The Miami Heat had just clinched the NBA championship last summer and there amid the celebration, ushered from his courtside seats to the champagne-drenched Heat locker room, was Butch Jones.
How did the then-Cincinnati football coach end up in Miami at courtside in Game 5 for the hottest ticket in the country?
Like many things involving the first-year Tennessee coach, it came down to relationships, in this case one forged with Miami Heat head coach Erik Spoelstra.
Introduced through their mutual agent, the two coaches met up for dinner one night and quickly realized they spoke the same language.
“We really hit it off,” Jones said. “We started to build a relationship and that trust factor. We found out we believe in a lot of the same core values and principles about motivating and developing your team from a leadership standpoint. And then we just kept talking and talking.”
This year, Spoelstra and the Heat are back in the NBA Finals, trailing the San Antonio Spurs 2-1 in a series that resumes with Game 4 on Thursday. Jones probably won’t be able to make it down to Miami to take in a game, but he has extended an open invitation to Spoelstra to visit Knoxville later this summer.
“We’ve spoken about it,” Jones said. “When I got the job, he was one of the first individuals to text me. So he is a big football fan. I would assume that he’ll be here at some point in time when his schedule allows it to, to watch practice and take a few things in.”
Spoelstra and Jones might not appear to have much in common, but they’ve both reached the highest levels of their profession after starting at the lowest rungs.
Spoelstra, 42, grew up in Oregon and was a point guard at the University of Portland before embarking on a coaching career that began as a video coordinator with the Heat in 1995. He was an assistant with the team in various roles before being elevated to head coach after the 2007-2008 season.
After first-round exits in his first two seasons, the Heat have now made three consecutive NBA Finals.
Spoelstra’s roster is loaded with talent, including megastar LeBron James, but he’s earned praise for his coaching acumen and his ability to manage so many big personalities.
“I think the job that he’s done has been remarkable,” Jones said. “I think everybody thinks that because you have some of the greatest collection of talent, that you just roll the ball out there and you play. That’s the furthest thing from the truth. What he has done to build that (group) into a team is remarkable. I think he’s got one of the most difficult, challenging jobs in the coaching profession.”
Jones said he’s learned from Spoelstra’s ability to block out “clutter” and focus players on what’s really important.
In some ways, Jones said, Spoelstra reminds him a lot of a football coach.
“I think there’s a lot of parallels and similarities. It still comes down to trying to gain every edge you can,” he said. “It doesn’t matter if it’s football or basketball, a lot of times you’re galvanized by a lot of the same beliefs.”
Evan Woodbery covers Tennessee football. Follow him at www.Twitter.com/TennesseeBeat.