LeBron, Spoelstra forming a genuine bond

By Bill Reiter, Courtesy of Fox Sports
Updated: April 6, 2011

LeBron James and Erik Spoelstra in happier times...

LeBron James and Erik Spoelstra in happier times...

MIAMI — The telling moments have been easy to miss.

The quickly shared smiles on the court. These two men finishing each other’s sentences, so much so that those around them lift their eyebrows in surprise. The coalescing — the trust — borne out of so much turmoil.

Somehow, someway, LeBron James and Erik Spoelstra have formed a sudden and important bond.

Somehow, someway, the young head coach many doubted could coach LeBron and the young superstar many doubted could be coached by him have developed a rapport and comfort with one another well worth noting.

Because if that bond is strong enough to endure playoff pressure, it could be as important to Miami’s postseason hopes as Chris Bosh playing bigger or the bench doing more.

“I think the last few weeks it’s been a lot more comfortable,” Spoelstra said when I asked him about their relationship. “We’ve been communicating a lot more.”

It’s shown.

The team has been in steadier sync the past three weeks because both its leaders have finally been in sync with one another — the head coach and the iconic star.

The turn of events is important enough, and new enough, that after Tuesday’s practice LeBron made time to talk with me about it. That’s as rare an occurrence — LeBron speaking one-on-one with a member of the media — as it would have been to see the two men sharing beers back in November.

“It’s definitely a process, and I think me and Coach Spo are learning each other as we speak,” LeBron said. “It’s not always going to be a bed of roses. We know that. There’s going to be times when Spo don’t like me and I don’t like Spo. That’s just how it is. But we’ve got to have each other’s back no matter what’s going on.”

LeBron said the part about not always liking each other good-naturedly, and with a knowing smile, and therein lies the change: The respect is now real.

Players like LeBron (high-basketball IQ, extreme pressure, constant scrutiny, unworldly ability) and coaches like Spoelstra (young, unproven and coaching someone with a high-basketball IQ living with extreme pressure, constant scrutiny and unworldly ability) are going to have tension.

Sometimes huge tension.

Sometimes tension that breaks any hope of a bond.

“I know there’s a lot of pressure on all of us, including coach Spo, but at the end of the day we’re all in it together,” LeBron said.

They seem to be now. At least for now there is a new comfort between LeBron and his coach, a mutual respect — almost an affection — I would have found unthinkable early in the season.

These are some of the signs that prompted me to ask Spoelstra about it in the first place: • Shared interactions that were noticeably different during timeouts caught on television.

• An exchange in a hallway as comfortable and authentic as it was startling the first time I saw it.

• Words passed between them when they thought no one was looking.

After last week’s loss at Cleveland, Spoelstra gave a very clear view on what was wrong and what his team needed to do. He was upset by the loss, to say the least. I walked into the locker room expecting LeBron to be, as well, and for a certain surliness to creep into his comments.

Instead, LeBron echoed the exact same things as his coach, just minutes later, when there was absolutely no need to.

Unless, of course, if what Spolestra had said after the game to his team — and what he’d repeated to the media — LeBron took totally to heart.

As The Decision showed, LeBron is a man who, when it comes to candor, just can’t help himself. If he thinks something, he shares it, even when he shouldn’t (think: contraction).

When it comes to public relations, LeBron can be his own worst enemy.

Which means, to me, this change with Spoelstra is real. All season LeBron has said things with his body language, his comments, his actions that have told the tale of the star at that moment.

At this moment, he and Spoelstra are beyond tolerating each other. They’re better than good with each other. They’re great.

And don’t think it’s been easy to get here, or that getting here was ever certain. LeBron and Spoelstra — and, yes, all that hate — deserve the credit.

“It takes a while to develop trust,” Spoelstra said. “From a coaching standpoint you have to fight for players’ trust every single day. Every single meeting. Whenever you talk to them — game, pregame, shoot-around, practice. I think every coach has that same feeling.”

Most likely Erik Spoelstra had to fight for it more than most, especially this season.

When I asked LeBron about a turning point between him and Spoelstra, his mind went quickly to the dark times, whether it was November or that five-game skid last month, just before the two found a deeper connection.

“Everything that has been about adversity for us this year has made us stronger,” LeBron said. “It’s not about winning 21 of 22. It’s not about some huge game. It’s about when we lost five in a row or when we started 9-8 where we were struggling as a team. That’s when you build relationships — when things are rough, not when things are going good.”

Based on that, the two should have a very strong bond indeed. Those bad times that brought them closer were bad. Sometimes downright ugly.

At the end of November, an ESPN report said unidentified players wanted Spoelstra gone. Many people — myself absolutely among them — believe either LeBron and/or his camp were behind the report. That’s an ugly place for that relationship to be.

There’s been the bump, in which Spoelstra and LeBron went shoulder-to-shoulder. Early on, sign after sign indicated LeBron wasn’t enamored with his coach — the big and small things that someone as unwittingly demonstrative and candid as LeBron can’t help but telegraph.

“I’m a big believer in direct communication, immediately,” Spoelstra said, snapping his fingers. “Not A to B to C. If we have something to tell each other, we have to do it immediately. And it’s got to be eye to eye. The message cannot be diluted through other areas.”

Well, it was diluted through others areas before. And now it seems not to be. Now, both LeBron and Spoelstra told me, they are talking more. Communicating more freely. Feeling like they have a rhythm and a respect that’s grown.

“We’ve been communicating a lot more,” Spoelstra said. “He’s a highly intelligent player. So from a coaching standpoint you’re drawn to that because he’s interested in the details, he’s interested in the game plan. He’s interested in strategy. And once we developed a trust, I wanted to welcome his ideas as long as it’s in the right context.”

Again, this is candor laced with the warm happy stuff. The “right context” to me means: Now that we’re in this together — now that we’re more partners than guys who happen to be on the same side — the disagreements are good.

Those early tensions between them were real, just as I believe they’re really in the past.

LeBron and Spoelstra have come through the fire together. The concentration of hate and stress and pressure from LeBron’s Dec. 2 return to Cleveland was a crucible that pounded the Heat’s players into teammates.

For the star and the coach, it’s taken more time. The crucible has been the whole journey, not its most jarring stop.

For a coach and a star, as LeBron would say, that’s just how it is.

“Spo and my relationship is still growing, still growing, and we thrive on the pressure and we thrive on the hatred that’s been directed at our team,” he said.

Recently, in the 150 seconds that make up most timeouts, LeBron and Spoelstra have been in a kind of mind meld.

“Sometimes — a lot of times actually now — during timeouts I start to diagram something and he says, ‘Coach, can I say something,’ almost like he’s a student in class,'” Spoelstra said. “And I’ll say, ‘Yeah, absolutely, quickly, we got 2-1/2,’ so I can assimilate it and then possibly translate it to the team.

“Sometimes we’re not even finishing sentences with each other. He’ll say something and I know exactly what he’s talking about,” Spoelstra said, snapping his fingers, his words coming out faster, his voice fired up. “And I’ll say something and I’m halfway through my sentence and he’ll finish my sentence and we go to explain to everybody else and everyone’s sitting in the huddle there going, ‘What just happened there?’ “A lot of times we finish each other’s thoughts in the huddle, and that only happens if a player is really dialed in to the game and the details.”

And, I suggested, into the coach.

Spoelstra smiled sheepishly. “Yeah, a little bit.”

So what does this mean?

First, and the coach knows this, it means Spoelstra has a star player with a coach’s mind for details buying in. That means Spoelstra’s message becomes stronger because it’s also LeBron’s message.

“It really is refreshing, it is,” Spoelstra said. “Because he thinks the game, he intellectualizes the game, the game is important to him. Winning is important. The details of what you’re doing is important. So when you have one of your best players that’s buying into those types of things, it makes it easier to send a message to the team.”

Second, Spoelstra can utilize LeBron’s suggestions, expertise and knowledge without compromising his own authority. A boss with any self-confidence can always listen to good suggestions from smart people. That’s hard to do, no matter how smart the person or good the suggestion, if the person in question is telegraphing how little they think of the boss.

Third, and most important, every great coach needs a great player who can be an extension of his will and vision on the court. Someone he can trust not only with his plan, but can trust, when need be, to properly change the plan on the spur of the moment if the moment demands it.

Are Erik Spoelstra and LeBron James at that point yet? Are they so far along they can be better halves of one another — a modern-day Pat Riley and Magic Johnson?

Who knows? Who knows if LeBron can channel Magic that way or if Spoelstra can grow into a coach measurable against Riley?

But the only way to find out is through the two sharing trust and recognition that a real working bond is important. That each is important to the other.

“To really have a true player-to-coach trusting relationship, you have to go through some stuff,” Spoelstra said. “So now we’ve had very good discussions about strategy and the way things are going.”

Throw in LeBron’s love for details and Xs and Os and you have a player who, in that respect, is a lot like his coach. That’s a recipe for either serious tension, serious respect, or — as could end up being the case this season — one preceding the other.

“That’s the gift and the curse because I have some of my own methods and Coach has some of his own and we both know the game, we both believe in some of the things that we know, but we both have to figure out a way (to do it together),” LeBron said. “Which we have.”

Do that, and LeBron really can be Spoelstra’s extension on the floor.

“I know coach Spo is going to put us out there and give us the best routine, give us the best challenge, and give us the best game plan to win, and I’m going to have to be that coach on the court for him as we play,” LeBron said.

More so, LeBron said, because it’s do-or-die time.

“It’s the stretch run,” LeBron said. “It’s getting close to playoff time. He feels it. I feel it. And me just trying to be the vocal leader on the court, off the court, I’m just trying to be an extension of Coach Spo.

“A coach can do a lot, but when you’re out on the court and the crowd is loud and you’re on the other side of the court, I have to be that guy on the court who helps him out, too,” he said. “I just try to be their leader. That’s what I’m here for.”

If so, this is a newer, more mature LeBron. One who’s not just saying he has his coach’s back but who, for the moment, actually has his coach’s back.

Throw in a coach and star in sync, a team that sees it, and a new and deeper relationship that breeds trust and communication, and the Miami Heat just got a lot more dangerous.

Can it last? Can the good feelings and the fresh bond withstand what’s ahead?

The whole league is about to find out.

“He’s still young, he’s still learning,” LeBron said. “I’m still young, I’m still learning. But I’m glad we’re learning together.”