Internal Struggle: Dwight Howard, Stan Van Gundy Saga Shows Players Have Control

Orlando Magic head coach Stan Van Gundy found out the hard way on Monday that sometimes your toughest opponent can be on your own team.

The 52-year-old Van Gundy was fired by the Magic on Monday, finally ending long-held speculation that star player Dwight Howard wanted Van Gundy gone if he was to sign a long-term deal with Orlando. General manager Otis Smith also parted ways with the team on Monday as well.

Player-coach feuds are nothing new in sports, and Van Gundy certainly isn’t the first coach to leave a team because of a spat with a player. What makes this case so bizarre is that Van Gundy publicly acknowledged that he knew Howard wanted him gone, and did so during the season with the team in contention. Van Gundy did this with Howard right next to him.

With the grievances out in the open, the Magic had a decision to make: Keep Van Gundy, the winningest coach in team history, or keep Howard, the 26-year-old franchise player with six All-Star appearances to his name. In the end, Howard won and Van Gundy was gone.

Early reaction to the decision seems to be negative. Many feel sympathy for Van Gundy, noting that through the turmoil Howard put him through the Magic were still contenders. Others point out that re-signing Howard is no sure thing, and that even with the coach gone the player could still bolt for another team. If that happens, the Magic will have entered the worst-case scenario.

No matter how you slice it, this is a sad state of affairs in today’s sports world. Van Gundy and Howard had their moments together and came within three wins of a championship in 2009.  Somewhere along the line the relationship strained and Howard hinted at a departure from Orlando unless Van Gundy was gone. The Magic, seeing how a star player’s departure can ruin a franchise like LeBron James did to the Cleveland Cavaliers, chose the player over the coach.

The Magic saga is simply Exhibit A in how players have taken control over a team’s decisions. It used to be the general manager or owner who had the final say in personnel, but the threat of free agency makes teams cautious of losing their prized player, and therefore losing big money. To prevent losing him, they’ll do anything to please him, even if it’s not the decision they want to make.

There’s a saying in sports that “players play, coaches coach” and that each sticks to their own job. It appears as though Howard is performing double-duty, and he’s surely not the last to do so.

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