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Why new Pelicans coach Stan Van Gundy is speaking out

SVG opens up about his social activism and his expectations for Zion Williamson & Co.

NEW ORLEANS – Along with getting the best out of Zion Williamson and the New Orleans Pelicans, Stan Van Gundy has been trying to to use his platform in his new job to help African Americans and others fighting against social injustice and inequality. That includes speaking out against white privilege.

“We’re the ones that are racist,” Van Gundy told The Undefeated recently. “It’s a white person’s problem that affects people of color, and so we’re the ones who have to change. … Certainly you want to promote Black voices, right? But if they’re the only ones speaking out, a lot of people just push it aside. There needs to be people saying, ‘No, wait a minute. This is wrong, and we need to correct these things.’ …

“I’m a poster boy for white privilege. I’ve led a privileged life, so I only know about these issues, and these problems, and these inequities from people I’ve been associated with, work with, know, care about. I don’t carry the issue. But just because something doesn’t happen to you, if it’s happening to people you know, if it’s happening to people you care about, you care about the issue.”

Hired to be the Pelicans’ coach on Oct. 21, Van Gundy was known for being outspoken while coaching the Detroit Pistons from 2014 to 2018. In the aftermath of the killing of George Floyd while in police custody in Minneapolis on May 25, Van Gundy was asked to be part of the “NBA Coaches For Racial Justice” committee despite the fact that he wasn’t coaching in the NBA at the time.

Philadelphia 76ers head coach Doc Rivers described Van Gundy as “phenomenal” on conference calls with the group over the summer.

“He was pushing coaches daily on what they should be doing,” Rivers told The Undefeated. “He was printing and sending us information daily about any social justice stuff. Any great speech. A great article about why we need social change. Why this is important. He talked a lot about this being an American problem and it doesn’t matter what color you are. Wrong is wrong and right is right. …

“His passion was real, it was consistent, and it was awesome.”

Van Gundy has also been vocal on Twitter (since joining in July) about being an ally for African Americans in the fight for equality, his support of the LGBTQ community, and his disdain for the actions of outgoing President Donald Trump.

Pelicans executive vice president of basketball operations David Griffin thinks the woke side of Van Gundy is a good fit for his players, who are predominantly Black.

“In an era like we’re living in, being someone who has a positive track record in the area of social justice was important, because it matters to players,” Griffin told The Undefeated. “His reputation in that space really spoke for itself. And I think when you look at everything that he has done, his action, not what he says, but the things he invests his time, energy and money in, I’m really proud that he is our coach. I think players respect him as a man for those things, and that matters enormously.”

The following is a Q&A with Van Gundy, who opens up about white privilege, coaching Williamson, the Pelicans’ playoff hopes, and more.

When did you get comfortable speaking out publicly about politics and social justice issues?

When I really got more overtly political was literally immediately after I got fired [from the Orlando Magic] in 2012. My wife and I had been big supporters of the public school in the county we lived in in Florida Seminole County, and after we got fired they were putting on the ballot a property tax increase for the schools. … It’s a Republican county. It had been a very anti-tax county, and they were going to try to pass this millage increase for the schools, so one of the school board members invited me, ‘Oh, come to the meeting. We’re setting up a committee to help.’ I’m like, ‘Yeah, sure.’ And it was evident five minutes into the meeting that I wasn’t just going to a meeting, I was going to be asked to be the face of this whole thing. So, I ended up being the guy traveling around, and speaking out on this, and it got me involved in the whole political realm of doing things, and we got the thing passed. …

My wife and I started doing more in the way of contributing to candidates, and things like that, and it just continued to grow from there. And then I picked the next big step for me, was the Colin Kaepernick [protest]. When he took a knee, and racial justice became forefront, and you’re in a business where 75, 80% of the people that you’re working with, players, staff, everybody is Black, and you’re hearing their stories, and the pain and things like that.

Can you talk about the conversations about white privilege you have had with other white people?

You alienate a lot of people when you talk about white privilege because a lot of people out there who, I get it, they don’t feel privileged. They don’t have money. They’re working their a– off just to get by, and they’re like, ‘What the hell are you talking about? There’s no such thing as white … I’m not privileged.’ You may not have an easy life, but you’re not oppressed simply because of the color of your skin. That’s the difference. I’m not going to get pulled over driving around at night, I’m not, just because of the color of my skin. I’m not going to get a DWB [Driving While Black], I’m not. That’s white privilege.

I’ve had people say to me, ‘When my dad built his business, he started from nothing.’ And I said, ‘Yeah, but there were no laws, or societal norms working against him. He got a chance to pull himself up by the bootstrap, so to speak. Other people didn’t. They’re going to segregated schools.’ That’s the part that people miss. We’re not saying that there’s not a lot of people out there who’ve had to work their a– off to get where they are, and so when you tell them it’s white privilege, I get it. They’re going, ‘Whoa. Wait a minute. I worked my butt off for everything I had.’ Of course you did, nobody is taking that away from you. What we’re saying is some people aren’t even allowed that opportunity to work their a– off to get to where they are, and if they are, it’s only come about really recently. And that’s why we have the wealth gap that we have because income is income, and wealth is generational, and white people are several generations ahead of Black people in building family wealth, and passing down real estate, and passing down money.

Stan Van Gundy hands out water to guests before a Women for Biden event at his home in Lake Mary, Florida, on Oct. 16.

Stephen M. Dowell/Orlando Sentinel/Tribune News Service via Getty Images

Is there anything you have been outspoken about that you regretted?

The one thing probably of all the political stuff I’ve done that I regret was the day after the 2016 election. I went off on a rant. We were in Phoenix, and after a walk-through, I went on a rant about the election in 2016, and I disparaged voters for their vote, and assuming that I knew their motivations, and everything else. That part I regretted. That’s the only part I regret. I didn’t regret 90% of what I said.

What do you think about how Gregg Popovich and Steve Kerr use their platforms?

Steve and Pop do it really, really well because I think that they go after the leaders, and things like that. They don’t, at least explicitly, go after the people who maybe voted for those people. They try not to, in my opinion anyway, when I read their stuff, they try not to alienate the people out there while still feeling free to attack what they think is wrong. Both of them had been a lot better in that space at that than I have, so I’m trying to learn from them, and find my way there because … at the end of the day, I think we’re all trying to make a difference for people.

Why did you want to be the head coach of the Pelicans?

The first thing is getting back into coaching. Everybody said, ‘Well, you obviously have a passion for coaching.’ I don’t know if it’s a passion or an addiction. You just keep coming back like you’re mainlining this stuff, but specifically this job for four reasons.

Obviously the young talent on the roster was really exciting to think about working with, and some good veterans too. … David Griffin, [Pelicans general manager] Trajan Langdon … have a good track record of building good teams, good organizations, so that was important.

I like the ownership. The ownership has proven they know how to achieve sustained success in professional sports, and I know the sport is different, but the Saints have been one of the most successful teams in the NFL for a long, long time under the ownership of the Bensons. I saw that as a real positive. Plus, to be quite honest, and I don’t know exactly where Mrs. [Gayle] Benson stands politically, but she’s on the board of that NBA Foundation with Tobias Harris and Harrison Barnes. They’re looking to take that money from the owners, and find ways to use it to economically empower Black communities. The fact that she’s on that board actually meant a lot to me in making that decision.

And then the fourth thing was the city of New Orleans. We weren’t going to live just anywhere, and every NBA city wouldn’t have been one that appealed to us, but this one really did. It’s a very unique city.

What attracted you to the city of New Orleans?

We’ve always liked it. We’ve both been here several times, and so we’re excited about living here, but the political part of it did excite us because we’ve lived in a fairly conservative area in Florida. …

And just the diversity of the entire city. Political diversity, racial diversity, LGBTQ diversity. It’s different than anywhere we’ve ever lived, quite honestly. …

So we’re excited about it, we’re excited about being part of the city, we’re excited about connecting.

Zion Williamson (left) of the New Orleans Pelicans talks with head coach Stan van Gundy (right) of the New Orleans Pelicans during the game against the Milwaukee Buscs at the Smoothie King Center on Dec. 18 in New Orleans.

Chris Graythen/Getty Images

What have you seen from Zion Williamson so far?

Two things that I’ve really noticed about him early on are his competitiveness. This guy when he’s out practicing or playing, he’s dead serious all the time. He’s working, and he’s competing. There’s no frivolity with him, he’s going at it. And then the second thing is his intelligence. Really, really smart, and I sort of knew that going in because after I took the job. … I talked to Coach K and it must have been four, or five times in the conversation that he would be talking about other things with Zion, and he would just keep coming back to, ‘And he’s really, really smart.’ So I sort of expected it going in, but that’s really played out.

The only problems actually coaching him is, No. 1, he’s a unique player. So a lot of times as coaches, or at least me, I’m not necessarily the most innovative guy, or somebody who is going to come up with some great idea. I’ll look at a roster and say, ‘All right, let’s look at what other teams have done with similar players.’ There aren’t many guys similar to Zion to look at, and say, ‘OK, how do you play Zion with another big, who is not a straight shooter? Let’s look at …’ Who plays like that? So that’s hard with him.

The second thing that is really a challenge is to remember that he’s 20 years old. He’s so forceful, he’s so good, and when he does make mistakes, or have a couple turnovers in a row in practice, to remember this dude’s 20, and he’s got 24 NBA games under his belt. He’s so good most of the time that you start looking at him like this veteran guy. And it is a challenge to say, ‘OK, just remember the guy is 20, and some of these things are going to take some time.’

What is the key to the Pelicans getting to the postseason?

It’s really, really competitive in the West. You look up and you say, ‘Hey, we have really good talent.’ And then you look around and go, ‘And so do they.’ There is talent all over.

The most obvious one is health. Whoever stays healthy compared to other people obviously always has an advantage, but beyond that, for us, we’ve got to defend it better. A lot better than we did, and we just got to be a lot more solid, and not beat ourselves. And I think with young teams that’s always the challenge in their development. … To make fewer mistakes, defensively make fewer mistakes, foul less, break down less, offensively pass the ball better, take care of the ball better. Those kinds of things sound simple, but those are the things that will make or break us in terms of how well we can do winning and losing games, because there’s no doubt we have talent.

Marc J. Spears is the senior NBA writer for Andscape. He used to be able to dunk on you, but he hasn’t been able to in years and his knees still hurt.