Erik Spoelstra may be 42, but he doesn’t look much different than he did 20 years ago.
Spoelstra, who just completed his fifth season as coach of the Heat, still wears the same kind of things he did back in the 1990s from retro Air Jordans to a gold-toned Casio diving watch complete with a thick black rubber strap.
During Heat practices, Spoelstra isn’t shy about getting out on the court and demonstrating what he’s trying to teach — much like he did as an assistant coach under Stan Van Gundy and Pat Riley during his 30s.
It may be his boyish looks or his good fortune of being the Heat coach when LeBron James and Chris Bosh were lured to Miami to join Dwyane Wade, but Spoelstra doesn’t get the respect other coaches who have won a pair of NBA titles would get.
Perhaps that is changing.
“We used to call him the best young coach in the NBA,” Heat TV voice Eric Reid said at Monday’s rally at AmericanAirlines Arena. “But now, after two straight championships, why don’t we just call him the best coach in the NBA?”
Spoelstra has said he doesn’t care what others outside the Heat organization think of him. Spoelstra has the complete support of Riley and the rest of the Miami front office and, truthfully, that’s all that matters.
If more respect is headed his way, Miami being able to outlast Indiana and San Antonio by winning Game 7s could be a big reason why.
“That’s what competition is about,” Spoelstra said after Miami’s win on Thursday. “I mentioned that all series long. If people say it’s only because of us that we lost or we struggled and we should have had an easier run, that’s not giving any credit to the Indiana Pacers or the Spurs. They were great teams. They were incredible challenges to us that we had to overcome.
“It’s never easy. As tough as last year was, it seemed like this year was even tougher. Particularly these last two rounds.”
One of Spoelstra’s biggest champions — aside from Riley — is former Knicks coach and current ABC/ESPN analyst Jeff Van Gundy.
Van Gundy, former Heat coach Stan Van Gundy’s older brother, said in the closing minutes of Thursday’s Game 7 win against San Antonio that Spoelstra was the best coach the Heat had ever had.
A former assistant under Riley with the Knicks, Jeff Van Gundy said Monday he meant no disrespect to the Heat president. But he says he’s not the only one who believes Spoelstra is deserving of that title as the Heat’s best coach.
“I know Pat Riley, have coached for him and competed against him. He’s already a Hall of Fame coach,” Van Gundy said. “But after what Spo has accomplished, I think coach Riley would agree with me. Look at what he’s done. He’s won 11 series in three years, has been to the Finals three straight years and has won back-to-back titles.
“Erik has gotten the most from his talent at hand.”
Spoelstra is a basketball junkie who started working for the Heat 18 years ago as a video coordinator. He spent countless hours going through tape before moving up through the ranks within basketball operations.
Since joining the team, Spoelstra also has been an advance scout and was the director of scouting in charge of getting the Heat prepared for future opponents.
Spoelstra, who coached the Heat’s summer-league team for three years, took over when Riley stepped away from the bench in 2008.
“He had every job imaginable on the basketball side leading into him becoming a head coach,” Jeff Van Gundy said. “That was a great benefit. He was well-prepared when he took over in all facets of the organization and what the job entailed.
“I remember Stan always talking to me about Erik before anyone knew too much about him, always said how good and talented he was. Pat Riley does a great job of picking people before others recognize their greatness. He did it with Erik. He has absolutely fulfilled what Pat saw in him long ago.”
Spoelstra inherited a Miami team that won 15 games in 2007-08 and led it to the biggest improvement in franchise history as the Heat went 43-39 in his rookie season.
The following year, Miami went 47-35. Both years, the Heat got knocked out of the playoffs in the opening round — by Atlanta in 2009 and Boston in 2010.
Jeff Van Gundy credits the job Spoelstra did in his first two years as head coach in Miami for helping Riley sell James and Bosh on joining forces with Wade in 2010.
This year, Miami set a franchise record for wins in a season and had the second-longest winning streak in NBA history.
“I thought the job he did in his first two years [is] as impressive as what he’s done over the past three,” Jeff Van Gundy said.
“He absolutely got the most out of those first two teams as they were playoff contenders. That got the attention of Bosh and James. It opened their eyes as to how things could be if they came down to Miami. That played a big part in them coming. All five of Erik’s years [have] been incredible.”
Things would soon change in the summer of 2010 as expectations were raised. Miami became the most scrutinized team in sports, and some thought Spoelstra wouldn’t survive the storm.
On Monday, he got to celebrate another title atop a bus on the streets of Miami. Spoelstra did so wearing his Jordans with his championship cap on backward.
“Miami,” Spoelstra said, “knows how to party.”