion matter more than mine?’ Well, it doesn’t.  But I have been given a platform, and I can speak for some people who won’t ever get a chance to speak.

M:  So with the Trump comment, you’d say the same thing again?

SVG:  No, I’ll tell you what I would change. I regret saying something to the effect of I don’t have any respect for anyone who voted for him.  I regret that, because I do think there are people out there who are not racist, are not misogynists, are not xenophobic, who voted for Trump for other reasons. So I do regret that.  I basically just threw anybody who cast a vote for Trump…

M:  Under the bus?

SVG:  I did. That part I reject.  Now I would still say that it does sadden me that it’s not a big enough issue that whether you voted for the guy for economic reasons — you thought he could help the economy — or you just didn’t like the status quo —

M:  Or you didn’t like the other candidate.

SVG:  Or you didn’t like the other candidate.  But at any level, it does sadden me that at the very least there’s a lot of people for whom equality, racism, sexism — whatever it is — has not risen to the level of economic issues and things like that.  Because it would be hard for me to imagine that there was actually any informed voter out there who wouldn’t at least admit the guy has said some very racist things, and said and done by his own admission some very misogynistic things.

And so we have a group of people who basically said, ‘Yeah, I know that, but…’ And I guess, to me, if you’re going to talk about patriotism and stuff, which he does all the time, you have to start with equality. …

But, again, to get back to the question, I do regret making it personal, that basically I said every Trump voter is a bad person by definition of who they voted for. It wasn’t a good statement.

Patriotism and a TIME-ly essay

Van Gundy and I spoke a good deal more about those issues in our conversation. Many of them he later addressed in the TIME magazine essay, published last week, which he wrote on a plane ride back from Los Angeles, after being approached by an athlete management firm involved with NFL players.

They were seeking, he said, someone to support their position on the protests happening during the national anthem. Van Gundy’s essay — which he said was edited and shaped by others in addition to him — makes a strong case for equal opportunity (something most people agree with) and labels protesting athletes “patriots” (something many don’t agree with). “Patriotism…” he wrote, “is caring so deeply about your country that you take it as your duty to hold it accountable to its highest values and to fight to make it the very best it can be. Under this definition, these athletes and coaches are role models of American patriotism.”

I asked why he would do this in the middle of the NBA season.

“I was approached … and I was more than willing and honored to do it. I agree with them, number one, but even if I didn’t, I think that their right to protest is one that everyone should appreciate.”

As for any negative reaction — especially for using the word “patriots”?

“I stand by it,” he said. “Our founding fathers basically violently overthrew the British to form a country. They didn’t just stand by silently and shut up.”

‘We’d be better off’ with more dialogue

So take it or leave it. This is Van Gundy, smart, loquacious, passionate, heart on his sleeve. It is hard to believe that, with such a fire in the belly, he was perfectly content to be sitting on the beach, literally, just four years ago, having exited the NBA after stints with the Magic and Heat. He and his wife had settled into a Florida life of dog walks and taking the kids to school and restaurants and reading the newspaper. He did occasional sports talk media. He went to movies when he wanted. Went to spring training when he wanted.

“It was great,” he said. “We were exceedingly happy.”

So why jump back into the fray? Why, after years as an assistant and his two NBA head coaching stints both ending in his dismissal, would he sign up for more? Van Gundy says the Pistons offer of direct contact with the owner, Tom Gores, and the power of coach and team president in one role was too intriguing to turn down.

So he and his wife, Kim, moved to Detroit in 2014 and, he said, “fell in love with it.” He now feels a part of things here. He loves the summers, he loves the sports and concert scene, he loves the Pistons being downtown, and the connection it affords with the city.

It’s true, coaching again has reignited his dark side, which he admits to readily, citing Chuck Daly’s self-proclaimed “Prince of Pessimism” moniker.

“Chuck never trusted success. I think there’s a lot of coaches who are like that. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve had an absolutely blessed life. Great parents. A great brother. Great wife. Great kids.

“But in terms of my career, yeah, I’m always expecting the next problem. And it does take away a lot of the enjoyment.  Because even if you’re playing well, you’re like, ‘Oh, my God , we’re gonna have a letdown.”

Meanwhile, despite dire predictions, the Pistons have started 10-5, one of the best records in the Eastern Conference. Their defense is improved. So is their free-throw shooting. And, it seems, their team chemistry.

That usually starts with the coach.

Or the team president.

Van Gundy is both.

So on he marches, his drums pounding, heading a promising young team, speaking his mind, writing essays for TIME, and being about as high profile as a coach of the Pistons can be in this day and age.

Yet still answering a fan’s email.

“The thing is, he was respectful,” Van Gundy says of that disillusioned correspondent. “And I think I was respectful back to him.  And, you know, one of the things I said to him was, ‘I think we’d be better off if we had more of these kinds of dialogues.”

Not to worry. As long as Van Gundy is in charge, the last thing that’s going to dry up is talking.

Contact Mitch Albom: malbom@freepress.com. Check out the latest updates with his charities, books and events at MitchAlbom.com. Download “The Sports Reporters” podcast each Monday and Friday on-demand through Apple Podcasts, Google Play, Spotify and more. Follow him on Twitter @mitchalbom

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