Mike Bianchi: Kim Van Gundy’s death helped Dwight Howard once again feel the Magic of love

Tribune Content Agency

ORLANDO, Fla. — How fitting is it that it took Kim Van Gundy to help Dwight Howard feel the love in Orlando again?

Kim, after all, was all about making everybody feel loved — whether it was her husband Stan, her four children, her many pets she rescued from animal shelters, her hundreds of friends or the countless people she helped through her lifetime of contributing time and money to charitable causes.

Kim died unexpectedly a couple of weeks ago at the age of 61, and her memorial service was held a few days ago at the family home in Seminole County. Actually, it wasn’t a memorial service at all; it was a celebration of her amazing life of kindness and compassion.

Hundreds of friends and family showed up to honor her. NBA coaches such as Billy Donovan, Steve Clifford and Tom Thibodeau were there; Hall of Famers (Patrick Ewing) and future Hall of Famers (Vince Carter) were there, as were some of Stan’s former Magic players such as Jameer Nelson, Rashard Lewis, Mickael Pietrus, Marcin Gortat, Quentin Richardson …

And, yes, Dwight.

When Dwight showed up at Kim’s service, you could see Stan’s face light up and just how much it meant to him to see his former star player.

After all, everybody knows the complex relationship between Dwight and Stan and the ugly way their Magic era ended — with Stan apparently being fired at Dwight’s request and then a disgruntled Dwight forcing a trade and ending up with the Lakers. That was 11 years ago, and Dwight has been painted as a villain in Orlando ever since.

Stan, now an NBA television analyst, has gone on to become one of Dwight’s biggest backers. Dwight would go on to become a basketball vagabond, making eight different NBA stops since leaving the Magic and most recently playing for a pro team in Taiwan. He never regained the dominance — or the adoration — he had in Orlando.

It turns out late Magic owner Rich DeVos was right when he tried to warn Dwight about the perils and pitfalls of leaving a team and a town where your legacy was built.

“Dwight is in a good place, and when you’re young, sometimes you don’t realize that,” DeVos said then. “The loyalty you develop in a community is always remembered. But if you leave, you don’t pick it up in the next town. It’s not an add-on because you lose what you had. Maybe you gain some new [love], but maybe you don’t. Maybe the net gain isn’t as good as you think.”

Dwight seemed to come to that same realization when he returned for Kim’s service last week and heard all of the stories about Kim’s benevolence and the passionate charity and community work she did for abandoned animals, criminal justice reform, public education, prison education and humanity as a whole.

Kim didn’t care who you were; she treated you with kindness whether you were the owner of an NBA team or the usher at an NBA arena. In fact, when Stan was coaching in Orlando, she knew all of the ushers at Amway Center by name and sent them all Christmas cards with a big bonus check inside.

Stan told the story at her service of a man named Earl, an inmate at Tomoka Correctional Institution in Daytona Beach, where the Van Gundys volunteered in the prisoner-education program. After her death, Earl sent Stan a note that said, “I don’t think Kim ever even noticed my prison blues [uniform]. She just knew me as her friend Earl.”

Stories like that seemed to have a profound impact on everybody in attendance. After Kim’s service, Dwight went on Instagram and posted a long, heartfelt message to Kim, Stan, his former Magic teammates, the Magic organization and the City of Orlando.

“Stan, I will always be there for you,” Dwight wrote. “We’ve been through it all, and these are the times that we need each other the most. My deepest condolences, thoughts, and prayers go out to you from the bottom of my heart. I want you to know that myself and everyone from our Orlando team loves you and has your back through this time! We shared some of the best years of our lives & made it to the top together. Coming back together, seeing all the family, teammates, friends, coaches, trainers just brought back so many memories.

“We was the s— together! And damn looking back on everything, I never knew what it really meant when the Magic ownership told me they built an arena for me. What that stood for, what they saw in me, what you saw in me; that I wasn’t quite seeing in myself. You all saw me as a legend before I made any strides to become legendary, and I am forever grateful for that.

“At that particular time all I could see was my own ego, but that is why life experiences are the greatest teachers. … I really missed this beautiful city and y’all. Even though coming to Orlando at a time like this brought so much pain. Having us come back together just made me appreciate all the amazing moments that make this my home, despite the miscommunication or trials we’ve been through.

“I am so grateful for my lessons and what they have taught me. I value those lessons, I value Orlando, and I value the moments we had good and bad. Wins and losses, the s— was still the absolute best! Blue and white will always ignite. We are all here for you Stan. We are what a team looks like! Mrs. Kim you will forever be missed, but rest easy knowing we got him from here on out.”

Dwight went on to say he would like to retire as a member of the Orlando Magic, and I think that is one of the best ideas I’ve heard in quite some time.

Dwight should retire as a Magic player because that’s always how he is going to be remembered.

In fact, I hope Dwight and Stan — the Magic’s greatest all-time player and greatest all-time coach — will someday soon be welcomed back into the Orlando Magic family.

It’s time to let go of the bitterness and bad blood.

As Kim’s death has shown us, life’s too short.