Heat’s Max Strus, family reflect on journey to East finals: ‘It’s still kind of surreal’

·9 min read
Daniel A. Varela/dvarela@miamiherald.com

Even after going undrafted out of DePaul in 2019, Max Strus knew he could play in the NBA.

So Strus kept pushing, spending summer league and training camp with the Boston Celtics before he was waived just before the 2019-20 season.

Strus then signed a two-way contract with his hometown Chicago Bulls days later. He impressed as a scorer with the organization’s G League affiliate and even played in two NBA games with the Bulls during the first few months of the season.

But in December 2019, Strus tore the ACL in his left knee, and he was forced to miss the rest of the season. That’s when doubt began to creep into his mind.

“I believed in myself that I could be playing at this level and competing on this stage,” Strus, 26, said ahead of the Heat’s matchup against the Celtics on Monday night in Game 4 of the Eastern Conference finals at TD Garden. “The only thing that wavered in my mind after the ACL injury was if I ever got another chance.

“You see a lot of young players come into the NBA, they only get one or two cracks at it. You’re lucky if you get a second chance. Me being undrafted and being an older rookie and stack a knee injury on top of that, I was just wary if anybody was going to give me another opportunity.”

When the Bulls informed the then-24-year-old Strus prior to the 2020-21 season that their roster was full, he was left wondering what was next as he looked to make his return from knee surgery.

Strus was searching for an opportunity to earn another two-way contract, and there weren’t many still available just days before the start of training camp. The Miami Heat and San Antonio Spurs were options.

“His agent was adamant about going to Miami,” Strus’ father, John Strus, remembers. “I remember sitting in the kitchen here. San Antonio was in play for a while. Then Max went up his room, packed his bag, came down and San Antonio signed somebody else. So it was just like happening before our eyes.”

The Spurs ended up filling their open two-way slot with Keita Bates-Diop, and Strus was soon on a flight to Miami.

“I think he was getting on a plane and didn’t really know what tomorrow was going to bring,” John Strus said.

By impressing in training camp and during the preseason, Strus earned a two-way contract from the Heat.

About 18 months later, Strus is playing as a starter for the Heat in the East finals. Strus spent the entire 2020-21 season playing on the two-way contract he was hoping for and then was promoted to the 15-man roster last offseason.

“Where he has come in 18 months is just incomprehensible,” John Strus said. “I’m surprised, but I’m not surprised. His work ethic has gotten him here. We’re extremely proud.”

Strus’ parents, John and Debbie Strus, have supported him through it all. They were there when Strus received just one Division I offer (Chicago State) coming out of high school in Palos Hills, Illinois, and began his college career in Division II at Lewis University, kept encouraging him when he went undrafted in 2019, remained by his side when he tore his ACL a few months into his first NBA season and helped guide him to Miami.

Now that Strus has finally found a home in the NBA, they are following him around the country.

John and Debbie estimate that they attended 25 Heat games in the regular season, driving to nearby cities like Chicago, Milwaukee, Detroit and Indianapolis from their home in Hickory Hills, Illinois — about a 30-minute drive to downtown Chicago — to watch Strus and also flying to Miami for games at FTX Arena. They have also attended games in each round of the playoffs.

“We’re going to try as much as we can to get to any game from now on,” John Strus said.

ALL IN THE FAMILY

Strus’ parents are former athletes. John was a pitcher at Eastern Illinois University, and Debbie played basketball and volleyball at DePaul and was inducted into the school’s Athletics Hall of Fame in 2000.

Their three children — Max, his older brother Marty and older sister Maggie — also all played sports at the college level. But Max is the one who kept going.

“I’m very fortunate to be raised by the parents that I have,” Strus said. “... We’re very close Me, my brother, my sister, my parents, we’re all really close and talk every single day. So to be able to have these moments for myself is one thing. But to be able to share it with them is a whole other thing.”

The moments shared have included encounters with Heat coach Erik Spoelstra in a Las Vegas hotel lobby during summer league and Heat president Pat Riley in the FTX Arena parking lot.

“I thanked him for Max’s opportunity and he thanked me, which I’m like ‘wow,’” John said of a quick conversation with Riley in January. “So yeah, I was in awe. ... These kids don’t get it. The respect for somebody like that. That guy is Mr. NBA to me. And how neat to have your son in that organization.”

But one request from John and Debbie left their son asking questions.

With family members wanting Strus’ autograph, John and Debbie sent a bunch of 4-by-6 and 5-by-7 photos of their youngest son to be printed at a Miami Walgreens in January for Strus to sign. In March, they did it again.

“When my son [Marty] went there in March, I was on the phone with Max,” Debbie recalls. “I said, ‘Hey, Max. If I send some more pictures over to Walgreens, would you guys pick them up and could you send them and have Marty bring them home?’ He goes, ‘What are you doing with those pictures?’ It was kind of a funny joke.”

Strus could not bring bring himself to pick up those photos himself.

“I couldn’t do it,” Strus said with a laugh. “I couldn’t hold myself to it to go and pick that up by myself. I made my brother go do that for me.”

But now John and Debbie have a stack of autographed photos of their son they pass out to those they know will appreciate the gift.

“I have them in my car for certain people,” John said. “Like our dentist, he loves Max. So I went to the dentist. He has a new office, so I went in my car and brought the picture back. You would think I gave the guy $1,000. I don’t walk around the neighborhood passing them out door to door. But it’s for the people who are not going to take them and sell them.”

For John and Debbie, their life as retirees is now consumed by being grandparents and attending as many of Strus’ games as possible. When they can’t physically attend a game, they will watch Strus play on TV with their phones in another room so they can focus on the action.

“We don’t invite anybody over. We don’t want to go anywhere,” John Strus said. “We just want to watch the game because we watch it differently than other people, obviously. It’s nerve-racking. A year ago, we were waiting for him to come off the bench and get in the game and we’re excited. Then he was in the rotation. Now he’s starting.”

AN UNEXPECTED DESTINATION

Strus was moved into the Heat’s starting lineup following a season-high four-game losing skid with two weeks left in the regular season. Strus has remained in that role, as the Heat entered Monday’s Game 4 with wins in 16 of the 20 games he has appeared in since that point.

“Honestly, it’s still new,” Debbie said of watching her son start playoff games. “So it’s still kind of surreal. He’s worked so hard to get where he’s at. I don’t even think he realized he was going to be where he’s at right now, in the starting lineup. We’re just super proud of him.”

Strus averaged career highs in points (10.6), rebounds (3), assists (1.4) and minutes (23.3) while shooting a career-best 41 percent on 6.5 three-point attempts per game in the regular season. He was one of only six NBA players to shoot 41 percent or better on at least six three-point attempts per game, along with Brooklyn’s Kyrie Irving, Memphis’ Desmond Bane, Chicago’s Lonzo Ball, Los Angeles’ Luke Kennard and Brooklyn’s Joe Harris.

In this year’s playoffs, Strus entered Monday averaging 12.2 points while shooting 36.2 percent on 8.3 three-point attempts per game, 4.4 rebounds and 2.1 assists. He recorded the first two double-doubles of his NBA career in the Heat’s second-round series against the Philadelphia 76ers.

“It is pretty cool how far I’ve come and where I’m at and to be playing on this high of a level and to be starting and doing all of these things,” Strus said. “But with all the accomplishments I’ve had in my career and in my life, I’ve never really gotten stuck on any one. I think that’s why I keep surprising people because my attitude has always been, ‘OK, you’ve done this, you’ve done that. What’s next?’”

Strus’ journey to this point has felt long and included more than a few bumps. But when considering he stood just 5-9 as a sophomore in high school in 2012, things have changed pretty drastically for the now 6-5 Strus in the past 10 years.

“We would have never even thought that was in the cards,” Debbie said. “He grew so late. He didn’t grow until like the end of his junior year, senior year of high school.”

Strus insists to friends and family that he could have made it as a pitcher if he would have pursued baseball. Strus pitched in high school and touched 85 miles per hour with his fastball.

“Coming out of high school, he probably would have been like a Division III baseball pitcher and then when his growth spurt took off — 6-5, 220 pounds — he says he could throw 100 mph,” John said. “I don’t know. But I would say probably 90 and maybe somebody could work with him.“

When asked recently if he could have made it as a pitcher, Strus doubled down.

“I genuinely do think I could have if I really put my time and effort into it,” Strus said. “I think if you ask my high school baseball coach, he would agree.”

With how far Strus has come, from a Division II basketball player to an NBA starter in the East finals, it has become hard to doubt him.

“I put nothing past him,” John said. “Believe me.”

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