Malcolm Huckaby remembers the making of Erik Spoelstra
|05.28.12 at 7:28 am ET|
The little office light on in the practice facility still on at 3 a.m. The calculating of plus-minus plays in practice. The guy breaking down film for Hall of Fame coach Pat Riley.
This is my memory up close with a Pat Riley clone and future coach of an NBA dream team named Erik Spoelstra.
I had fulfilled one of my lifelong dreams, playing in the NBA for the Heat, when I inked a one-year deal in 1996 as a free agent with Riley, who coached the team then.
Riley mused on a then-undrafted free agent point guard out of Boston College who had overcome a horrific ankle injury, calling me a player who was a PHD (poor, hungry and desperate). Spoelstra, at the time, was crafting his skill in the dungeon of the video room of the team, working long hours desperately trying to give Riley any advantage possible.
Most people on the outside at the time of the 1996-97 season failed to give the kind of credit they do now for the work of assistant coaches, who work zombie hours with all the credit going to the head coach. But the knowledge that was around when I played was priceless. You had a Hall of Fame coach in Riley, along with Stan Van Gundy (who, after I asked him and Spoelstra how much sleep they got the night before, replied, “Huck, sleep is overrated”), and assistant coach Bob (Can Do) McAdoo, who once led the NBA in scoring when guys with nicknames like “Ice Man” were playing.
I mean, if you could not pick up basketball knowledge watching Riley break down and drill us on end-of-the-game situations, or watch Van Gundy go over every tedious detail of how we needed to have our timing down perfect for the offense to run correctly … My favorite was listening to McAdoo tell stories of what it was like when he played and how guys now have skirts on them, because every time you touch a guy now it’s a flagrant 1 foul. I still remember the image of Kevin McHale clotheslining Kurt Rambis, who, after a brief scuffle, dusted himself off and went to free throw line. Can you imagine what the fine and suspension would be for Kevin Garnett if he clotheslined Udonis Haslem or Chris Bosh like McHale did to Rambis? We would be crossing new ground. Maybe you’re looking at a full-season suspension like the artist formerly known as Ron Artest got when he went into the stands to take a few hacks at a fan.
I digress … but now back to the young Riley clone.
Here are some fun facts that many may not know about Spoelstra:
I did not know that Spoelstra was on the court when Hank Gathers collapsed and died during the 1990 West Coast Conference tournament. I did not know Spoelstra’s father was an NBA executive for the Trail Blazers, Nuggets, Buffalo Braves and Nets. I did not know that Erik is the grandson of the late Watson Spolestra, who was a sports writer in the Detroit area. I did not know that “Spo” or “E,” as I used to call him back in the day when he was shagging balls for me or working me out to develop my midrange game, had been Freshman of the Year in the WCC as a point guard for the University of Portland. I did not know that he is a member of the University of Portland’s 1,000-point club.
I knew he had played, but quite frankly, when we were in the gym it was always about how he could make me and the team better. He never really had time for the small talk, which was typical of a Riley assistant at the time unless you were McAdoo. Come in and do your job, period. We were not there to socialize when we stepped foot in the practice facility or film room. I have many memories of what it was like to play for coach Riley, but I will always remember him talking about your approach to preparation.
“Your body is your job, fellas,” Riley would always say.
I was blessed and fortunate to play for and learn from some great coaches: Ed Phelan (Bristol Central High School in Connecticut), Jim O’Brien (Boston College), and Riley. And they all had some great stories that I soaked up. Spoelstra learned and worked with arguably one of the best of all-time in Riley. He not only soaked it up after joining the Heat’s staff as video coordinator in 1995, he worked his way up to assistant coach years later. I know from first-hand experience as a player what a basketball mind Spo has.
He is cited by Sports Illustrated (May 30, 2005) for honing Dwyane Wade’s “shooting balance and smoothing out his release after the Flash’s return from the Athens Olympics.” I can remember the countless drills I would do with him and Van Gundy. Both he and Stan probably averaged a combined six hours of sleep per night during the season. Instead of Alonzo Mourning, Tim Hardaway, Jamal Mashburn — the Big Three when Spoelstra was the head video coordinator for the Heat — he now has LeBron James, Wade and Chris Bosh.
I will be interested to see how this matchup between Spoelstra and Doc Rivers goes during this series. I am sure Riley will have some input and suggestions. Doc is at the top of his profession right now and the undisputed right guy to lead the Big Four. Until Spolestra wins a title as Rivers has, there will always be those speculators calling for Riley to return to the sidelines and lead this star-studded, self-proclaimed Dream Team to a championship.
This is a season made for the Heat. Most people think they are the sure-fire bet to make it to the NBA finals. If I was a Heat fan I would much prefer to see Doug Collins and the young, upstart Sixers team heading to South Beach. Rivers and the Big Four have plenty of experience and playoff swag, along with KG’s “grit and balls” (one of my favorite lines). Everyone expected the Heat to get to this point, while for the C’s not so long ago people were calling for the disbanding of the Big Three.
And now Spoelstra finds himself with plenty of decisions to make with or without Bosh in the lineup. And I think no decision will be bigger than how he decides to defend Rajon Rondo and whom he decides to match up against him.
I will be watching now as a fan, journalist, former player and admirer of a guy that functioned at a high level on practically three hours of sleep as video coordinator. And man, he has come a long way from the days of shagging balls and drilling a journeyman free agent from Boston College by the name of Malcolm Huckaby.
Hopefully he is getting more sleep these days, but I doubt it, and he probably won’t until he gets a championship.
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