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Basketball Notes

With Magic, he reappears

Van Gundy is ready to run the show again

The tug is always there. Sometimes it ebbs and flows, but, let's face it, when you're a coach, you're a coach. That's who you are. That's what you do.

So it was for Stan Van Gundy. Replaced in Miami by Pat Riley early in the the 2005-06 season - and, yes, we'll have to wait for the books to let us know what really went on - and confined to an office through last season, he is back once again, doing what he knows best. His newest project: the Orlando Magic.

"There's always going to be the real worry - how are you going to win the next game? - but I'm enjoying it," he said. "It's a good group of guys. The organization has been great."

He has a perennial All-Star center-in-the-making in Dwight Howard. He has an undersized but effective point guard in Jameer Nelson. He has the summer's most expensive acquisition in Rashard Lewis. No one is going to pick the Magic to come out of the East (or probably even their division) but it's an NBA head coaching job, and that is where Van Gundy wants to be.

It wasn't always thus. In fact, after Riley's putsch removed him after 21 mostly Shaqless games into the 2005-06 season, Van Gundy did something his brother, Jeff, did when he, too, was out of basketball. He enjoyed family time. He watched his kids' games. He went to spring training. But you knew, and he knew, that it was only a matter of time before the bell rang again.

Sacramento thought it had him. Then Orlando, fresh off the Billy Donovan debacle, entered the scene at the 11th hour and Van Gundy, perhaps the biggest free agent coach out there, was able to stay in Florida. It took his wife less than 72 hours to find a home in the Orlando area, and he is set and settled. Well, as set and settled as a coach can be.

"It took me a long time to want to come back," he said. "The time off was great for me. I didn't feel any itch to get back for 16 or 17 months. I just don't think you realize how busy you are until you get out of it. But then, and I don't know why, I started thinking I wanted to get back on the floor. Now, I know why I wanted to."

He's already dealt with his first setback - the loss of old friend Tony Battie for the season because of shoulder surgery. He really doesn't have another power forward, so there's some experimenting going on. A pleasant surprise? Adonal Foyle, signed after the Warriors bought him out. Foyle actually does have an offensive game.

But the mainstays are Howard, Lewis, and Nelson. Howard, fresh off a summer with the US national team, is starting his fourth year with Orlando. He still is a work-in-progress, albeit one with a huge, huge upside.

"I'm trying to make him progress from being a great talent to being a great player and understanding all that goes into that," Van Gundy said. "There are a lot of areas he can improve on; he has a ways to go. We have to stay patient and he has to stay patient. He's still only 22.

"At this point in his life, Tim Duncan was going into his senior year at Wake Forest. Shaq was coming into the league. People forget how young he is because he started playing right away.

"I have no history with him, but people in the organization tell me he's shown a maturity and seriousness and focus. And I'm impressed by that. If he continues to show that and does the things he needs to do, he has a chance to be special because his strength and athleticism are off the charts. But he's not there yet."

Lewis is the other big money-maker on the team. For some unexplained reason, Orlando outbid itself and overpaid for the former Sonic, signing him for around $118 million. He was hurt in each of the first two exhibition games, but neither malady (cramps, ankle sprain) is believed to be serious. (Still, if you're a Magic fan and you see the words "high-priced free agent" and "ankle" in the same sentence, you start to get the shakes.) He is expected to play when the team goes to China this week for exhibitions against the Cleveland Cavaliers.

Van Gundy said he sensed that Lewis at first tried to just act like he was one of the guys, hoping to fit in. Then, at a team meeting, Van Gundy said, "Forget about that fitting in stuff. We all know why you're here and it isn't to move the ball around. They wanted a scorer."

He said Lewis looked a little nervous in the exhibitions.

"He's fighting things a little bit, but he'll get over it," Van Gundy said.

With brother Jeff now out of the league (but commenting on ESPN), the Van Gundy family streak continues. One or the other has been on the bench in the league since 1989, when Jeff started as an assistant in New York. Stan came to Miami in 1995 with such items on his résumé as the head coaching jobs at UMass-Lowell and Castleton State.

He's been doing it since 1981. That's what he does. That's why he's back where he is.

Cleveland: City of hope

So, how many times have you seen the following phrase (or something close to it) used?

"Well, if the Cavs can get to the Finals, so can we."

Or, "If the Cavs can get to the Finals, how good can they be?"

Unbeknownst to coach Mike Brown and many of his players, the Cavaliers were more than the Eastern Conference representative in the Finals last June. They were a sign that just about anyone could do it.

I mean, a 24-win Celtic team beat the Cavs once last year, had a 25-point lead in another game (before collapsing), and lost a third. All three games were close. And so it went down the line in the East. Everyone saw a team with one star and no one else. Few saw a team that played terrific defense and rebounded and had unselfish role players.

"I didn't look at it as an unlikely trip last year," said Brown. "I felt like we belonged. I know others might disagree. We felt at the beginning of last year we were good enough to compete for a championship, but we didn't talk about it until the appropriate time.

"This year, it's no different. We're definitely a playoff team, and we should be a team that can compete for our long-term goal, which is to win a championship."

The Cavs must get their personnel house in order before too long and even if/when they do, you'll still see David Stern playing Texas Hold 'Em at the Palms before you'll see anyone predicting a Cleveland reprise of 2007.

"The teams under you, they always want to take you down and say, 'We're better, we could have done this, done that.' We're fine with that," said Cleveland guard Larry Hughes. "We understand what we have."

Concluded Brown, "I'm glad we can give some people hope. That feels good."

The fat is in the fire in Miami again

We couldn't let this one slide.

Antoine Walker is again in Pat Riley's doghouse for being unable to meet the Miami coach's rigid body-fat guidelines. You may recall Walker was put on the inactive list last season (along with current Celtic James Posey) for four games for not being in what Doc Rivers called "Miami Heat shape." Well, Riley took off on old Employee No. 8 this past week.

"It's beyond irritating," Riley said. "I'm beyond being irritated. I was irritated the first year when I signed him. I was really irritated last year. I'm beyond irritated. I don't have time to be irritated." (In case you didn't count, he used the word "irritated" five times. And "irritating" once.)

Walker's conditioning - or lack thereof - has been an issue ever since he came into the league. Rick Pitino thought Walker should look like Karl Malone. Didn't happen. Riley told reporters that Walker checked in at 262 pounds and 15 percent body fat. In the Miami media guide, Walker is listed at 245 pounds, and Riley said Walker needs to lose 5 percent of his body fat.

"Antoine is a long ways away from making his conditioning goal," Riley said. "He'll probably make it by January, if he makes it. Probably. It'd probably take that long, because you can't lose 5 percent in a month, two weeks.

"It's a whole different thing between Antoine and myself. That's who he is; that's what his belief is. He works out all summer. He works out every day, I guess, and plays hoops at night and has a trainer. The trainer should call me on the phone and say, 'What are your expectations? What are your expectations of a guy that's paying me, training him to get me ready for training camp?' And he never did."

Walker says he's bothered by a sore Achilles' tendon.

Doing the honors

The Spurs have retired the numbers of Johnny Moore (00), James Silas (13), Sean Elliott (32), George Gervin (44), and David Robinson (50). There will soon be a sixth, as San Antonio has decided to retire the No. 6 worn by Avery Johnson, now coach of the Mavericks. Both sides decided that it wasn't a good idea to retire the number when the Mavericks came to town, so the deed will be done on Dec. 22, when the Spurs host the Clippers and the Mavericks are idle. Johnson was a key player on the first Spurs title team (1999) and still is the team's all-time leader in assists. Not bad for someone the Spurs let go three times during the 1990s, only to bring him back each time.

A rather severe traveling call

It's one thing to start the preseason in a foreign land, as was the case with the Celtics. But the Cavaliers and Magic are taking a big break in the middle of their preseason to play exhibition games in China. While the league allowed plenty of time before and after for the teams to recover, it still seems like a major distraction. "Would we prefer not to do it? I'm a coach," Cavs mentor Mike Brown said. "I would prefer to stay in this lovely [training] facility and sleep in our own beds. But we have to figure out a way, just like Orlando, to get it done." The teams play twice this week, Wednesday in Shanghai and Saturday in Macao. Said Orlando coach Stan Van Gundy, "Everyone in the league benefits from these kinds of things, so when it's your turn, you step up and do it. I'm just trying to figure out how I'm going to stay awake from Anchorage to Shanghai."

Big surprise in Charlotte

So who is Ryan Hollins and why might he end up being the starting center for the Bobcats? Well, the injury/illness bug has again hit Charlotte hard. Sean May (microfracture surgery) is likely out for the season, meaning that he has played 58 games over his first three seasons (of a possible 246). Incumbent Primoz Brezec, who missed a slew of games early last season because of exhaustion, has a family situation and is not in camp. Othella Harrington is hurt and new coach Sam Vincent wants to play Emeka Okafor at power forward. Enter Hollins, a lanky, athletic 7-footer from UCLA who appeared in 27 games last season, but played very little. (He also spent time in the D-League.) He might win the thing by default; he played 37 minutes in the team's exhibition opener. Another option is to move Okafor to center and have Wild and Crazy Walter Herrmann man the power forward spot. Left unsaid: why Charlotte didn't sign a big man over the summer.

Let's try that again

Is this the year that Marvin Williams will finally make the hoop fans in Atlanta stop ruing the day the Hawks passed on both Chris Paul and Deron Williams in the 2005 draft? He sure hopes so. At this time last year, Williams was poised to have a big season (he was a Summer League MVP, for what that's worth) but then he broke a bone in his left hand, missed the first 17 games, and never really recovered. Meanwhile, Paul was a dazzling Rookie of the Year and Deron Williams blossomed to the point where USA Basketball took him on. And the Hawks are still thin at point guard. "Chris and Deron have had great careers so far," Marvin Williams said. "They've worked hard and deserve everything they've gotten. All I can do is worry about myself and continue to get better. You can't gauge yourself on what someone else is doing. That's when people start to have problems."

He's no lone Wolf

One of the happiest men in Minnesota is none other than gifted rookie Corey Brewer - and it isn't because he has Randy Foye and Al Jefferson as teammates. Brewer is being mentored by new Wolves acquisition Greg Buckner and actually followed Buckner's NBA career (no easy task; he's bounced around) because the two grew up about 90 minutes apart. (Buckner is from Kentucky, Brewer from Tennessee.) The two also have similar Southern drawls and were seen dining together in London (at Applebee's). Buckner, who came to Minnesota in a deal for Trenton Hassell, has taken Brewer under his wing and the rook is like a sponge. "I'm going to do whatever he tells me to do," Brewer said.

Peter May can be reached at p_may@globe.com; material from personal interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.

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