ORLANDO, Fla. – Stan Van Gundy took a few extra trips this summer.
They weren't vacations to exotic destinations with five-star accommodations. The Orlando Magic coach just wanted to improve communication with players, so he traveled to some of their hometowns — and in typical Van Gundy fashion.
On one occasion this summer, Van Gundy flew to Atlanta to have lunch with Dwight Howard. No car service after landing for Van Gundy; he took the MARTA, Atlanta's metrorail.
"I don't think I've rode the train since I was in middle school," Howard said. "For him to get on the train is like crazy. He said people were bothering him and asking questions about the Magic. It's crazy. But he really wants to be a part of us."
It's all tied into Van Gundy's biggest goal this season: Improving communication with players.
Maybe it's hard to believe considering he's an eccentric, never-afraid-to-say-anything coach, the kind who traded verbal jabs this summer with Miami Heat president and former boss Pat Riley. But Van Gundy recognized sometimes his in-your-face style bothers players.
The best way he knew to connect was to show players that the messenger cared not just about their games, but the players and their families.
So Van Gundy also flew to Paris to spend time with small forward Mickael Pietrus, and not to see the Eiffel Tower or cruise down the River Seine. No, Van Gundy took an overnight flight to France, spent about half the day on the ground with Pietrus and then flew back home across the Atlantic the next morning.
"That's dedication," Pietrus said.
Oh, the coach wasn't done.
During some offseason condition workouts, Van Gundy decided to lace em' up and run sprints with other players who were in Orlando. The exercise drew mostly laughs — "more like sprits," Howard jokes — but it was appreciated by players.
"You should have seen me run," Van Gundy said. "I don't think you call those sprints. I don't know what it was, but that was far from sprints. That was a 51-year-old, overweight sprint."
Van Gundy will also be sporting some new looks this season — one by choice, another by mandate.
Both of his creation.
Slightly slimmer and more physically fit, Van Gundy is exercising on the elliptical machine and lifting weights. He's also trying to eat better, he said, and is scheduled to have another checkup in two weeks to find out exactly how much weight he's lost.
"It would be almost physically impossible for it to go up," he said, chuckling.
And those trademark turtleneck shirts complete with the same few sport coats on the sideline are gone. New NBA rules require coaches to wear collared shirts during games.
In an appreciative gesture, Magic CEO Bob Vander Weide — after extending Van Gundy's contract through 2013 — even had tailors fit the coach and some front-office members with suits. So, yes, a fully suited Van Gundy is coming to NBA sidelines.
Maybe even sometimes with a tie.
"I want them to at least name the rule after me," Van Gundy said. "Somebody has their Bird rights. Larry Bird got that rule named after him. I want it to be the Van Gundy Rule."
Consider it the next step in Van Gundy's coaching makeover.
It was early last season, after all, when some players asked him to tone down the negative comments. Van Gundy complied — at least for a little — and has since stressed the importance of communication.
No matter how he's done it, Van Gundy's way wins.
In three years in Orlando, he has led the Magic to the Southeast Division title each season. They made the NBA finals in 2009 and were bounced by Boston in the Eastern Conference finals last season.
Only now, players say, Van Gundy has become more receptive to change and communication has never been better.
"He's reaching out to us a lot more on text messages, just phone calls and asking about our personal life and getting to know us better. I guess he's starting to open up a little bit," Magic point guard Jameer Nelson said.
"People just have this misconception of him because he's really animated on the sideline. Me, personally, I don't take that as a knock. But sometimes people who don't understand him might."