In the public eye, he’s been bland as a glass of water. His answers are straightforward at the interview podium. Smiles are a rarity in front of cameras.
He’s still that coach, but just a little more relaxed.
Spoelstra silenced all the critics by leading the Miami Heat to an NBA title last month. As a result, he’s allowed himself to loosen his tie a little and put his feet up.
Photos: Check out pictures from the Miami Heat NBA championship parade
Well, at least one foot.
“Behind closed doors, it was definitely a sense of accomplishment for him,” Heat assistant coach David Fizdale said. “It was vindication for him and getting the monkey off his back.”
Making public appearances was much easier during the week Spoelstra spent in Las Vegas scouting the Heat’s team in the NBA Summer League. It was sort of his way of taking a delayed victory lap. He readily signed autographs from his seat at the scorer’s table, and was easily the most popular coach among fans.
There was a noticeable difference in the “pep in his step,” as his players liked to say.
“His swag done came up a little bit,” guard Terrel Harris said. “I’ve been noticing it. But he deserves it. He’s been working hard. He’s been so focused. I mean he’s still focused, but this is the loosest I’ve seen him. He’s smiling more, but he’ll probably be back on the drawing board thinking of ways to win another ring.”
Spoelstra, in time, has gotten away from his “occupational paranoia” since things have slowed after winning Game 5 of the Finals against the Oklahoma City Thunder. Only now can he reflect after spending a few days celebrating with the players afterward. Then there was the NBA Draft. Days later, he began a free-agency period that landed Ray Allen and Rashard Lewis.
And now the summer league, where he is trying to fill the final two roster spots.
“Obviously, there’s a little bit more recognition in terms of someone spotting you out in the street or in the crowd,” Spoelstra said. “…But it hasn’t changed probably as much as people on the outside would think. When it finally all comes together, when everything falls into place at the right time, it’s one of the most special things in sports. I think that far outweighs me trying to personally search for any vindication.”
Spoelstra refuses to get caught up in now hearing praise from those who once criticized him for being unable to handle the egos on such a talented team. He feels the same questions about his coaching ability will raise once the Heat struggle again.
“I don’t trust any of that,” Spoelstra said of his newfound support. “Who knows, it (the negativity) still may be out there. I’m just very grateful that I’ve had this opportunity to be a part of this organization because I’ve never felt threatened.”
Strong support from team president Pat Riley and owner Mickey Arison always kept Spoelstra afloat. He often felt a negative vibe from the outside because of the route he took to being in charge. He traveled the untraditional path, going from video coordinator to one of the league’s youngest coaches.
“Now, you’re probably seeing some doors open to assistant coaches, coaches that come from similar backgrounds as mine, video or scouting, that came up through the ranks,” Spoelstra said. “That really wasn’t the case a few years ago. I don’t know if I would’ve got an opportunity anywhere else.”
Spoelstra to avoid wasting the opportunity has already began thinking of ways to make the team better, meeting with various coaches to discuss strategies. Last week he picked the brain of coach Vance Walberg, founder of the dribble-drive motion offense, so the Heat avoid using last year’s blueprint to the title.
“The one thing about Spo, I wouldn’t say he’s necessarily changing, but it’s just a compliment to him how he keeps his mind open to new and innovative suggestions,” Fizdale said. “He’s willing to look at and try pretty much anything if it fits in the context of what we’re trying to do. He’s just getting better and better.”
Still, Spoelstra says X’s and O’s are the least of his worries. The biggest challenge remains how he handles situations outside of basketball. He realized in the early stages everything involving the Heat was magnified in the media, especially when a bench confrontation between he and Dwyane Wade was captured on television during the playoffs against the Indiana Pacers.
What cameras did not catch was these arguments occurring often during practices, not just with Wade but other players. In Spoelstra’s eyes, it was nothing more than family members disagreeing only to sit at the dinner table in peace the next day.
“Those are the things that are part of the connection,” Spoelstra said. “It’s the good and the bad and everything in between. It’s not all going to be good, but when there is healthy conflict, when there is connection, your team grows. That was one of the strongest aspects of our team. We were able to go through moments like that under incredible outside scrutiny and not let it become a distraction to winning.”
The moment was proof in his maturity. In his first season, he looked overwhelmed after a loss to the Chicago Bulls was the Heat’s fifth straight. He unleashed his famous, “Don’t … let … go … of … the … rope” rant.
Spoelstra can now laugh at the phrase, saying he wanted to convey “if you let go, you had to start all the way down there.” It was the genesis to him often being ridiculed in the media for his zany sayings or “Spo-isms.”
“I think it’s humorous,” Spoelstra said. “It’s interesting. I think it’s a circumstance of over-analysis. I really do. Everything that we say is thrown on the table and dissected, pulled apart and said to have a lot of different meanings. A lot of these things I say, they’re not really isms. They’re not even necessarily cliches. They’re words and I think words can be powerful and bring a message to your team.”