Miami Heat coach Erik Spoelstra stopped by Calusa Prep basketball practice recently, shocking the boys on the team.
"It was amazing — he didn’t have a crew with him or anything," Calusa point guard Alfred Machado said, referring to the fact that Spoelstra showed up on his own. "Meeting someone important like him was an experience I will never forget."
Spoelstra’s connection to the team is simple. Octavio De La Grana, the Heat’s director of player development, is the father of Derrick De La Grana, Calusa’s new head coach.
After 28 years, one state title and a 334-258 career record, Tim Fowler has stepped down as Calusa’s coach. He will continue as the school’s athletic director and may sit on the end of the bench during games in case he’s needed.
But make no mistake — Fowler, 53, has passed the coaching baton to a pair of young men he considers part of his family — De La Grana, 27, and assistant coach Jonathan Rodriguez, 26.
Fowler and Octavio De La Grana were teammates at Florida Christian and are still best friends. Last season, Derrick served an apprenticeship of sorts, coaching Calusa alongside Fowler.
Rodriguez, meanwhile, was the Class 1A Player of the Year in 2005-06, when Calusa won its lone state title. He went on to star at Division I Campbell University and played pro ball in his native Puerto Rico as well as the Dominican Republic.
Fowler said he felt completely comfortable putting the team in the hands of De La Grana and Rodriguez. Fowler has known De La Grana since he was born, and Rodriguez lived with Fowler’s family for several years upon graduating college.
"They both have passion for the game," said Fowler, who will work more with Calusa’s girls’ team this season. "They love what they do."
De La Grana, in fact, said he is "obsessed" with basketball.
A 5-8 guard at Florida Christian and at NAIA Reinhardt University (Waleska, Ga.), De La Grana still plays in men’s leagues and also watches the sport on television almost every night.
"Basketball is the only thing I watch and talk about," De La Grana said. "My girlfriend gives me a beating because I have the [NBA] League Pass to everything — NBA, college and even international basketball. In the summer, I watch basketball reruns or old DVDs.
"I’ll do anything to not watch the Kardashians."
Because of the Fowler connection, De La Grana and Rodriguez have long been friends, and they started coaching together in the middle of last season, when the latter came back from playing pro ball.
De La Grana works more with the guards, and Rodriguez, who was a 6-6 forward, helps the big men.
"We work well together," Rodriguez said of De La Grana. "His background is basketball all day — he knows his stuff."
Machado, Calusa’s 5-9 senior, said each coach plays a role.
"[De La Grana] treats you nice," Machado said. "He’ll get mad sometimes, but he works on our skill. [Rodriguez] is the strict one to the point that we get mad to get better."
How the team fares remains to be seen. No starters return from last season, when the Colts were eliminated by Westwood Christian in the regional semifinals.
But the Colts have promising wing players such as 6-3 senior Abel Seda and 6-1 senior Daniel Fernandez. Up front, the team is led by 6-5 senior Antoine Leavarity, 6-5 junior Victor Pena and 6-3 junior Efrain Colon.
Calusa figures to be in the regionals hunt — as long as it doesn’t play the way it did when Spoelstra visited.
"The kids were working so hard and doing really well, and then [Spoelstra] came by and nobody could make a layup," De La Grana said with a laugh. "I tried to tell them, ‘Guys, you’re not getting drafted.’ [Spoelstra] just wanted to see how we’re coaching the kids."
According to Fowler, De La Grana and Rodriguez are doing just fine.
"These guys," Fowler said, "are beyond capable."