Heat Coach Spoelstra Rose to Top From Being Riley's Video Assistant

By Amy Shipley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, November 18, 2008

MIAMI -- Miami Heat Coach Erik Spoelstra thought his NBA career might be over just a few months after it began 13 years ago. Soon after Spoelstra landed a humble, foot-in-the-door job as Miami's video coordinator, the Heat lured Pat Riley out of New York, and many expected the new coach to bring in his own staff.

Spoelstra, then 24 and fresh off a two-year playing stint in Germany that netted him plenty of beer and Wiener schnitzel, he said, but little actual money, was apprehensive when Riley showed up in the video room of Miami's old arena. But he was determined to hold on to his new post.

Riley said, " 'Hey, can you do this job? You look kinda young. Do you know what it entails?' " Spoelstra recalled. "I didn't even let him finish. I said, 'Absolutely. I'm the guy.'

"I really, truly didn't have any idea what [the job] meant. . . . I figured if I spent enough nights sleeping in the office, I'd eventually figure it out."

Indeed, Spoelstra figured it out. And, indeed, he sacrificed sleep to do it. And now, as the Washington Wizards face the Heat tonight at Verizon Center, he really is The Guy. When Riley retired from coaching in April to move full-time into the Heat's front office, he turned the reins over to Spoelstra, who at 38 not only is the youngest head coach in the league (he is 69 days younger than New Jersey's Lawrence Frank), but also, by all accounts, looks at least 10 years more youthful than that.

Which explains how he got locked out of a team meeting during the 2005 NBA All-Star Game in Denver despite being an assistant coach on the Eastern Conference staff of then-Heat coach Stan Van Gundy.

Spoelstra, who had briefly stepped outside of a hotel ballroom in which players and coaches had assembled, was mistaken for an autograph-seeker when he tried to return. The guard at the door refused to let him back in. An exasperated Spoelstra waved down former Heat center Shaquille O'Neal, but O'Neal laughed at his predicament and pretended not to know him.

"I was stuck outside," Spoelstra said. "Shaq ignored me. He [told the guard], 'I have no idea who he is.' "

O'Neal eventually vouched for Spoelstra, but some NBA fans might have had the same "I have no idea who he is" reaction in late April when Spoelstra's promotion was announced. As if to hammer home the depth of Spoelstra's youth and the distinctiveness of his background, three days after being named head coach, Spoelstra did an Internet chat with fans -- an unimaginable move from Riley -- answering 12 questions in 18 minutes.

"He started in the NBA's version of the mail room," said Memphis Grizzlies General Manager Chris Wallace, a Heat official in 1995 who was instrumental in the hiring of Spoelstra, "and worked his way to the top."

Except, of course, the top turned out to be the bottom. The Heat finished last season with a 15-67 record, the worst in the NBA. Spoelstra began this fall with a half-dozen young players, two rookie starters, a variety of injuries and virtually no size whatsoever. With center Jamaal Magloire out with a broken wrist, Udonis Haslem, considered an undersized power forward at 6 feet 8, has been forced to become an extremely undersized center. Fortunately for the Heat, Olympic star Dwyane Wade has been playing like he did before last season's knee injury, helping the team get off to a promising start at 5-5.

"We want to build a foundation for the future and not take any shortcuts," Spoelstra said. "It's going to be a process. We knew that going into it."

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