From 11-30 to the NBA playoffs is an incredible journey that the Miami Heat still haven’t completed, but the question is the same no matter how this turns out.
How does a coach keep grinding the way Erik Spoelstra always does, whether his team seems bound for a world championship or the draft lottery?
That’s one heck of a range when it comes to expectations and achievement and personal satisfaction, and it’s one that didn’t always hold Pat Riley’s attention quite as well during his coaching days.
Riley, of course, was a brilliant athlete in high school, good enough to have Adolph Rupp chasing him at Kentucky and brawny enough to be drafted by the Dallas Cowboys coming out of college. All he ever knew was winning when he got to the NBA, and he can’t stand to be away from it for long.
Spoelstra was just the opposite, scrapping for everything he got as a point guard who weighed just 98 pounds as a high school freshman. There’s an old USA Today story that tells of Spo taking 30,000 jump shots from three-point range one summer in order to stretch and improve his skills.
Yeah, that’s the kind of doggedness that comes in handy later when you’re 11-30.
Eventually Spoelstra earned a Div. I scholarship offer, but it wasn’t from UCLA or North Carolina. Instead he played at the small college in his Oregon hometown, the University of Portland.
Must have played pretty well, too, because he was named the Freshman of the Year in the West Coast Conference. Loyola-Marymount owned that league at the time, averaging 110 points per game, and Gonzaga, a No. 1 seed in the ongoing NCAA tournament, owns it today.
Problem is, the Portland Pilots weren’t very good overall. They started 0-13 in Spo’s first season there and wound up 2-26. It’s a real challenge not to quit on a team like that.
Stick with it, though, and 11-30 somewhere way down the line doesn’t rattle you as much as it might others.
Spo kept pounding away, starting 97 games in four years, which ranks ninth on Portland’s all-time list. He learned how to create scoring opportunities for teammates, ranking fifth on the school’s career list for assists, and how to make the most of his own chances, ranking fourth all-time at Portland with a free-throw percentage of .824.
That’s a lot of serious stat mileage for a player whose individual career numbers – 9.2 points, 4.4 assists and 2.4 rebounds – don’t exactly knock you out. Spo pushed every possible hot button, though, even though the Pilots never won more than 11 games during his four-year college career.
Is that the kind of guy you want coaching your team in the midst of an 11-30 nightmare? Well, sure, especially if he also has found great success, as in back-to-back NBA titles with the Big Three.
There’s something here for everyone on the Heat roster, a coach who understands the psychological torture of losing, a coach who remembers what it’s like to be overlooked, and a coach who will accept only the highest standards no matter what anybody else thinks or says about his team.
What the team has achieved and what it continues to chase make more sense in this context. It tells you that the Heat couldn’t be in better hands.
It’s true now. It was true at 11-30.