The NBA league office more than likely rejected ESPN’s bid to hire former Orlando Magic coach Stan Van Gundy.
ESPN considered hiring Van Gundy for the “NBA Countdown” studio show, but elected to go in a different direction. Earlier this month, The Big Lead reported that NBA Commissioner David Stern “allegedly stepped in and prevented ESPN from hiring Van Gundy, who he has been at odds with for over a year” (The Big Lead, 10/10).
Van Gundy certainly believes this account and has made the media rounds to criticize ESPN’s decision. With characteristic bluster, Van Gundy went on the Dan Le Batard radio show and accused the NBA of telling ESPN “what to do,” using crude language to suggest that ESPN did not have the backbone to stand up to the league.
In addition, Jeff Van Gundy — ESPN’s lead NBA game analyst — also believes the NBA influenced the decision. “There’s certainly circumstantial evidence that something from the outside — presumably the NBA — changed [ESPN's] thinking,” Van Gundy told USA Today. “I was happy when they came to an agreement and shocked when they pulled their offer.”
The Van Gundy brothers are more than likely correct. When contacted by The Big Lead, a network spokesperson did not deny that the NBA has some influence in approving potential hires: “As you would expect, there is a constant two-way communication between media and league partners throughout our industry on various issues.”
Van Gundy would not be the first potential NBA analyst to be rejected by the league. In a 2004 column, humorist Norman Chad wrote that he was approached by Turner Sports in 1996 to contribute to the network’s NBA studio program. “I did a couple of sample pieces in Atlanta. Everything seemed set, but after TNT sent the tapes over to the NBA — which had announcer approval in its contract — Stern’s TV people said, ‘Oh, no.’” (Washington Post, 4/5/04). He repeated the story in a column last year.
Chad ended up contributing to TNT’s NFL studio show.
Certainly, the NBA does not muzzle every potential TV voice. After all, the league somehow allowed ESPN to add Bill Simmons to “NBA Countdown,” and Charles Barkley has worked for TNT for over a decade.
However, it does seem likely that the NBA exerted at least some influence in keeping Van Gundy off-the-air. Considering that Van Gundy has implicitly compared Stern to murderous dictators and has seen fit to complain about myriad perceived slights — he once complained about his team not playing in the featured Christmas game, and then months later complained about playing on Christmas at all — the NBA was well within its rights to avoid the headache that would be his tenure as a television analyst.
As for ESPN, it is no surprise that a major television network is not going to jeopardize a relationship with one of the four major leagues for any reason, much less to hire an unproven former coach for a lightly-regarded studio show. Moreover, if the NBA does have announcer approval in its television contract, as Chad asserted, the network really does not have a choice in the matter.