MIAMI (AP) – The list of coaches with back-to-back NBA championships includes some of the game’s giants – names such as Red Auerbach, Phil Jackson, Chuck Daly and, of course, Pat Riley.
Erik Spoelstra is now part of their fraternity.
And he seems completely unimpressed by that.
At just 42 years old, Spoelstra is now a two-time champion coach with the Miami Heat, having guided the club to the last three NBA Finals and last two titles. Only 12 other men in the history of the league have multiple titles as a coach. Only seven others have collected rings in back-to-back years – and, of those, six have been immortalized in the Basketball Hall of Fame.
To most people, joining such a group would sound like some major accomplishment. For Spoelstra, not so much.
“Not really,” Spoelstra said, when asked if he’d stopped to consider the historical significance of his back-to-back titles. “No.”
That’s why last week, when Spoelstra would have been within his rights to continue celebrating Miami’s seven-game triumph over the San Antonio Spurs for this season’s title, he was not on a beach somewhere. Instead, he was in his office, where he planned to be for the next few weeks to prepare for the draft (even though the Heat had no picks to use), the start of free agency and Miami’s upcoming summer-league appearances.
He’s the guy who started in the Heat video room before working his way up to being entrusted with what Heat managing general partner Micky Arison and Riley, the team’s president, have spent nearly two decades building. Spoelstra likes to quip that, for the first two years, Riley didn’t even know his name.
“I don’t think that he gets enough credit for his abilities to be able to manage us,” said Heat guard Dwyane Wade, who has spent all 10 of his pro seasons working with Spoelstra. “He does a great job of managing egos. He does a great job of keeping us level-headed. It takes a special guy to have guys of this caliber to all stay on one path and not jump off. That’s his strength: his ability to be able manage this team. That’s his greatness with this unit.”
Spoelstra told his team at the beginning of training camp – and on a preseason trip to China – that this path to a championship would have to be different. He was right.
His team rolled through the regular season, winning 27 straight games at one point on the way to a 66-16 record. But, in the playoffs, the Heat had to grind, first through a 1-0 deficit in the second round against Chicago, then a Game 7 against Indiana in the East finals, then seven more games against the Spurs.
“Starting in China together, having an opportunity to visit the White House together, having an opportunity to share the All-Star weekend together, 27-game win streak and then we get into the playoffs, after that first round that playoff run felt more challenging,” Spoelstra said. “In some ways it was extremely gratifying.” On the way to the 2012 title, Spoelstra had a black replica of the NBA championship trophy made as part of his motivational tactics to use during the playoffs. And a similar ploy was used this time around.
Another black trophy, this time with a slightly different design and theme, was part of the bond the Heat forged for the playoffs, a reminder of the promises players and coaches made along the way. A marker was used to denote on the trophy how the Heat were advancing along the title path.
“It bound our agreement of what we would be willing to do and to sacrifice for each other,” Spoelstra said. “We made our marks, in order of seniority. The couple middle rounds, we made with blood red because those series were so dang physical. And the last one, out of ultimate respect for our competitor, absolute, ultimate respect for who we were playing, we made them in silver for the Spurs.”
It took more than a motivational trick to beat the Spurs.
One of Spoelstra’s best memories of his second championship season as coach of the Heat was the aftermath of the team’s most lopsided defeat. It was Game 3 of the NBA Finals, a night when the Heat lost to the Spurs by 36 points and fell behind in the championship series.
Spoelstra, searching for answers, retreated to his hotel room. The first knock on his door was from assistant coach David Fizdale. The next was from another assistant, Dan Craig. And the third was from Riley, who was bearing gifts.
“I was despondent. I was beside myself,” Spoelstra said. “I went back to my suite to break down film after the game. Fiz stopped by so we could work it out. Dan Craig stopped by to bring us film and to work it out. And about 20 minutes later Pat knocks on my door and he comes in with three bottles of wine and he said, ‘Coach, what do you need me to do?’ So we gave him a laptop and he helped us break down film. It was one of the most special moments in my professional career.”
Days later, Riley and Spoelstra were arm-in-arm in the back hallways of AmericanAirlines Arena in Miami, celebrating another Heat championship. For Riley, it’s his ninth overall. For Spoelstra, his third, including the one he claimed as an assistant in 2006.
They have no plan to stop now.
“It’s going to be hard to keep up with what we’re doing for his whole career,” Wade said. “But he is one of the game’s young greats. And he is on the path of the Pat Rileys and those kind of coaches.”