Nobody would blame Miami Heat general manager Andy Elisburg if he decided to run up the steps of AmericanAirlines Arena and raise his arms triumphantly.
Much like the fictionalized “Rocky Balboa” character, Elisburg has overcome long odds.
Elisburg — who never played competitive sports — started with the Heat from the very beginning, 30 years ago, as a public relations intern. He rose through the ranks, contributing significantly to three NBA championships, primarily as a salary-cap guru on deals worth hundreds of millions of dollars.
There were many late nights for Elisburg, 49, who can still vividly recall those days in his mid-20s when he was part of a bunch of young and ambitious Heat employees.
That group included current coach Erik Spoelstra, who at the time worked in the video room. Their work days at the old Miami Arena stretched into the wee hours.
“We would raid the food carts at midnight,” Elisburg said. “Those leftover chicken wings did not go unscathed.”
It’s all been worth it for Elisburg, who will be inducted into the St. Thomas University Bobcat Sports Hall of Fame on Sunday as part of STU’s ninth annual Stone Crab Dinner for Athletics. The ceremony is set for 6 p.m. on campus.
Jeff Craney, the Miami Heat’s vice president of marketing, was a schoolmate of Elisburg’s at St. Thomas and remembers one particular class when everyone in the room was asked for his or her career ambition.“A lot of people said they wanted to be a high school coach or an athletic trainer,” Craney said. “But Andy said he wanted to be the general manager of a professional basketball or baseball team.
“There was a lot of snickering in the room after he said that, but Andy had a clear long-term vision. And when the Heat named him general manager, I was one of the first people he called.”
Spoelstra is thrilled Elisburg lived up to his vow.
“Anything that goes on in this building, Andy is in the know, and he’s basically running everything behind the scenes,” Spoelstra said. “Everybody in this organization knows that. I have a special bond with Andy because we both started at the bottom. There used to be nights at the old Miami Arena when we were the only two people there deep into the morning.
Anything that goes on in this building, Andy is in the know. He’s basically running everything behind the scenes.
Miami Heat Coach Erik Spoelstra
“Andy’s a great role model for young people. He didn’t play in the league. He didn’t play in college. But he learned every aspect of this business. It’s a great honor, and it’s well-deserved.”
‘Miami Vice’ influence
Elisburg, a Maryland native, chose to attend St. Thomas because of its well-regarded Sports Administration program, which had few competitors at the time.
But there was something else at play for Elisburg.
“This was 1985, and “Miami Vice” had just come out on TV,” said Elisburg. “At the time, I wasn’t the best student in the world, and I think my parents were happy that I was going to college anywhere.
“But even if I had the choice between Harvard and St. Thomas, for me, St. Thomas was the perfect choice.”
Elisburg feels that way in part because, at that time, the Miami Dolphins trained at St. Thomas, and the Baltimore Orioles also used the school’s facilities. For a person wanting to get into sports administration, this was heaven, and Elisburg also served as a student manager for the Bobcats’ men’s basketball team.
But his big break came when he earned an internship with the NBA Washington Bullets (now Wizards) in the summer before his junior year at STU.
While there, he met Mark Pray, who ran Washington’s public relations department.
The next year, the Heat – just one month prior to its inaugural season – hired Pray, who had to quickly assemble a PR staff. Pray remembered Elisburg from the internship and knew he went to school at St. Thomas.
Elisburg, who is single, was hired as an intern in the public relations department. He has never left the Heat.
“He’s the most dedicated employee you’ll ever find,” Pray said of Elisburg, who was hired full-time by the Heat as a public relations assistant just 36 hours after graduating from STU in 1989. “The Heat is his life, and he’s happy.”
Elisburg said his success has been equal parts hard work, intelligence and luck.
Being a part of the franchise since the Heat was an expansion team was clearly good fortune for Elisburg. Roles weren’t as clearly defined at that time, and the Heat’s small staff figured a lot out via trial and error.
In an era when computers were still fairly new, the league would send salary-cap figures to the teams by Fed Ex, and then-Heat owners Billy Cunningham and Lewis Schaffel would have Elisburg transfer those figures into a format in which they were more comfortable.
“They said, ‘Andy, you figure it out’,” Elisburg said.
That worked perfectly for Elisburg, whose grandparents had given him a computer in high school. His ability on the computer helped make him the editor of St. Thomas’ student newspaper, but it got him even further with the Heat.
All of sudden, Elisburg, on his own initiative, started examining how NBA trades were made within the confines of the salary cap.
And when Pat Riley was hired as Heat coach and team president in 1995, Elisburg had a memorable first meeting with the boss.
“They told me, ‘We need you to go over the salary cap with Pat,” Elisburg said. “Pat had a good understanding of it, but that’s what started me.”
Elisburg has accomplished much since then, even if his name isn’t mentioned much in media reports.
Every once in a while, though, he does get thanked publicly as he did earlier this season with Heat guard Wayne Ellington, who was grateful Miami picked up his $6.3 million contract, barely fitting him in under the cap.
“Andy did some amazing things to fit everything in,” Ellington told several media members. “I’m ecstatic.”
Elisburg is equally ecstatic about his job with the Heat, and he hasn’t forgotten his days at St. Thomas.
One lesson from a graduate-level marketing class sticks out. The professor asked the class for the most important word in marketing. Some said “product,” and others guessed “sales.”
But the teacher shot down every response.
“The professor finally stood up, walked to the blackboard and wrote the word ‘no,’” Elisburg said. “I learned that ‘no’ doesn’t mean it’s over. No means, ‘How can I do it a different way?’ “
Happily for the Heat, Elisburg has been helping to turn ‘no deals’ into ‘yes deals” for much of the past three decades.