Dave George: Erik Spoelstra latest of NBA coaching grinders to succeed

Dec 13, 2017
Coach Erik Spoelstra entered Wednesday one victory short of Pat Riley’s record of 453 regular-season victories with the Heat. (Allen Eyestone / The Palm Beach Post)

You’re going to be hearing a lot over the next few days about Erik Spoelstra and how he’ll soon be the Miami Heat’s all-time leader in regular-season wins. Going into Wednesday night’s game with Portland, he was one short of Pat Riley’s franchise record of 453.

There’s a lot to like about Spo, whether or not you want to quibble about the fact that any coach would have run up a ton of wins with the Big Three at his disposal for four years.

There are important qualifiers for any significant sports landmark, of course. In this case, Riley won 1,055 regular-season NBA games and four championships before he ever got to Miami, so there’s no true pairing of these coaches as peers.

What really interests me, though, is the journey Spo took from being the Heat’s video coordinator, a thankless job that wasn’t guaranteed to last beyond the first summer, to becoming the head coach of a couple of NBA title teams in Miami.

This is the sort of thing that every gym rat believes is possible. Every kid whose father or grandfather or favorite uncle was a hoops coach at any level from high school on up. Every former player who sweated through what seemed like a thousand monotonous practices and figured there had to be a more efficient way of sharpening a team’s collective skills.

You’ve got to be smart and you’ve got to be lucky and it always helps to be a little connected, like Spo was as the son of former NBA executive Jon Spoelstra. More than anything, though, you’ve got to be totally sold on the idea that a career in basketball is the only path to true joy, even during losing streaks and firings and locker-room meltdowns and such.

Ron Rothstein, the Heat’s first head coach, must have felt that way. Right out of college, he started coaching high school hoops in New York and later was thrilled to get a job on the staff at Div. III Upsala College, a New Jersey school that closed more than 20 years ago because of declining enrollment and the rising crime problem in the neighborhood.

Was Rothstein still thinking he could be an NBA head coach way back in 1976, when he worked a summer job in the Catskills as the athletic director at a kids’ sleepover camp? Yeah, probably somewhere in the back of his mind. Sure.

Tireless grinders like this are peppered throughout the list of the NBA’s top 20 winningest coaches.

Gregg Popovich spent a decade as head coach at Pomona-Pitzer, a Div. III outfit in southern California, and he took a season off in the middle of that to work as a volunteer assistant under Larry Brown at Kansas.

Bill Fitch’s first head coaching job was a five-year stint at tiny Coe College, his alma mater and his hometown school in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. From there it was a step up to the University of North Dakota and so forth. Not exactly bright lights, big city, but every gym along the way was Fitch’s own little kingdom, and one day he found himself coaching Larry Bird and the Boston Celtics’ 1981 NBA title team.

Chuck Daly first coached hoops at Punxsutawney High School in the Pennsylvania town where a groundhog is the only true celebrity, and he coached there for eight seasons.

Before Hubie Brown got his first NBA break, he spent nine years coaching basketball and other sports at a couple of New Jersey high schools, plus one year more as an assistant coach at William and Mary. You don’t hear much about that when Hubie’s calling NBA games for ABC and ESPN, but the game is the game and he’s never been able to live without it.

Along those lines, Dick Motta won an NBA title as coach of a Washington Bullets team that featured Elvin Hayes and Wes Unseld, but he sometimes spoke of a Idaho state title earned with the Grace High School Red Devils as the greatest thrill of his coaching lifetime. By the way, Motta never played the game in high school or college or anywhere else, so great basketball minds need not abandon the mission just because their bodies aren’t extraordinary, too.

Getting back to Spo, there’s a little bit of everything in his story, from a point guard’s vital role at the University of Portland to a couple of years playing pro ball in Germany to picking up laundry and doing other menial chores for coaches once he finally got a foot in the door with the Heat.

It’s the quality that makes this game so relatable to the humble hustler in all of us, those who can dunk and those who are lucky just to make it back to our seats at the arena without spilling the popcorn and drinks.

Congrats, then, to Spo, who has earned this place in the Heat record books, and all the late-night travel and video study and frantic dry-eraseboard scribbling that continues to go with it.