Jon Spoelstra never pictured his son as a professional basketball coach. He was acquainted with coaches in his job as an NBA marketing executive, and always regarded them as competition junkies, high when winning, strung out when losing, jittery between games.
“Obsessed and possessed,” he said.
It was impossible to imagine his boy Erik ever being like Chuck Daly, who once ranted to Spoelstra with total conviction that his 6-13 New Jersey Nets would not win another game for the remainder of the season, or Jack Ramsay, who walked the streets past midnight after a defeat.
Maybe Spoelstra missed the signs, like the summer 14-year-old Erik took 30,000 jump shots, logging his 500 makes per day in a notebook. Or the way Erik studied Isiah Thomas’ crossover dribble on a videotape, rewinding and replaying it frame by frame, then practicing in the driveway or, when it rained, which it does often in Portland, Ore., in the garage. Or 24-year-old Erik’s decision to leave Germany, where he was playing ball and enjoying Europe’s finest Biergartens, to become a film editing mole for the Miami Heat in a converted storage room called “the dungeon.”
The father was too close to the child, attached by devotion and DNA, to project his future. But whatever you do, he counseled Erik, pursue your passion, and don’t be content to collect a paycheck.
Erik Spoelstra followed his dad’s advice all the way to the pinnacle of his passion, the NBA Finals, where he is coaching the Miami Heat as the team chases a second consecutive championship. The best-of-7 series against San Antonio is tied 2-2 with Game 5 set to tipoff at 8 p.m. Sunday.
When the series returns to Miami for Game 6 on Tuesday, Jon Spoelstra plans to be at AmericanAirlines Arena watching his son — no longer a boy but still boyish at 42, and already winner of more postseason games than any coach in Heat history. Jon will fly in from Portland, where he and Erik’s mother still reside in the house where Erik and sister, Monica, grew up.
When Erik first told his father he was going to be head coach of the Heat, Jon said, “‘Where did I go wrong? Isn’t there anything else you could do?’ ” Erik said, laughing. “He’s been around lots of coaches, and to him, they are crazy.”
Jon, 70, feels pride watching his son perform in the crucible of the NBA Finals. And when the TV lights shut off and the season ends, he looks forward to the day Erik comes home, where he decompresses with family and the same friends he used to play with in the driveway.
That’s where it all started for Erik, in fifth grade, when his father coached his Portland youth league team. Erik was a fan of Star Wars and pizza, “just a normal neighborhood kid,” Jon said. When he took up basketball, he found his true love.
“This was the B team, the leftovers, and Erik was undersized,” Jon said. “The one thing I taught him was the half-court trap. We took 100 shots per game. I wanted every boy to get his share of shots, so we ran the ball, and ran and ran.”
Jon worked for the Portland Trail Blazers, who were in the midst of an 11-year sellout streak. One season, Jon took Erik to every home game.
“It was a way for me to bond with Erik the same way my dad bonded with me by taking me to Detroit Tigers games and University of Michigan football games,” Jon said of his father, Watson Spoelstra, a Detroit News sports writer for 40 years. Jon and his sister used to race up and down the field at the Big House while waiting for their father to finish writing. He recalled how his father was once doused in the clubhouse by Denny McLain. And how he never revealed his sources on a scoop about a manager’s firing, “not even years later, on his death bed in Florida. He was very competitive about his job.”
Erik met Portland guard Terry Porter at one of the games, and from then on wore 30 as his jersey number. He got Air Jordans for Christmas. He attended Ramsay’s summer camps. At Jesuit High in Beaverton, he started as a 98-pound freshman at point guard and went on to be the consummate selfless leader for the University of Portland Pilots.
At home, Jon was strict about reading. He gave his kids reading lists. He would pay Erik and Monica 10 cents for each newspaper story they read and annotated. He paid them $100 to read all 1,100 pages of Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand. He devised a schedule for them to listen to 12 audiotapes by motivational speaker and “Dean of Personal Development” Earl Nightingale entitled “Lead the Field.”
“I wanted them to learn the fundamentals of how to stand on your own two feet, but without lecturing and harping from their old man,” Jon said.
Jon wanted to pass down the work ethic he had learned from his mother, who was of Irish descent, and his father, whose parents were part of the Dutch community in Holland, Mich.
As a kid, Jon delivered newspapers, and he figured out how to double his customer base without increasing delivery time by typing notes to the home owners on his route who were not subscribers.
“That was my first direct response campaign,” he said. “I was rich! I had an extra $5 in my pocket.”
As a Notre Dame student, he sold Encyclopedia Britannicas door to door.
“I was very, very shy and I forced myself to call on strangers to overcome my shyness,” he said.
He overcame it enough to introduce himself to a beautiful young woman in the Philippines, when he had stopped in Manila on his way to Australia, where he thought he would become a sheep farmer. But Elisa Celino changed his direction, he returned to Notre Dame to finish his degree and they married two years later.
Jon got a job with the NBA’s Buffalo Braves, dreamed up a tribute to Elvis Presley to draw fans and has been selling tickets ever since. He wrote the books Ice to Eskimos: How to Sell a Product Nobody Wants and Marketing Outrageously and is writing a manual for teams, The Ultimate Tool Kit to Sell the Last Seat in the House.
Jon’s influence is evident in the coaching style of Erik, who sold the Big 3 on the idea of team defense when superstar egos could have obstructed the plan. His motivational notes and talks about “trust” and “identity” stand out from the usual NBA coaching jargon with their mix of Nightingale can-do spirit and Portland weird earnestness.
Erik also learned from Pat Riley’s storytelling.
“Erik used to tell me Riley would give 10-minute speeches at every practice, and Erik took notes,” Jon said. “Riley is his Yoda. He got 98 percent of his knowledge from Pat and from Stan Van Gundy, too.”
The will to work was reinforced by Riley but originated with Jon.
“Work ethic isn’t something you inherit like blue eyes,” Jon said. “I used to tell my kids there will always be people more skilled or talented than you in this world but if you want to compete, you can outwork them.”
Erik recalled how Jon was always home for dinner at 6:30 p.m. The greatest gift he received from his father? “Discipline,” Erik said.
It can be a curse as well, Jon said, and sometimes he sees it in the fatigue in Erik’s face.
“He gets so focused I’m not sure he knew Osama Bin Laden was dead,” Jon said. “I know he knows [Barack] Obama is president but only because he visited the White House.”
If Erik hadn’t chosen coaching, Jon believes he would be an entrepreneur, “facing failure multiple times but breathing life into something.”
He’s gratified that Erik found his calling in an intense culture “where you are measured every day.” Erik is the first coach of Asian descent to win an NBA title and first Filipino-American head coach in any major North American sports league.
Jon will be watching Game 5 on Sunday and in Miami for Game 6 on Tuesday. Erik’s mother will not. She doesn’t watch Heat games and she doesn’t fly. She felt she jinxed Erik by attending the 2011 Finals, when the Heat lost to Dallas.
“When I watch games on TV at home, she’s at the other end of the house, doing laundry or something, and I text her when it’s safe to watch,” Jon said. “That usually means the Heat has a 20-point lead with two minutes to go, so she’s seen more of Joel Anthony than LeBron James.”
Jon won’t see much of Erik as the Finals reach their climax. He doesn’t want to intrude. He’s never even met any Heat players. But Jon’s presence will be felt — in every detail of Erik’s preparation, during his persuasive huddle pep talks. Erik will be working and selling as much as he’ll be coaching. The example set in Portland will be followed in Miami. Like father, like son.