Sometimes, it’s the stories we don’t see that matter. The people and circumstances behind dynasties and superstars: supportive parents, speed and athleticism genes, the right friends, a scholarship to an elite school – the right people and the right opportunities all the time. And then there’s hard work – relentless, nose-to-the-grindstone work that tests your resilience and fortitude. It’s not glamorous, but that’s how winners are born. At the end of it all, there’s the prospect of stardom in the NBA – it takes a few years, but those who have it all eventually get there.
And then there are the majority, those who try desperately hard, but due to some combination of bad luck and lack of skill, fail. But sometimes, it’s the stories you don’t see that matter. At the end of Game 7 between Miami and Boston, it became clear that there was somebody to whom the 2012 NBA World Championship would mean just as much as it would to LeBron James. By the sidelines, in his blue-black Armani suit, the man who wanted nothing more than to be on that ECF Finals court broke out into a wide, unrestrained smile. The Miami Heat were going to the NBA finals once again.
All Erik Spoelstra ever wanted to do was play basketball. His father, Jon Spoelstra, a marketing executive in the NBA, encouraged him to do just that. But Spoelstra was just never quite good enough. After a solid-but-not-quite-athletic-enough high school career and a solid-but-not-quite-athletic-enough career at the University of Portland, Spoelstra found himself with a degree in communications and no chance at a pro future in the game he loved so much. Opting for a stint in Germany as a player/assistant coach, Spoelstra came back to America and decided that he was going to coach basketball somewhere, anywhere. After being rejected by every college team he applied to, he finally turned to his father in desperation. Jon Spoelstra then asked the then Director of Player Personnel for the Miami Heat, Chris Wallace, if they needed a 25 year old failed basketball professional whose passion for the game was only outweighed by his inability to succeed playing it. As luck would have it, the Heat were thin on support staff and needed help for the NBA draft. They took on Erik Spoelstra as a temp. After the draft, he stayed on as a video coordinator for a Heat team that till then did not have a video department.
This was in 1995. With a university degree, Spoelstra could have so easily chosen to enter communications. He knew nothing about coordinating video. Video coordinators simply didn’t become head coaches. But Spoelstra was just so happy to be around basketball that he went on ahead and took the job. “I just figured I wanted them coming to me with as many different things as possible to lean on, whether it was basketball-related or not. I wanted to be the guy who they’d pick up the phone and say, ‘He’ll get it done.’” Spoelstra tells ESPN’s Kevin Arnovitz.
14 years later, after a storybook rise up the ranks of the Heat organization, Spoelstra found himself in the spotlight as a weary Pat Riley explained to the media that Erik was the future of the organization. The Heat had just come off a 15-67 season, the worst season in the franchise’s history. Spoelstra, or Coach Spo as he’s now called, was succeeding one of the biggest names and biggest egos in NBA coaching history, Pat Riley, who had just two years before delivered a title to Miami. By then (2008), the Miami Heat were on standby mode – clearing out contracts and cap space for the free agency bonanza of 2010 – which effectively meant there would not be any significant roster changes for the first two years of Spoelstra’s tenure. And this was a team that had just finished with the league’s worst record. Spoelstra was tasked with the unenviable job of explaining to Wade why the Heat were choosing to spend the superstar’s prime years chest deep in mediocrity. He also had to ensure that Wade would remain content as a Heat, even though the team had absolutely no chance of making it through the first round of the playoffs. For some perspective, when Kobe Bryant was faced with this scenario, he demanded a trade publicly in 2007.
He also had to construct a team with Wade returning from multiple injuries, a way-past-his-prime Shawn Marion who suddenly looked ordinary without Steve Nash by his side, a #2 pick with serious attitude and commitment problems in Michael Beasley and a bunch of expiring contracts and 15th men – Charles Barkley famously called them “a bunch of Tito Jacksons”. But it didn’t matter. Spoelstra had been faced with defeat all his life. The 2008-09 Heat won 43 games, made the playoffs and were 9th in the league in Defensive Efficiency. The 2009-10, Heat won 47 games, made the playoffs and were 6th in the league in Defensive Efficiency. And this was with guys like Mark Blount, Marcus Banks and Yakhoubha Diawara (who actually started games for the Heat) on the roster. Unlike now, the Heat didn’t have exceptional defenders then. Wade was mercurial on defense, often gambling too much for the steal and lazy on rotations, Jermaine O’Neal was a competent shot-blocker and that was it. Coach Spo actually had them leading the league in Opponent FG % at one point in the season.
Finally, it was July 2010 – Free Agency. Spoelstra had kept Wade happy. Spoelstra had managed to squeeze 47 wins out of a team where the second and third best players were Jermaine O’Neal and Michael Beasley respectively. Spoelstra had his team in the top 10 in every conceivable defensive metric. Spoelstra was the youngest coach in the NBA. Spoelstra was the first Filipino coach in the NBA. Yet nobody really knew the Spoelstra story; the ESPN features, in-depth interviews only came after 2010.
The Miami Heats became the most vilified team in the NBA overnight. Every loss brought into question the coach’s credentials, the criticism reaching a crescendo after the Heat’s loss at Dallas which put them at 9-8. Every news outlet reported that Spoelstra’s dismissal was imminent. Spoelstra walked into a press conference and won over every journalist there. The Heats went on a 12 game winning streak. Everybody praised the Big Three. Spoelstra quietly smiled by the sidelines, his mind a clutter of X’s and O’s.
Every loss for Spoelstra meant that the shadow of Hall of Famer Pat Riley grew longer over his shoulder. But Spoelstra, for all people might say, is his own man and his own coach. Riley prefers to get into people’s faces, Spoelstra prefers to remain calm and equanimous. Riley is an old school communicator, Spoelstra handed his team iPhones with the Heat playbook prior to training camp in his first season. Riley was a leader, players like Magic just followed. Spoelstra’s a friend. Spoelstra’s a product of the Heat culture, but what drives him is very different.
Despite everything, the Miami Heat made it to the 2011 NBA Finals. Spoelstra was on the cusp of doing it all – icing a remarkable turnaround from coffee-boy to NBA head coach with the Larry O’Brien trophy – and proving all his critics wrong. He failed. The Heat failed. Mavs owner Mark Cuban exclaimed gleefully after the series that Spoelstra’s lack of adjustments had cost the Heats the series. Basketball pundits were in consensus that Spoelstra had been thoroughly outcoached by Rick Carlisle. There was no question as to the apparent truth of that. It could have broken any coach’s spirit. All the pressure, all the tension, all the spotlight on the Miami Heat – only to fall agonizingly short. Not Erik Spoelstra, Heat lifer.
How many head coaches win a ring? In the last 25 years, of hundreds of head coaches in the NBA, only eight have been NBA champions. India has had the same number of Prime Ministers in that period. That’s how tough it is. How must it have felt for Spoelstra, making it so close to his dream, after 17 years, to fall so painfully short? We’ll never know because he handled the press conference after the Game 6 loss with as much class as you’d expect from him by now.
He’s back there again, on the floor of his dreams. And he’s got there as a better coach. He’s got there having outcoached his opponents in the first two rounds of the playoffs. He’s got there being outcoached in the third and then adjusting to the stratagems of a future HOF coach to prevail. He’s got there, as many analysts feel, with his job on the line after every loss. Imagine the pressure. Imagine the insecurity. Imagine the will to succeed. It’s taken him 42 years and countless disappointments to get here. He would have rather been here as a player. But he failed and found a way to get here regardless. He’s the guy nobody ever sees except when the Heat are losing. The guy who works on video, on X’s and O’s, advance scouting, preparing for the next hurdle all the time. He’s been just about everything for the Heat – coffee guy, video coordinator, advance scout, assistant coach, head coach – “He’s like Batman. He goes into his cave. Nobody sees him”, says Dwyane Wade.
On the sidelines of the NBA Finals, you’ll see an intense, dapper man in a dark suit. He’ll be away from the spotlight, away from millions of eyes following the clash of Good vs. Evil. He’ll be the guy with an intense look in his eyes and a tense body. He’ll be the guy you don’t see most of the time – the joy, the pain, the anxiety, the fear. He may be fighting for his job with the only organization he’s known all his life.
Sometimes, it’s the stories we don’t see that matter.