Spoelstra sees challenge for Heat — and himself

Posted Sept. 24, 2010, at 9:39 p.m.

MIAMI — Erik Spoelstra’s days of anonymity are numbered.

One night last February, Spoelstra entered a Miami Beach restaurant hotspot called Prime Italian, virtually unnoticed. The Miami Heat coach sat in the center of the dining room, most patrons having no idea who he was. His dining companion was former New Jersey coach Lawrence Frank, who may have been more recognized than Spoelstra — in Heat country, no less.

That was then.

Spoelstra isn’t some guy at the table anymore. He now has the NBA’s position of ultimate coaching power, calling plays for LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh and others on a loaded roster built with not one, but many championships as the clearly defined goal.

And for the first time, countless eyeballs will be on the 39-year-old who started in the Heat video room and now runs the show.

“I don’t think he’s worried about the outside view,” Wade said. “Especially when it comes to him. I think he’s confident. Once I see him confident and not worried about things, then it makesme even more confident. He understands that I love to play for him. He’s the only coach I want to play for. Hopefully when I leave this game, he’s touted as one of the best coaches the NBA has seen in a long time.”

He’ll have the opportunity, or at least should.

When the Heat made their series of personnel upgrades over the summer, they were quickly installed as the favorites to win the 2011 NBA title. With that, naturally, comes tons of pressure, the likes of which Spoelstra has never experienced before.

“I’ll certainly embrace it,” Spoelstra said. “It’s not just myself. As a coaching staff, we feel like we’re ready for the opportunity. We have a very diverse staff with a lot of different experiences. We have championship experience. And, again, this is not something that came as a surprise. It’s been planned and built for 2½ years.”

So, too, has his education for what lies ahead, starting when training camp opens next week at Hurlburt Field, Fla.

When Pat Riley decided that his coaching days were done and told Spoelstra he was taking over, the Heat were coming off a messy 15-win season. There was no pressure. Miami’s championship seasonof 2006 wasn’t forgotten, but the roster was just about totally changed, with the exceptions of Wade and Udonis Haslem. Most of Riley’s final year was spent with players no one had ever heard of before, thanks to Miami being decimated by injuries and other moves.

Riley had a message for Spoelstra when he gave him the promotion in 2008: Don’t worry about being ready. Just do the job.

The same tenets hold true now.

“He’s ready for this,” said Riley, the Hall of Fame coach and Miami’s president. “I think Erik’s ready for this. I think the last two years have really steeled him to being able to deal withall the aspects you have to deal with as a head coach. The pressure of just making the playoffs or making the fourth or fifth position, you feel the same kind of pressure as you would if you had to try to win a championship. He’s got all the qualities. … All he has to do is coach the team.”

When Wade came to Miami, he and Spoelstra developed a fast bond, working long after Riley’s arduous practices were over, shot after shot after shot.

Spoelstra isn’t as hands-on now during the season, at least not in that manner. But this summer, when James was in Miami for voluntary workouts, the Heat released a few video snippets of the NBA’s reigning two-time MVP hard at work on the practice floor.

And pushing him — literally — was Spoelstra.

“Our core values,” Spoelstra said, “will not change.”

Spoelstra played a vital role in the cross-country trip that not only ended up allowing the Heat to keep Wade, but add James and Bosh as well. The Heat sent their biggest guns into those high-stakes meetings: Riley to talk about how the Heat cherish family and had spent years preparing the checkbook to build a dynasty, owner Micky Arison to talk about the business side of things, star-turned-executive Alonzo Mourning to talk about what players can expect when they become part of the Miami franchise.

Spoelstra had perhaps the toughest job. He had to tell James and Bosh how they would be coached. A misstep on his part, and everything could have gone awry.

“It was authentic,” Spoelstra said. “The message we conveyed in every meeting about us being a family organization, all you have to do is look at the people who have been here multiple yearswith Pat. Virtually every single one of us has been 15 years with the organization, and that in itself made us a unique pitch.”

The pitch worked.

And when that first practice begins Tuesday, it’s on Spoelstra to put a championship puzzle together.

“The only people we’ll be able to count on is ourselves,” Spoelstra said. “The players have been here all summer. Everybody understands what the objective is.”

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