Over the past three decades, it's become one of sports' greatest dumb traditions — in times of victory, players show their appreciation for their coach by taking a large bucket of flavored water and dumping it on his head. It's hard to envision there being a greater, sticker means of happily saying, "We did it!" and it's a method of celebration that's claimed iconic coaching victims like Bill Parcells, Mike Ditka ... and now, thanks to reserve forward Udonis Haslem, Miami Heat bench boss Erik Spoelstra.
Spoelstra has suffered many, many slings and arrows since LeBron James and Chris Bosh flew south to join up with Dwyane Wade in the summer of 2010. From the second Spoelstra was handed his top-heavy roster, observers asked how he'd screw it up — how quickly his superstars would tune out the 40-year-old former video assistant with all of two years NBA head-coaching experience, how long it would be before team president Pat Riley was swooping in to pull a Stan-Van on young coach Spo. Never mind the fact that Riley handpicked him to lead, of course. Or that in his first two seasons behind the wheel, he'd steered two significantly less talent-rich Heat teams (minus Wade's brilliance, natch) to plus-.500 records, top-tier defensive efficiencies and consecutive playoff appearances.
It only got worse after last year's Finals, where his first-year Frankenstein was drummed out in six games by a deeper, more potent, more efficient Dallas Mavericks squad. While the sharpest knives were reserved for LeBron James, Spoelstra took his fair share of the criticism, too, hearing about how he couldn't win on the big stage, how overmatched he was in the moment, how unimaginative his offensive sets were and how the inability of James and Wade to congeal into something better than just two great wing players trading possessions was his fault. And an awful lot of that wasn't wrong. But Rome wasn't built in a day, and despite what the 2007-08 Boston Celtics taught us, champions aren't often built in a year.
This year, the questions persisted. Nothing Spoelstra or his Heat did before the playoffs would matter in the final analysis of their relative merits; they'd just have to, y'know, win 70 percent of their games, get into the postseason and then beat everyone before we'd think these guys were actually any good. The route there wasn't direct — there was the early series slip-up against the Indiana Pacers that followed Bosh's Game 1 abdominal strain, and the mid-series lull against a double-tough Celtics squad, and that Game 1 loss to the Thunder — and when the team detoured, for the most part, the blame fell to Spoelstra.
He's letting the two best players in the series lose to Roy Hibbert and David West. He's getting his lunch money stolen by Doc Rivers. He's not ready for this. He's not built for this. He hasn't been here and he can't do it.
Never mind the fact that, y'know, he had been there — Spoelstra already owned a ring from his time as an assistant on the '06 Heat team that beat the Mavs. Or that getting momentarily outfoxed by guys like Rivers and Rick Carlisle, two of the finest offensive coaches in the league, is certainly no sin. Or that Miami didn't get anything near the role-player performances it did in the Finals during those middle rounds of the Eastern Conference bracket.
Spoelstra just kept plugging away, shrugging off the beat-reporter snickers in response to his cadre of cliches and focusing on ensuring that his team focused first and foremost on playing suffocating half-court defense. He convinced Bosh, a career power forward who'd bristled at playing center, that the best thing he could for the team's title chances was to slide to the five. He figured out early in the Finals that if he went small, with Bosh at the five next to James at the four and Shane Battier spreading the floor at the three, Oklahoma City would have to either adjust to Miami's spacing or suffer the consequences; Scott Brooks, mostly, chose the latter.
Erik Spoelstra didn't just get carried by his collar to a title; he made decisions and choices that helped put his talented players in positions to win a championship. He earned this ring — his second overall, his first as a head coach — and we shouldn't forget that.
After the game, Spoelstra discussed his feelings on the outcome of the Finals and whether or not the commanding 4-1 win will silence the "noise" against which he so frequently rails.
"You know what, all of us are in this — I know I'm in this for the competition," Spoelstra said. "That's something you don't really get to have, probably, in any other vocation in life. There's some, but the competition to be able to put together a team, to sacrifice, to give to something that's bigger than yourself ... that's what's gratifying. And you go through those tough times.
"We have a brotherhood now that you don't necessarily have unless you've been through the fire together, and two years of it made us all more closer," he added. "And it makes this moment that much more gratifying."
I bet red Gatorade's never tasted so sweet.