1. There’s hard living that’s fun and hard living that’s exclusively hard. Just the shape of Stan Van Gundy suggests dyspepsia. That body knows room service chicken fingers wolfed down joylessly while the third quarter of some Tuesday night Nets-Hornets tilt drones in the background. It knows decades of that kind of thing.
2. The bodily abuse is in service of the silliest pursuit. Sports, at their highest levels, are pretty absurd all around—bits of exercise blown up into culture-dominating spectacles used to sell beer and life insurance—but its most absurd participants are the rumpled men who holler and gesticulate from the sidelines. Coaches are downright Beckettian, trained to think in flow charts and spending their lives drafting precise, hyper-rational strategies in service of something that doesn’t matter. In a field that doesn’t need to be taken seriously, they are both the most serious and least essential participants. They’re like if someone put themselves through years of medical school for the purpose of submitting a Grey’s Anatomy spec script.
3. Perhaps they know this. An uneasiness with it would explain why they talk up the broader usefulness of their profession. Every big-time college football coach has slapped his Ford dealership owning mug on a book that teaches middle managers how to streamline the accounting department like a winner. Baseball skippers mythologize themselves as guardians of some ancient wisdom they never actually dispense. This thinking filters down even to the obscure ranks. It’s apparently mandatory, if you’re coaching teenagers in any sport, to posit yourself as a mentor who shepherds adolescents into adulthood. Nevermind that no one knows less about the world than your high school gym teacher.
4. There is a way coaches speak in public. It’s a mash-up of a CEO whose company has poisoned an aquifer and a burnt-out parent autopiloting their way through a lecture. They tell a lot of half-truths and bald-faced fibs—coaches go on some adventurous verbal strolls to not say our point guard is awful—and what’s striking about this is how little they’re interested in making themselves not look duplicitous. Being a coach with press obligations means lying often, and not caring that people know you’re a liar. Perhaps it means a Constanzian commitment to believing your own nonsense.
5. Quick. Name five starters from the 2003 world champion Florida Marlins. How about five starters from the Super Bowl champion New England Patriots? Can you name any from perhaps the greatest sports team of all-time, the 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey team? Having trouble? That’s because often the best teams are not made up of the best individuals. Rather, they are a collection of talented and committed players who are willing to do the little things that lead to championships. — an excerpt from How Good Do You Want To Be? by Nick Saban with Brian Curtis.
6. According to Rivals.com, Alabama has nabbed 37 five-star and 149 four-star recruits since Saban joined the Crimson Tide in 2007.
7. Stan is noticeably less full of it than his peers. He once told a gaggle of reporters that Dwight Howard wanted him gone while sipping a Diet Pepsi, like he was talking shop with a friend at a pizza parlor. It’s 12:02 right now. If they wanna fire me at 12:05, I’ll go home and find something to do. I’ll have a good day, he said.
8. Maybe a better way to put it is that Stan is full of something that most other coaches aren’t. He chooses honesty where his contemporaries choose obfuscation. It’s a way of simplifying things, not carrying around unneeded guilt, but it’s also a tool. Bill Belichick understands that if you curtly dodge every question, you minimize the amount of journalistic prying you have to deal with. Stan understands that shooting straight in an arena where everyone else is equivocating and peddling whoppers is a good way to win the moral high ground. If he didn’t save his job in Orlando, he made Dwight, who wouldn’t cop to trying to get him fired, look like a jackass.
9. There’s a canyon between telling the truth and feeling free. Disabusing yourself of a lie or coming clean about some trespass can be a relief, but there are things about you and your work that can’t be fixed through verbalizing them.
10. It’s crazy because I’m working for a great owner. I’m working with a staff of people both coaching and front office who I like and respect, and I’ve got a group of players who I really like and I still don’t enjoy it. I mean, I wish I could. — Stan Van Gundy, on whether he likes coaching
11. I don't like to go home from work, I don't like to sleep, I don't like to eat. I just love it, I love it, I [bleeping] love it. I love shooting. I love it. I love to wake up early and [bleeping] shoot all day, and shoot and shoot and shoot! — Paul Thomas Anderson, on making Magnolia
12. Urban Meyer worked himself into the hospital. Chest pains, headaches, dehydration. So he took a three-month leave of absence, coached an entire season, resigned, then took another job ten months later. Tom Thibodeau dropped some weight, got his voice back, and stopped perpetually looking like he’d recently emerged from a deep-fryer during his sabbatical, which lasted a single year. During the football season, Bill Parcells habitually woke up in the middle of the night choking on his own bile. His coaching career started in 1964 and ended, with only a few brief unemployed spells here and there, in 2006.
13. Norman Mailer wrote in Advertisements for Myself that Gore Vidal lacks the wound, an insult Vidal, who never broke kayfabe, claimed not to comprehend. Mailer, who was nothing if not a quarrelsome arbiter of what writerliness should be, resented Vidal for achieving the mantle of acclaimed author and public intellectual without seeming to be damaged by his own work. Mailer destroyed himself, went into rages and depressions, searching for mot juste. He didn’t want to believe in great writers who weren’t also raw nerves and destructive narcissists.
14. Mailer might not have fully appreciated Jeff Weiss, our sharpest living music critic, noting that writers are addicted to writing like alcoholics. That’s why they become alcoholics. Mailer was one of those denialist drunks. But he would’ve liked the romance of it, the image of the writer who can’t bear himself and slugs bourbon as a means of erasure. Weiss also seems to be getting at something less superficial and more interior, though. Writers are compelled to write nearly all the time, but can’t. Booze is a dimmer switch for the mind. It makes the non-writing hours bearable, staves off the dread and anxiety that arrive when a writer isn’t doing the thing they feel they should be.
15. That old Ernest Hemingway chestnut about writing drunk and editing sober is apocryphal. Hemingway didn’t drink while he wrote, which was always in the early morning. He drank at every other time: while he was fishing and hunting, shopping for food and clothes, taking in sporting events and looking at paintings. He drank at night while he read, or in the dark, when it was quiet and he’d run out of things to do.
16. Coaching is an around-the-clock gig, if you want to make it one. In the space of a single week, an NFL head coach watches and takes extensive notes on his team’s most recent game, a bunch of his upcoming opponents’ games, and video of his players practicing. He meets with his assistants and makes a series of small but consequential decisions: Are we single-covering their best receiver? Does our right tackle need help in pass protection? Can we throw over the middle against these guys? He supervises and finalizes gameplans. He directs his position coaches to work with players whose technique isn’t up to snuff, fields questions from the media, and hectors his training staff about the availability of his banged up running back. Even sleeping just three or four hours a night, there’s not enough time to do all of this perfectly. The conveyer belt of games moves too quickly.
17. In the NBA, coaches are even more harried. 82 games over six months plus a possible postseason run means their lives are a blur of film, tarmacs, shootarounds, and games. When Thibodeau was coaching the Bulls, he lived in a luxury hotel that was a ten-minute drive from the United Center. He would go home after a win or a loss and spend the rest of his night watching tape. He did this to unwind; parsing the Spurs’ offense at two a.m. was what he considered downtime. He didn’t have a wife or kids; he didn’t go out to eat. In the offseason, Thibs was at the practice facility so often that some players kept away from it just to get a break from his intensity.
18. Stan seems happiest when he’s operatically exasperated. There’s a grumpiness about him even when he’s in a good mood, so it follows that raking his fingers across his face and yelping Jee-zus Cuh-rist! at Reggie Jackson would read as an expression of joy. He’s singularly comic when he does this, because he looks like someone squeezed an aggrieved muskrat into a suit, but he yells like Antonio Conte, or Geno Auriemma, or any wannabe junior varsity drill sergeant. He yells because he’s butting up against the limits of his control. Coaches do a lot, but in the end, they don’t have much power. They’re deeply aggravated figures.
19. If there’s something to be said for aggravation, it’s that it lets you know you’re alive. It’s a different thing entirely from anger or depression. It is the feeling of being so in the thrall of desire that it hurts. It’s transportative. It’s also the impetus for every tantrum a four-year-old has ever thrown.
20. George Karl was checked out by the end. He’d beaten cancer, and was coaching a Kings squad that was a knot of animosity and bad habits. He clearly wasn’t spending his post-game hours scouting the next opponents. He didn’t have the energy left to fill all his time with coaching. But he cared enough to take the job. What else was he going to do? Each night, he’d stand on the sideline like someone watching a horror movie they’d seen too many times, wanting to feel scared but instead being bored.
21. Stan is still out of his mind. After a December overtime win last season, he deadpanned that his team spent long spells of the game searching for... a [defensive] scheme that would work with a total lack of effort. A month later, he described them as firmly committed to being mediocre. This is Stan doing Bill Hicks: sort of joking, mostly ranting. He also screams from the bench, in that register that’s like an RC plane having a difficult bowel movement. This is the stuff he lets fly in public. His players call him demanding, which scans as a polite way of saying he can be biblically red-assed behind closed doors.
22. Here’s another thing Stan said during that infamous presser in Orlando: I’m not worried about [getting fired] at all. What I’m worried about is, at seven o’clock tonight, you know, are we going to be able to guard Carmelo Anthony? That concerns the hell out of me.
23. A statement can be both ridiculous and true. Stan has been swimming in the minutiae of his profession for most of his adult life. He was going to come up for air just because his star center had complained about him to management? Coaches don’t do Hamlet-like stock-taking. Not on days they have to figure out how to guard Carmelo Anthony. Some of them don’t reflect on their predicament because they can’t. Their minds have calcified into nothing but out-of-bounds sets and pick-and-roll coverages. Others choose not to because they know better. What does perspective get you when your vocation is both frivolous and constantly under threat? You’re better off sequestered in the refuge of your own obsessions.
24. Coaches—even the best ones, the sharp ones, the ones with self-awareness and success and a sense of humor—sketch a grim model for living: an insular, continual shoveling of debris into a hole within you that fills up for only so long.
25. If there is a thing that makes you feel like yourself, that drowns out an existential tinnitus that creeps in whenever things get quiet, you will chase it down a treacherous path. You’ll lie in service of it, or tell the truth and feel no better. You’ll give yourself over to it. You’ll romanticize its worst elements and the bits of you it frays. You’ll self-medicate; you won’t sleep right; you’ll go on doing it without knowing why. You’ll know that it’s pointless, and that will bother you, but not so much that you’ll stop. You’ll wolf down room service chicken fingers while some Tuesday night Nets-Hornets tilt drones in the background. You’ll shoot all day and a light inside you will go out as you drive home. You’ll write deep into the night, or you’ll drink instead of writing, knowing there will always be more that could be said, and that everything already said could have been said better. There’s no fixing this. You want what you want. You won’t ever totally make peace with it.
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