Culture Meets Process: How Erik Spoelstra’s Former Assistant Is Bringing Championship DNA to Philly
Culture versus Process. This is a debate that’s been had on your favorite social media platform since Sam Hinkie first set the Sixers organization on a very specific course.
That “process” began with multiple years of purposeful, putrid basketball with the goal of acquiring top picks that should translate into high-end talent. After some hits and misses, the Philadelphia 76ers are now a blossoming juggernaut in a suddenly crowded field of Eastern Conference contenders.
The debate is a unique one: The Miami Heat believe that pushing for wins and player development is always the best approach, while the Sixers have established themselves as a contender through years of arduous rebuilding.
One person who has a unique perspective into how these organizations are similar and different is 76ers’ new Director of Coaching Administration, Rich Fernando.
Fernando grew up in the Bay Area and attended Salesian High School, which remains one of the nation’s top-five basketball programs. Salesian’s head coach, Bill Mellis, was a huge influence on Fernando in his early years around the game.
Once he graduated high school, Fernando enrolled at the University of San Francisco where he spent four years as the manager of the university before becoming Director of Basketball Operations in his final year there. He worked under and was mentored by Anwar McQueen, who now runs Team Inc., a STEM non-profit in Oakland that teaches sports technology initiatives to urban youth, which Fernando is a founding board member.
“Words can’t describe the influence that both these guys (Mellis and McQueen) have had on me,” Fernando said.
Fernando’s journey in the NBA began thanks to his prior experience with sports technology initiatives and software. He joined the Miami Heat as an assistant video coordinator before the 2007-08 season due to his experience with a new software that was being introduced to the NBA at the time.
“The person doing the hiring at that time was an assistant named Erik Spoelstra,” Fernando said. “I got hired, came in during the middle of training camp, and worked really closely with Erik and our head video coordinator, Dan Craig.”
While working under Erik Spoelstra and Dan Craig in the video room, Miami embarked on a tumultuous season that resulted in the Heat finishing with the worst record (15-67) in the NBA. The season ended with Pat Riley stepping back into the front office as team president and handing the coaching reigns to Spoelstra.
Fernando continued working in the video room for the following five seasons, culminating in the Heat’s back-to-back championship titles in 2012 and 2013. Entering the final season of the Big 3 in 2014, Fernando was promoted to an administrative role within the franchise, working directly under Coach Spoelstra as the Assistant to the Head Coach. Having spent so many years working alongside and under Spoelstra created a close bond between the two.
“Working with Spo required me to know a lot about how he likes to operate from both basketball and non-basketball perspectives,” Fernando said. “We became very close over the course of those 11 years, especially with the success we had with those four Finals appearances and two championship victories. Off the court as well, we shared a lot of growth, with Erik getting married in 2016, and then having his first son, Santiago, in March of 2018. It’s been great to see Erik grow both personally and professionally, as well.”
Among the many things that he was responsible for when it came to supporting Coach Spo, one of Fernando’s most important responsibilities was helping to organize all relevant materials on players entering free agency right after the season ends.
“So much goes into free agency and bringing the moving parts together,” Fernando said. “Analytics, video, articles, [and] info about Miami. It is a big task getting all that information together. I learned so much from it.”
Fernando also had the unique experience of getting to spend time under both Riley and Spoelstra as head coaches, albeit only one season with Coach Riley. What was interesting is that he found that old school Riley and new school Spoelstra had much more in common than not, despite the fact that they were raised in very different eras of the game.
“They are both very direct and culture oriented. They are both very detail oriented and they both set high expectations for their players. I, personally, got to see more of Spo and his evolution as a head coach.” Fernando said. “There’s a lot more aspects to player management in today’s NBA, especially when you take into account the social media dynamic, which was something that Pat didn’t have to deal with as a head coach.
Pat is actually one of the most technologically savvy people I know,” Fernando added. “I remember he was always very up to date with the latest Apple products and how their ecosystem worked. He has a genuine interest in how technology is utilized, so I think he could’ve handled that aspect easily, but at that time, it definitely wasn’t prevalent in the NBA, let alone society. That aspect, I think, has changed a lot of the day-to-day interactions between players and staff … Pat always has a pulse to everything going on in the organization.”
Fast forward to last summer and Fernando came to a crossroads regarding his future in both his professional and personal lives. His contract with the Heat had expired and his long-time girlfriend had just gotten a professional opportunity very close to Philadelphia, so there were difficult decisions looming until a unique opportunity presented itself.
“They say that timing is everything. It would have taken an insanely great opportunity to leave Miami and to leave the organization after the last 11 years I had here,” Fernando shared. “The opportunity with the Sixers came about because they were looking for someone with a similar skill set to mine, mostly due to a lot of movement within their own staff.”
Former Sixers assistant coach Lloyd Pierce received the head coaching job with the Atlanta Hawks this past offseason. In addition, another one of Philadelphia’s assistants, Connor Johnson, got transitioned to head coach the Delaware Blue Coats, the 76ers G League affiliate franchise.
“The other factor was that, personally, my girlfriend had gotten the opportunity to do her medical residency in a town in New Jersey that wouldn’t be very far away,” Fernando said. “So, those two aspects brought it together very quickly, and it was a perfect fit at the moment.”
Making such a drastic change was never going to be easy, especially after the last 11 years that Fernando had spent in Miami. His close ties with the organization, all the success the team had had during his tenure there, as well as the friends he had made in the city were all factors that made a transition like this so difficult. However, Fernando noted that part of what helped push him to take the opportunity with the Sixers was the support he received from those within the Heat.
“Pat, Spo, and Andy [Elisburg] (GM) were all amazing and that made the whole interview and exiting process as seamless as possible,” Fernando said. “It was a really cool experience getting to meet Coach [Brett] Brown, Ned Cohen (Assistant General Manager), Alex Rucker (Executive VP of Basketball Operations), Marc Eversley (Sr. VP or Player Personnel), and Elton Brand (GM) and really getting to know what another organization is doing dynamically.”
Fernando was hired to become the Director of Coaching Administration of the Philadelphia 76ers in June of 2018, where he is charged with a wide range of responsibilities.
Those responsibilities include: being the liaison with the front office regarding administrative and strategic matters, chairing the daily staff meetings, handling Coach Brown’s schedule, as well as establishing relationships with companies and institutions to enhance the team’s culture, just to name a few.
He is often the representative for the coaching staff during meetings with the front office, outside organizations, as well as continuing his work with sports technology initiatives.
Upon first arriving in Philadelphia, Fernando immediately noticed differences between the organizations.
“From a personnel level, there is a much bigger staff in Philadelphia and a lot more people within basketball operations, so it’s a lot. I feel like I’m still learning some people’s names sometimes,” he said laughingly. “In Miami we had worked together for so many years, and in Philadelphia you have a lot of people that are relatively new to the program, like me, so that’s a new challenge for a lot of us here.
In Miami, I walked into an environment where the culture had been established for over a decade at that point. The Sixers organization is developing a great culture and program, and now they are making the strides in team building and culture where it’s translating to on-court success, which is great to be a part of.”
The culture that they are developing in Philadelphia can largely be credited to their Head Coach, Brett Brown, who has been guiding the organization since the beginning of the Hinkie era. It takes a particular personality to navigate a group of young men through difficult times like those, and Fernando expressed how valuable his first year with Coach Brown has been.
“I’m learning so much from Coach Brown … He’s so connected with everything going on,” Fernando said. “Coach Brown came from the Spurs organization, and before that, he came from Australia working on their Olympic team, so he’s been around some great people and great organizations himself. Being able to tap into that resource has been great for myself, and I hope I’ve been able to bring something unique to the staff in Philadelphia.”
When asked about Fernando’s presence with the team since he joined, Coach Brown did not hold back on the importance of Fernando’s role and provided some insight into how Philadelphia has chosen to build its coaching and administrative staffs, which he related to another popular sport.
“I feel like if I’m candid with myself about what am I most proud of, in Philadelphia, from an organizational standpoint, is that I love my staff. Everyone is in a crystal clear lane,” Brown said. “I’ve told people before, it’s an NFL style program. I’ve set it up in very compartmental type ways: offense, defense, special teams, analytics, shooting coach, the whole thing.
Part of that infrastructure that lets me go to different lanes and manage my world is, you know, personal help, and making sure my schedule with media appointments, or community service, or meeting with Joel [Embiid] and Ben [Simmons], whatever it is it is,” he added. “We’re proud of us sending people up the food chain and advancing our own careers, and we did that with Connor, but it leaves a vacuum and a void. Coincidentally, Fernando explained that he was coming to New Jersey because his very close partner was working about 100 yards behind our building, and there was an opportunity, so it was just timing. He’s come in, he’s been fantastic, he keeps me organized, and he’s part of my day-to-day routine and organization.”
Although Rich’s experience has now taken him away from the South Florida roots where he began his NBA journey, he commented on the influence that various members of the Heat’s organization, both current and former, have had on him as a professional.
“From Spo, I learned the value of having attention to detail. He is the most detail-oriented person I’ve ever met in my life. He reinforces dotting your I’s, crossing your T’s, [and] double- and triple-check checklists,” Fernando reminisced. “He made me comfortable asking questions but also letting me figure out what to do at times. He showed me if you give your best effort with good intentions, everything will work out.”
Fernando said former Miami Heat assistant coach and current New York Knicks head coach David Fizdale taught him so much about the people aspect of the business. When Fernando got to Miami, he admits he had a pretty quiet personality until Fizdale helped him break out of his shell.
Between current Miami Heat assistant coaches, Juwan Howard and Craig, and Elisburg, Fernando is always reminded by the meticulousness needed to work inside an NBA front office and coaching staff.
“Just being able to be versatile and wear a bunch of different hats,” he said. “I learned a lot from all these different guys in their own unique ways. It has shaped who I am to this point.”