MIAMI – Three years ago, LeBron James and Erik Spoelstra were perfect strangers thrust into a most uneasy and unsteady partnership. For all the insecurities of the young superstar, the coach was unwavering and unrelenting in his beliefs: Spoelstra would coach James hard, coach him with the most unflattering of truths.
Spoelstra never wanted to be James' buddy, and dared every day to push him past his comfort and into a different dimension. At the most critical stage of LeBron James' career, Spoelstra was the best thing that ever happened to him.
Spoelstra made one of the most courageous stands in modern coaching history in those first few weeks with James: When the Heat were struggling to stay over .500, the superstar resisting discipline and everyone else pining for Pat Riley to come back downstairs, Spoelstra showed a willingness to go down with his principles.
On an opening night Tuesday when the Heat were honored with a championship ring ceremony on the shores of Biscayne Bay, it is a testament to Spoelstra's culture that James is relentlessly chasing a third straight championship, leaving the free-agent frenzy to everyone else.
Derrick Rose was back for the Bulls, but the Eastern Conference championship still goes through these Heat – perhaps this year and beyond. So much of Miami's future is uncertain, but James has to understand the best reason for him to stay the course is the fact that Spoelstra isn't joining him on the market. On the eve of training camp, Spoelstra signed a four-year contract extension. The message was unmistakable: If James wants the stability that comes with continuity and trust, with elite ownership, executives and a coach, there's no reason for him to leave Miami.
"They're more intertwined than they've ever been," says a league source closely connected to James and Spoelstra. "LeBron knows he plays for one of the elite coaches in the game, and that maybe wasn't the case when he got there."
From defense, to moving his offensive game into far more efficient spots on the floor, to the sharpening of his leadership and composure, James' game has grown and his belief has blossomed with Spoelstra. Everyone wants to give Mike Krzyzewski credit for James with Team USA, to credit Riley as the Heat's godfather, and somehow Spoelstra gets treated as some kind of accidental tourist on the way to back-to-back titles and James' basketball immortality.
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As much as anything, Spoelstra has made this partnership with James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh and yes, Pat Riley, work because he's never let it be about himself. He turns down endorsements, profile piece interviews and fashion magazine spreads. In so many ways, he's far more Gregg Popovich than Pat Riley. Popovich has won four NBA titles and refused to see himself as anything but a Division III college coach who caught the break of his life with Tim Duncan.
"It's a player's league," Popovich once told me. "I think it's very important for a coach to make sure that his players believe 100 percent – and not with lip service – that it's about them. Coaches are going to do everything they can to create that environment for them. It's not about creating an environment for us. It's a privilege to be able to coach these guys. We make enough money.
"The other stuff to me is just a waste of time as far as talking about quality of life."
Before the Heat's 107-95 victory over the Bulls on Tuesday night, Ryan Ford, the Jostens representative who works with pro teams on styling those gaudy championship rings, stood on the arena floor. Once again, Ford had come to Miami bearing those championship rings. Twenty-five years ago, he had been the roommate of Billy Donovan at Providence, a walk-on on the 1987 Final Four team and a college coach.
Ford had applied for the Heat's video coordinator job in 1995 and had one of his old Providence assistant coaches, Jeff Van Gundy, make a call for him. The Heat hired Spoelstra, and history took its course. All these years later, Ford is the face the franchise loves to see on opening night for these ring ceremonies.
If the Heat win a third consecutive championship, Ford and Spoelstra will be back again next year. If James is determined to give himself the best chance to keep doing this again and again, his best play remains staying with the coach who was willing to lose the job of his life to coach the best player on the planet as hard and well as his talent demanded.
Whatever else might await LeBron James in this big, basketball world, make no mistake: Erik Spoelstra isn't going anywhere.