After the Heat clinched a spot in the NBA Finals two games later, Butler dug even deeper into his closet for the perfect sartorial tribute — a University of Portland jersey with Erik Spoelstra’s name and number on the back.
“I've got quite a few jerseys tucked away in my room — it's just when is the right time to pull them out,” Butler said Tuesday on the eve of his NBA Finals debut. “But Spo has been huge for me in my growth here as a player, as a leader, as a human being, so I'm grateful for him.”
Spoelstra’s journey to a place alongside the NBA’s best coaches has been well-chronicled. He, like Lakers coach Frank Vogel, began working from inside NBA film rooms, with one rival executive joking that there’s never been a better time for a video coordinator to try to get a promotion.
Before that he played at Portland, where he was an all-conference point guard who was on the court the night Loyola Marymount's Hank Gathers collapsed and died during a game in 1990.
He worked his way from that film room to become one of Pat Riley’s most trusted assistants with the Heat. The two still operate in total concert — Spoelstra calls Riley “The Godfather” — in planning how to win. He’s even getting unending praise from his former player, and current competition.
LeBron James defended Spoelstra from any perceived disrespect that came from their time together in Miami, when pundits thought anyone could coach James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh.
“If you watch the Miami Heat, no matter who's on the floor, they're going to play Heat culture. They're going to play hard. They're going to play together. That's what he's always been about,” James said Tuesday. “It's been you guys that have changed the narrative or has never given Spo his respect because he had D-Wade or he had myself or he had Bosh. But a lot of coaches have talent. … It’s unfortunate that he hasn't gotten his respect. Every time we talked about Spo when I was there and we talked about how great he prepared us, and we talked about how great it was playing for Spo and things of that nature, you guys always said, ‘Well, you have LeBron, you have D-Wade, you have Bosh. Any coach can do it.'
“No, any coach can't do it. If any coach could do it, then there would be a lot more champions in this league.”
It’s a different message than the one James reportedly pushed 17 games into his time with the Heat, when the team was 9-8 and there were rumors that James was done with Spoelstra, Riley's hand-picked successor at age 37 in 2008.
In Ian Thomsen’s book “The Soul of Basketball: The Epic Showdown between LeBron, Kobe, Doc and Dirk that Saved the NBA,” Riley said James asked him if he ever “got the itch” to come back to the sideline. Riley believed in Spoelstra and stayed an executive as the team ended up winning two championships during four trips to the Finals.
Spoelstra’s been a consistent on the road back, keeping the Heat competitive with lesser talent. It’s been an organizational directive — keep trying to win.
“It's been extremely critical that everyone's on the same page, top to bottom. I've been in this league a long time, and it's rare,” Heat veteran Udonis Haslem said. “Usually you have one or two locker room guys that you have to convince to bring along with you. But I think from start to finish, I think all our guys have been committed to doing the same things, the right things. The things people don't always talk about when you're trying to fight for a championship is you're not going to all have good days.
"There's going to be some dark nights. Some confusion. And there's going to be frustration. But we weathered all those storms.”
Spoelstra said the time with James forced him to adapt, to become more comfortable in the spotlight. It gave Spoelstra the taste for winning at the highest level.
“I’m just very grateful that I had that opportunity to be able to grow and be on that journey with that group. That was an amazing team, and everything that came about it,” he said. “In many ways, just my personality, I hated it. I'm an introvert, but I think it was good to go through that. Sometimes even as a professional, just to get out of your comfort zone and embrace it and see what happens when you get on the other side of it.
“It feels like a totally different chapter in my life. But I'm truly grateful to be around those special players. That group was so committed to coming together to compete for titles.”
And now he’s leading another group with the same priorities.
That special jersey that Butler dug up didn’t remind the Heat that their coach once had game. They already see that in every practice, where he’s earned their total confidence.
“Whether he played or not, his knowledge of the game is unmatched,” Haslem said. “His leadership is second to none. And we trust and believe in him.”