INDIANAPOLIS — When Michigan basketball takes the floor Sunday against Florida State at Bankers Life Fieldhouse, few will be rooting harder for the Wolverines than the coaches of the Miami Heat.
They just won’t be watching the game together.
COVID-19 made sure of that.
Before the pandemic, though, the Heat staff gathered whenever it could during U-M’s games to cheer for Juwan Howard’s team. The watch parties usually took place on the road, where Erik Spoelstra would invite everyone to his room.
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Someone would order room service. Someone else would bring a bottle — or three — of wine. And for the next two hours, some of the best minds in basketball let themselves be fans.
“When I watch his games, I’m throwing stuff at the TV, yelling at the officials, things that are a little out of character for me,” said Spoelstra. “It’s been a lot of fun. We’re all Michigan alums.”
Howard played for Spoelstra for three seasons before joining his staff for six years, first as a player development coach, then as an assistant coach. But even as a player, Spoelstra could see the makings of a future coach. Just as he could see Howard doing what he’s done in Ann Arbor.
“He’s such a brilliant communicator and connector,” said Spoelstra.
Not that Spoelstra or those on his staff who worked with Howard want to diminish his overall basketball mind. Just watch the Wolverines play, said Chris Quinn, a Heat assistant who grew up in Columbus, Ohio, played at Notre Dame, and now finds himself in the strange position of rooting for a school he grew up, well, not loving.
“In general, they do a great job of … playing with space and pace,” said Quinn. “They are always helping each other, moving the basketball, moving without the basketball. There is a connectedness to the way they play. Those things don’t happen by accident.”
They are a reflection of Howard’s basketball vision, which can get overshadowed by the team’s competitive zeal and mental toughness, traits Howard had as a player, and traits he honed as a coach in Miami.
Do Quinn and Spoelstra and the rest of the staff see the Heat in the Wolverines? Well, of course they do. Why wouldn’t they? Howard soaks up strategy and philosophy like a sponge.
But they also see growth, from last year’s team to this year’s, and that’s hardly surprising, either.
“Honestly? This is what I expected,” said Quinn. “Just knowing Juwan, what a special guy he is. I knew he’d recruit really well because of his charisma. And he’s going to attack (what he doesn’t know.) You could tell he was always learning and growing.”
Howard recently called himself a defensive-minded coach, for example. Because that was his primary role in Miami, along with working with the big men.
And when he got the job at U-M, he said, he knew he needed to add assistants that could help him navigate the offense. Which Quinn finds kind of funny, though not out of character for Howard to admit that.
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Howard was a technician as a player on the low block. He has always seen the game from that end of the floor.
“When I look at it,” said Quinn, “I don’t think his weakness would be offense. He’s a super sharp basketball mind.”
“We talked a lot at Miami about surrounding yourself with people that can bring you up,” said Quinn.
Howard built his staff in Ann Arbor drawing on those conversations.
“That shows a lot of humility in Juwan,” said Quinn. “He asked: How can I prove my offensive mind?”
When Quinn and Spoelstra watch the Wolverines, they see a team that flows and shares and causes mismatches and misdirection. It can be balletic, not unlike the way the Heat played last year in the NBA bubble, when Miami made the Finals.
Even so, Spoelstra didn’t want to take credit for what Howard has done and what he is doing. When he watches his former assistant coach, he doesn’t simply see familiar concepts and culture — the Heat stress basketball as family, too.
“I probably just see more him,” Spoelstra said.
Howard’s countenance. His demeanor. His essence.
The same things he saw when the team signed Howard at the end of his prime, to sit on the bench, play a few minutes if needed, bring voice to the locker room, serve as a quasi-coach in a uniform.
No wonder the Heat coach grins when he’s asked about him. No wonder he screams like a U-M student when the staff sits around the television on an off night on the road.
“It gets noisy,” said Quinn.
Whether good things are happening or bad. He and the rest of the coaches are invested. And knew what was coming U-M’s way when lots of the rest of us did not.
They watched him coach the Heat’s summer team a few years back, and noticed how effortlessly the squad took on Howard’s personality, and how together the players seemed in a cutthroat environment, where men are fighting for jobs.
“He’s always put himself second and the team first,” said Quinn. “Right away, he commanded respect. That summer league team showed it on the court.”
Quinn knew before then that Howard would be leading his own program at some point, whether in the NBA or in college. And he knew he would be ready when he got the opportunity.
“We are all super proud of him,” said Quinn, who texts regularly with Howard. “We follow along closely.”
They just have to do it separately. At least for a little while longer, until the pandemic recedes. And when it finally does, they will gather once more and let loose and scream and holler and jump up and down.
As Spoelstra said, they’re all Wolverines now.
Contact Shawn Windsor: 313-222-6487 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @shawnwindsor.