Commentary

Jon Spoelstra eyes family's first ring

Former Nets exec living vicariously through his son, Erik -- in more ways than one

Updated: June 21, 2012, 12:44 PM ET
By Ian O'Connor | ESPNNewYork.com

As a former executive with the New Jersey Nets, a marketing man once saddled with the unmarketable likes of Derrick Coleman and Chris Morris, Jon Spoelstra is living vicariously through his son, Erik, in more ways than one.

Without even applying a single trick of his public-relations trade, Jon could have sold out every game at his Meadowlands arena with LeBron James and Dwyane Wade on his side.

"A dream team for marketing purposes," Jon said by phone.

But this isn't only about selling tickets and sponsorships. Spoelstra had a chance to help his GM, Willis Reed, and his coach, Chuck Daly, build something special with the Nets, at least until his phone rang at 3 a.m. two weeks after the team had promoted him from consultant to president.

[+] EnlargeErik Spoelstra
Issac Baldizon/NBAE/Getty ImagesWith talent on his team his father could only have dreamed of, Erik Spoelstra is four quarters away from an NBA title.

Drazen Petrovic had been killed in a crash on a rain-slicked German autobahn. The Nets were left with Coleman and Kenny Anderson and a playoff team that couldn't make it out of the first round.

"I really would've liked to have won a title," said Spoelstra, a front-office man with Portland when the Trail Blazers drafted Petrovic. "I guess I'll get more satisfaction when Erik does it, because I no longer have a chance."

Spoelstra turned 70 on Tuesday, and he has no desire to return to a league on the verge of being conquered by his son's Miami Heat. At 41, Erik could win the NBA title on Thursday night with a victory over the Oklahoma City Thunder, a victory that could signal the start of the kind of dynastic run his boss, Pat Riley, had with the Showtime Lakers.

Erik's old man is scheduled to be in the AmericanAirlines Arena stands for Game 5. Asked if he wants a championship for his son more than he wanted one for himself, Jon Spoelstra said, "I'm not sure I'd go that far.

"But I'm absolutely thrilled. This wasn't all part of some grand plan that Erik Spoelstra would become a coach and win an NBA title. I didn't really see a coach in the making."

As an executive in Portland, Jon had Erik, then in junior high, accompany him to dozens of Blazers home games. It wasn't long before the father realized the son had a higher basketball IQ than he did.

"His knowledge of the game was far superior to mine," Jon said.

Erik would start in the backcourt at the University of Portland, play a little in Germany, and end up as the video coordinator for the Heat right before Riley made his bizarre escape from New York.

Erik was looking for ways to impress Riley, if only to remain gainfully employed, and he started by sleeping in his office three nights a week.

"I said to Erik, 'You're going through so much video that after a while you're going to see things that even Riley doesn't see,'" Jon recalled. "I told him, 'When you see something like that, pull it out and leave it for Riley with a note.'

"Erik did that for a couple of weeks, and he called me back to say Riley never said anything about it. I told him, 'That's OK. He's the boss. He doesn't have to say anything, but keep on doing it.'"

For a year Riley didn't say a word to Erik about his extra-credit assignments, and so finally the video coordinator gave up. The following season, Riley walked into Spoelstra's office in the bowels of the team's facility and said, "How come you're not giving me that extra stuff anymore?"

Erik still worries about earning Riley's approval, just in an entirely different context. The younger Spoelstra needs to win a title in Year 2 of the Big Three to honor Riley's faith in him, and the older Spoelstra only wishes he had the same kind of stars to lean on in Jersey.

Jon worked under the infamous Secaucus Seven ownership group, and he was initially hired in 1990 as a consultant to sponsors. Jon asked the owners, "Who in the world would want to sponsor this team? Nobody goes to the games, and the people who do look a little suspect."

The Nets hadn't sold out in forever, and Spoelstra used creative ticket plans to sell out five games in his first year, and more than 30 in his final season in '95, when Butch Beard's Nets went 30-52.

"We were selling opponents because we couldn't sell our team," Spoelstra said. "Jordan, Magic and Bird were part of our five-game plans because they had the charisma and talent to sell out an arena on their own. Pippen and Barkley couldn't sell out an arena, but Shaquille O'Neal was amazing. Someone asked me how to sell out hockey arenas and I told him to sign Shaquille O'Neal as a goaltender because he'd sell out anything."

The Nets' stars were never what anyone would call embraceable. From Anderson's missed practices to Coleman's whoop-de-damn-dos to Morris' unlaced sneakers, Spoelstra had to make a functional sell out of a dysfunctional product.

He pushed the Nets to draft and sign players of high moral character, to avoid paying big money to complementary players, and to flee the North Bergen trucking facility the team used as a practice court. Sometimes the Secaucus Seven listened, but usually they did not.

Spoelstra said he left New Jersey on his own, without being pushed, because he'd proved to himself he could market almost anything. Jon likened his experience with the Nets to Erik's first season as Miami's head coach in 2009, when he turned the 15-win Heat into the 43-win Heat.

"I told Erik it's a blessing and a curse to have the Spoelstra work ethic," Jon said. "He said, 'What's the curse?' I told him it's great because you usually do better than other people of similar ability, but the curse is you miss out on things because you work your butt off.'"

In 1983, Jon was so valued as a worker that the Indiana Pacers actually traded guard Don Buse to Portland for a few weeks of Spoelstra's consultation services. Jon would later become a speaker, an author of five books and, of greater consequence, the father of a head coach who now stands four quarters away from a parade.

"Most fathers don't get to watch what their sons do for a living on TV," Jon said, "and most fathers don't hear criticism of their sons doing their jobs. I know some announcers don't know what they're talking about, but it's difficult.

"You take a tremendous amount of joy out of it, but it's not fun. I'll be glad when the Finals are over."

Yes, Jon Spoelstra will be glad when Erik Spoelstra brings home the family's first ring. If Game 5 ends up as a deferred Father's Day gift from the head coach of the Miami Heat, this much is certain:

It won't inspire a whoop-de-damn-do from his old man.

Ian O'Connor

ESPNNewYork.com columnist
Ian O'Connor has won numerous national awards as a sports columnist and is the author of three books, including the bestseller, "The Captain: The Journey of Derek Jeter." ESPN Radio broadcasts "The Ian O'Connor Show" every Sunday from 7 to 9 a.m. ET. Follow Ian on Twitter »

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