As he spent his first month coaching LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, Miami Heat coach Erik Spoelstra heard the intense scrutiny over his job security.
When the Heat’s “Big Three” labored through the start of the 2010-11 season with an 8-6 record, former Los Angeles Lakers coach Phil Jackson speculated that Heat president Pat Riley would replace Spoelstra soon. So did various published reports. No wonder Spoelstra hardly found it surprising when he heard fans call for his dismissal. What did surprise Spoelstra: how his assistants David Fizdale and Ron Rothstein responded to the chants during one game.
“They were there cheering with them, ‘Fire Spo!’” Spoelstra recalled. “It was a way of making fun of it and letting them know they were with me, as funny as that sounds. We all got a good laugh.”
Spoelstra recalled that incidents with nostalgia. Ever since the NBA suspended last season season because of the coronavirus pandemic outbreak in March 2019, the league has lacked the fan presence that has made such interactions possible.
In the early days of coaching Dwyane Wade (3), LeBron James and the Miami Heat, coach Erik Spoelstra heard a lot of talk that he should be fired. But he got a laugh when his assistant coaches joined the chorus. (Photo: Rob Grabowski, USA TODAY Sports)
First, the NBA resumed last season during the summer in a bubble without fans. The NBA launched the 2020-21 season with 21 out of 30 teams eventually opening their arena to fans in limited capacity. Players and coaches have noted all season how different it has felt to play games before reduced crowds. So much so that Atlanta Hawks coach Nate McMillan observed that games “almost feel like a practice.” That atmosphere might stay the same even with 27 out of 30 teams committed toward opening their venues at least to some fans this season.
Therefore, a handful of NBA coaches and players recalled fondly their favorite moments with fans, whether it involved memorable interactions, an electric atmosphere or just something weird.
The memorable interactions?
When the Utah Jazz visited the Detroit Pistons on Jan. 5, 2019, Jazz guard Donovan Mitchell said he heard a Pistons fan “talking crazy” after he initially struggled. So after scoring 24 second-half points and icing the game with a pull-up jumper with 22 seconds remaining, Mitchell looked toward the fan. Mitchell then yelled, “you did this; this is your fault!”
“He may have just said something innocently, and I just took it as personal,” Mitchell said. “He could’ve just been cheering his team on. But he was in my face about it as I walked to the locker room. That’s all I really needed.”
The electric atmosphere?
Well before the Golden State Warriors won three NBA titles in five consecutive Finals trips, their appearance in the 2013 NBA playoffs marked only the second time in 19 years they had made the postseason. So when the Warriors left the locker room before Game 1 of their first-round series against the Denver Nuggets, the fan reception at Oracle Arena became even too much for the home team.
“They stopped playing music because the fans were chanting and were loud,” Warriors forward Draymond Green said. “We were getting complaints that we had amps in the arena amplifying the noise. That was crazy.”
Consider what happened to Philadelphia 76ers center Dwight Howard during his prime years with the Orlando Magic following one game against the Wizards in Washington D.C. Then, Howard greeted a handful of Magic fans eager for his jersey only to experience something unexpected.
“I got ready to take my jersey off and the tunnel collapsed where I was walking out,” Howard said. “That was one of the scariest moments, but I’ll never forget it. The whole tunnel collapsed because all of the fans were trying to run down to get my jersey.”
When Warriors coach Steve Kerr played with Kevin Willis during his 14-year NBA career, Kerr once heard a fan yell out during a game, ‘Hey Willis, are you single, my grandma kind of likes you!’”
Sacramento Kings coach Luke Walton, a former Lakers forward, heard actor Jack Nicholson call out a screen for him since none of Walton’s teammates alerted him beforehand. At another game, Nicholson saddled up to Lakers coach Frank Vogel, then a Boston Celtics assistant coach, when the officials reviewed whether Lakers star Kobe Bryant released a game-winning shot before the buzzer sounded.
Kevin Willis, who began a two-year run with the Spurs when he was 40 years old, heard a lot of age-old jokes late in his career. (Photo: ROBERT HANASHIRO, USA Today)
“He just looked at me and said, ‘Was it good, or wasn’t it? Who knows,’” Vogel imitated Nicholson saying in his deep voice. “He just left it at that.”
The playful trash talk?
Milwaukee Bucks guard Jrue Holiday, who played with the New Orleans Pelicans for the previous seven years, talked back to a heckling Portland Trail Blazers fan throughout a first-round playoff series in 2018. Shortly after the Pelicans swept the Trail Blazers, the fan apologized through direct message on Twitter partly out of concern those exchanges fueled Holiday’s performance.
“I told him, ‘I love it; you’re part of the reason why we won,’” Holiday said. “He kind of got me going. He was talking trash, so you have to step up to the plate. It was a cool interaction.”
The heated moments?
Dallas Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle, a former Boston Celtics reserve in the 1980's, said Detroit Pistons super fan "Leon the Barber" often yelled things to opponents that remained unsuitable for print. Washington Wizards coach Scott Brooks once heard a female fan yelling expletives at him for unknown reasons.
“I wasn’t too happy with it,” Brooks said. “I said a few things to her husband that I probably should’ve never said. I don’t want to tell you exactly what she told me. But that wasn’t a good moment for her or myself.”
Most of the memorable fan moments, however, seemed more respectful.
Phoenix Suns coach Monty Williams, who interned with the San Antonio Spurs’ coaching staff (2004-05), mostly remembered Argentinian guard Manu Ginobili talking to Spurs fans in Spanish after the team plane arrived at the San Antonio airport. Then, Williams saw the impact Ginobili could make on several people.
“It was one of the coolest things I’ve ever been a part of with the fans,” Williams said. “I didn’t know what he was saying. I just knew it was cool.”
No wonder NBA players and coaches would like to play in games in front of fans, soon. More memorable interactions would likely await.
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