Sunday, March 16, 2014

How & Why "Age Quod Agis" is the Best Thing that Ever Happened to the Miami Heat: Part II

Arguably their highest profile athlete, Jesuit HS
should be proud of this graduate.
Ever since I returned from visiting his alma mater, Jesuit High School in Portland, Oregon I have been asking one question: Why aren't more people talking about the head coach of the Miami Heat: Erik Spoelstra? 

Spoelstra is the first Asian/Filipino-American head coach in any of the major North American sports leagues. This entire post could address that alone fact alone, but there's more. Now in his sixth year as a head coach, Spoelstra has "five postseason appearances, three division titles, two conference championships and guiding the franchise to a pair of NBA championships." (Miami Heat Directory). Should we take a moment to sit with all this? 

Spoelstra came to Miami by way of Germany where the 6'3" point guard played for two years. He was hired as the video coordinator until he was promoted to assistant coach/video coordinator. Let's do the math here: Spoelstra never played in the NBA and came to the organization he has now led through back-to-back championships by way of a VCR and video tape. (please see the posting on why I don't read fiction). And just for effect, let me state the obvious: Spoelstra is remarkably handsome and fit. Furthermore, you might mistake him for one of the nine first-year coaches in the NBA, he looks so young. 

Most basketball fans give a common answer my question: three words or three names— The Big Three/Chris Bosh, LeBron James and Dwayne Wade. However, I believe Spoelstra flies under the radar because of the motto that shaped him as a young man at Jesuit High School: Age Quod Agis. He lives what this Latin proverb proclaims: Do what you are doing.
This reminds me of a bad family photo....
A lengthy piece in ESPN magazine "The Mystery Guest Has Arrived" confirmed my suspicion. The author, Kevin Arnovitz chronicled how Spoelstra moved from the shadows of "The Dungeon"—the office where he studied video tape—to the NBA spotlight. From the start to where he is today, he has focused on his passion: basketball. Doing what he was doing made some unusual demands, but it by doing it well, he laid a strong foundation. People noticed. Arnovitz writes: 
Spoelstra doesn't know jack about video: coordinating video, editing video, or the coordination of video editing. All he knows is that he wants to be around basketball. He has applied everywhere for a college coaching gig, but has come up empty. If the Heat are interested in having him stick around, then he'll gladly take on whatever tasks they have for him. 
"I was kind of like the concierge-slash-video coordinator my first year," Spoelstra remembers. "I just figured I wanted them coming to me with as many different things as possible to lean on, whether it was basketball-related or not. I wanted to be the guy who they'd pick up the phone and say, 'He'll get it done'." 
 Evidently, he did. And he did that well.
Times have changed.
In the same way that Jesuit High School is a much different school than it was when Erik Spoelstra was a Crusader, the world is too. We can now record from our phone or mobile device of preference. Everything is digital. One can share, transfer and edit on demand. But in 1994, things were different. Spoelstra was confined to a place known as "The Dungeon."
"It was in the bowels of the old Miami Arena. It wasn't even part of the offices. It was probably an old storage room. When they decided to make a video department I think they just cleared everything out, threw a couple of VCRs in there and said, 'OK, this is the video room.' 
Spoelstra is the Heat's Dungeonmaster. He rarely sees the Miami sunlight and will sometimes go days without visiting the inside of his Miami Beach studio -- a converted hotel room -- because he overnights in The Dungeon. There, he breaks down game tape, evaluates players, figures out where the pick-and-roll defense is failing and which offensive sets are producing results. 
"What [Spoelstra] did was prime the pump for 11 years, years of learning down in The Dungeon." Riley says. "Sometimes I think being a video coordinator and an advance scout prepares you better to be a head coach than just becoming an assistant coach. You're forced to look at X's and O's and so many things. He had such a great reservoir of basketball knowledge.
And that focus and work ethic hasn't changed. Age Quod Agis
Not an ad for GQ—but should be.
Written in June 2011, "The Mystery Guest Has Arrived" profiled Spoelstra before the Heat team that people know, love and hate today. It continues:
Ask a dozen people and you'll get a single impression: Spoelstra is among the game's hardest workers, most prepared coaches and respectful characters. The uniformity of these testimonials is so extreme, it demands a little diversity of opinion. Can Spoelstra possibly be as unimpeachable as everyone says he is?
"Let me save you a lot of time and phone calls -- yes," says one NBA general manager. "All he does is work his balls off and treat everyone the way they should be treated." (NB: I really wanted to edit his comment there. I am not a fan of that expression. But those are that man's words, not mine).
Those are all admirable qualities, but the basketball world is filled with plenty of guys who fit that description. But only a handful of them can wrangle superstar egos, develop a coherent message for seven or eight months and coach a championship brand of basketball.
That's the question surrounding Spoelstra last summer when the Heat reel in LeBron James and Chris Bosh and re-sign Dwyane Wade. After amassing that unprecedented concentration of talent, Riley decides to entrust the job of delivering not one, not two, not three, but multiple championships, to a young head coach without an NBA playing pedigree or a playoff series victory to his name.
Lakers coach Mike Brown, who coached the Cavaliers for five seasons, understands what it's like to confront the burden of expectations as a young head coach. At age 35, Brown was hired to lead the Cavaliers and James with nothing less than a title as a measure of success.
"In order to be successful at this level, you have to have management skills, people skills," Brown says. "If you have that, you have a chance to reach guys who make more money than you and have more staying power than you. ... At the end of the day, the NBA is about players. And you have to respect that to a certain degree."
Even though they're old friends who faced off years ago in the WCC when Brown played at the University of San Diego, Spoelstra intentionally doesn't seek out Brown's specific advice in the summer of 2010 on working with James, both on and off the court.
"I didn't want to know," Spoelstra says, shaking his head. "I just didn't. This is a different year and it's about staying in the present."
Spoelstra's devotion to the present has been one of the central themes of the Heat's season. When you ask him if he subscribes to any "-isms" as a thinker, he'll offer only one. 
"I'm a stay-in-the-present momentist," he said.
Is Spoelstra fearful of what Brown might tell him? That James is a handful who requires constant maintenance? That he isn't coachable?
"I just didn't want to know," Spoelstra says adamantly. "And LeBron is coachable. One of the most coachable players we've ever had."
Spoelstra's tone rarely gets dismissive, but when he's asked how he manages personal expectations or prepares for potential disappointment, the notion is baffling to him.
"I don't," he says. "I don't even think about that. I'm thinking about right now.""Right now" almost always means work.
People aren't talking about Spoelstra because simply doing your job is boring. We want a media circus filled with distraction, drama and diatribe. Spoelstra's ability to "stay in the moment" is much different. For Spoelstra to be "caught in the moment" we would see what we see on the sidelines: concentration, communication, and coaching. Yet what we see is a gift. It's a discipline and practice that has yielded great fruit. They say victory tastes sweet. Perhaps that's how and why. 

Good job Jesuit High School. I have brought your motto with me back to the Bay Area. I may never watch a Miami Heat game the same way.

Photo Credits
The Dungeon
Family Photo
Coach Spo

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