Erik Spoelstra has come full circle.
When the Miami Heat won their first championship in 2006, it was then-coach Pat Riley giving his-then-assistant Spoelstra ties to wear and coming up with motivational wizardry to get the team through its playoff grind. Fast forward six years — now it's Spoelstra as head coach, providing Riley with ties, plus commissioning a secret that became the battle cry on the Heat's march to this year's NBA title.
With Riley, it was about "15 Strong," the phrase he coined to point out that every player on the roster had a job. With Spoelstra, it was 16 little lines, scribbled with gold marker on a black replica of the NBA championship trophy that became the unknown rallying point for the Heat throughout these playoffs.
Whatever works. When the Heat championship parade rolled Monday through downtown Miami, Spoelstra had a view from the front of a double-decker bus, cap turned backwards, smile broad as can be, waving at the estimated crowd of 400,000 along with his 5½-year-old nephew.
A month ago, many experts suggested his job was in jeopardy.
Now, Spoelstra is a NBA champion coach — and his trophy suggests he's a champion motivator as well.
"It was a testament to one another," said Heat forward LeBron James, the most valuable player in the NBA finals. "And it had nothing to do with anyone else."
Here's the story: Before the playoffs started, Spoelstra had this black trophy with white lettering, a near perfect replica of the trophy presented to the NBA champions. Each player's name and jersey number appeared on the trophy and the phrases "All In" and "Together/Tough/Trust" were printed on the base.
Spoelstra told the team it was to serve as a symbol of what mattered in the playoffs. Each player signed the ball atop the trophy.
"We signed our names to guarantee we'd bring those things onto the table," Spoelstra said. "And when we weren't, that trophy would come out and we'd remind ourselves we signed our name and we're not being true to that.
"That was a powerful exercise for us."
His team took it seriously.
"I didn't put my autograph on there," Heat forward Chris Bosh said. "I put my signature."
And they didn't tell a soul about it. The member of the Heat equipment staff who had to carry the rectangular duffel bag that served as the trophy's case around had no idea what was inside. Spoelstra wrapped the bag a certain way to ensure that no one would take a peek. Only he, his assistant coaches and his players knew about the trophy.
Among those who didn't: Riley, the master motivator himself.
"We didn't tell anybody," Spoelstra said. "Didn't tell trainers. God bless you, I love you, I didn't tell Pat.
"I didn't tell management. I didn't tell you guys.
"But it was a covenant that we made to each other, the coaching staff and the players that we would commit to a handful of things each and we would say them in front of each other. If we didn't do those things, we would not have a real opportunity to win and play for the title."
Spoelstra took over for Riley four seasons ago. Now in his 17th year in the organization, Spoelstra has had a variety of jobs. He started in the video room, used to work players out before games as an assistant, used to be in charge of tracking certain statistics, led the scouting staff for a while. Before now, his claim to fame in the Heat world may have been how he'd put together the light-hearted Christmas videos making fun of everyone and everything.
A year ago, when the Heat lost in the finals, many questioned if Spoelstra was good enough to follow Riley and lead the Heat to a title. The team's official response to that was to give him a three-year extension.
"I remember what it was like to be on that team when we won 15 games," Spoelstra said, going back to Riley's final season.
"That's a miserable year. Not simply because you're losing all the time — that's miserable enough.
"You're absolutely insignificant. And sometimes what you want in this game is to be a part of something significant, even if it means the negative and the criticism and all that stuff that comes with it.
"You want to be part of a team that matters. You can say a lot of things about our team the last two years, but there was some significance to it."
There's some significance to Spoelstra now as well, although that was the case in Miami already.
"When you're in that seat, you don't get enough [credit] and then you get all the blame," Riley said. "It's just the way it is.
"I've been there — same seat in L.A. Anybody could have walked off the street and coached that team.
"But the opportunity for him is incredible."
When Spoelstra was an assistant, he'd often pull a wrinkled suit out of his bag 20 minutes before game time, throw it on and have Riley scoff at his tie selection. Riley would insist Spoelstra wear another tie, and would give him one for the night. This would typically lead to a fashion disaster — not only could Spoelstra not properly knot the tie, but it would hang way too low.
This year, the Heat were in Boston for a playoff game. Riley was frantic. He had no tie to wear. Spoelstra gave him "one of my worst ones," he said. The Heat won. Riley kept wearing the tie. He wore it on stage a couple weeks later on the night Miami beat Oklahoma City for the NBA title.
Yes, it would seem the student has become the teacher.
"He's a young coach that's really found his way," Riley said. "He's getting better and better every minute."
One of Spoelstra's first acts in the locker room just after this season ended was going to the trophy, grabbing the gold marker and getting ready to draw the 16th line — one depicting each playoff win needed to capture a championship. The champagne stopped getting sprayed for a second, just long enough for the squiggle to get added to the base.
With Riley, the ploy was "Fifteen Strong" cards that he printed up by the wheelbarrow load for the 2006 title run. Spoelstra went a different way, and the result was the same — a title.
Next year, he'll have to come up with something else. For Spoelstra, that's a nice problem to have.
"It's something we had together," Heat guard Dwyane Wade said. "All the things that it said, that was our motto as a team."