By Jason Keidel
» More Columns
As long as there have been sports – as long as there have been two sides, two scores, two stories, and reporters all squatting under the umbrella of subjectivity – we have lived along the margins. Scoreboard watching occupies us for a few hours, but there are 24 hours in our day and we need more than whether Nick Swisher should have run from first to third on the ground ball to right field.
Enter three coaches, who are under fire for very different reasons.
NBA star Dwight Howard reportedly demanded that his employer, the Orlando Magic, fire his head coach, Stan Van Gundy. Howard is free to either leave or stay in Orlando, but he should really leave or stay, and not make management requests while he decides. At this rate, Howard will come off as little more than a diva with displaced frustrations.
I feel somewhat sanctimonious in bashing Dwight Howard because my favorite basketball player of all time, Magic Johnson, tried the same thing, and succeeded. The Magic Man made Paul Westhead disappear about 30 years ago. We don’t really remember it because he was, well, Magic Johnson.
To borrow a line from a Woody Allen film, “History is written by the winners,” and Earvin Johnson is nothing if not that. Five rings, a victory over HIV, and a financial empire later, Magic’s attaché now includes ownership of the Los Angeles Dodgers. Westhead become something of a coaching vagabond, staying in the game but not particularly relevant.
Howard, though a dominant player, is no Magic Johnson. And he’s increasingly interested in (or distracted by, depending on your view) things off the court when all his effort should remain on the hardwood. History is indeed penned by the victors, which means Howard should leave Van Gundy alone until he wins an NBA title. But considering the boiling blood between them, that won’t happen together in Disneyworld or any world. One of them must go, and you know Magic GM Otis Smith will pack Van Gundy’s bags if he can bag Howard with a long-term contract.
Another team in Florida just jettisoned their coach, who, unlike Van Gundy, has paved his path to unemployment without any help.
Enter one of Magic’s more notable (if not notorious) rivals: Isiah Thomas. Zeke and Magic once engaged in an odd but harmless ritual before playing each other: kissing the other on the cheek, like two girls. Lost in the exchange was Thomas’s knife, which he often wielded to stab opponents, peers, and even pals in the back. But it seems karma has caught up to Isiah Lord Thomas, who somehow stretched his brilliance on the court and bungling off the court into a lucrative career in management.
At his latest (and hopefully final) coaching stop, Thomas led Florida International University to a 26-65 record over three seasons before his was fired. According to the Miami Herald, Thomas was “stunned” to learn he was dismissed, and was sure he was given more time to turn the college team around. Just as he thought he had more years to rebuild the Knicks, Thomas was never lucid or candid enough to see that it was his mess that had to be cleaned.
In case Knicks fans become overly frustrated with their franchise and look back upon the Thomas years as glorious, there are many recollections that should scare you off the scent. Perhaps we can distill his ineptitude down to two names: Eddy Curry and Anucha Browne Sanders.
Word is that James Dolan still adores the former point guard great, who led the Knicks into a black hole from which it took all of Donnie Walsh’s skill and will to escape. Not even Dolan is dopey enough to revive perhaps the worst combo coach/general manager in the history of team sports.
There’s no shame in trying to coach only to learn that you’re much like your Hall of Fame brethren. Magic Johnson coached his way out of coaching. Bill Russell and Elgin Baylor were disastrous GMs. And does anyone see Michael Jordan possessing the patience to school players with a modicum of his skill?
Finally, we have Arkansas football coach Bobby Petrino, who crashed his motorcycle last week and sustained some ghoulish injuries. It looked like a gripping story about a good coach who barely crawled out with his life.
Until we learn that Petrino went Easy Rider with his gumar in the back seat. Perino left out some important points from the police report when first addressing his athletic director. Only once he realized the report would be made public did Petrino finally try the truth on for size. Even then, he just belched some bromides about “Inappropriate relationships” and “Errors in judgment.”
The woman on Petrino’s motorcycle is a former Arkansas volleyball player whom he just hired to some abstract post called “student athlete development coordinator.” Being the coach of a national power and riding without a helmet is misguided enough. Doing it with your wife at home and your mistress sprawled across the countryside takes it from silly to dumb to dangerous. Adding to the drama is the fact that the former athlete, Jessica Dorrell, is engaged to Josh Morgan, Arkansas’ swimming and diving director, according to cbssports.com. It’s hard to determine Dorrell’s physical injuries, but suffice it to say this will cause quite a fissure at home.
There’s a telling picture of Petrino in Saturday’s New York Times: a white plastic brace wrapped around his neck as though he were an ambulance chaser who didn’t find an ambulance. His stare, fixed on something miles beyond anything in the room, reflected shock, horror, or both. When his right hand raises you can see the cuts, swelling and gnarled knuckles to match the neck brace, bumps, and cuts on his face. As bad as the beleaguered coach looks on the outside, it can hardly reflect what he feels inside. Currently on paid leave from the school, Petrino doesn’t know if he’ll be employed or married in a week.
It’s hard to find some positive press on Petrino, who won’t return to former employers because he incinerated every bridge on the way out. Like many coaches, he’s an egomaniac eager to climb the corporate ladder for the highest bidder. But bolting from the Atlanta Falcons at the worst possible time (a 3-10 record and the epicenter of the Michael Vick dogfighting case) to take the Razorbacks’ job didn’t endear him to anyone. And that’s hardly the only vocational dirt caked under Petrino’s fingernails.
He can coach, however, leading a muddling Razorbacks team to 11 wins last year, in the cauldron of the Southeastern Conference, a veritable farm system for the NFL. Arkansas knows this, and that’s the only reason Petrino isn’t doing a screen test for a football network.
All of these situations are case studies in survival, revisiting that vital stop on the career path where wins and losses intersect with right and wrong. Ironically, we find comfort in sports because in a world where it often seems nothing is clear we long for the clarity and finality of the final score.
But If Arkansas keeps Petrino, and if Orlando dumps Van Gundy, it shows we can’t always find solace in our sports, where the ends too often justify the means. And the kind of men we worship as kids too often turn out just like us as adults.
Maybe something as facile as “rooting for the laundry” says it all. Jerseys don’t bite back or ride bikes back into trees.
Feel free to email me: Keidel.firstname.lastname@example.org