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."
Spoelstra can only hope the Heat grows as fast as he did. The son of a Dutch-Irish father and Filipina mother, Spoelstra became the first Asian-American coach in any of the four U.S. major sports leagues.
In his early years in Miami, Spoelstra spent so much time in a windowless room known as "The Cave" editing game tapes and putting together video packages that Riley joked he didn't know his name for three years. Spoelstra would work all night when the team was on the road to ensure videos made it on express flights to the team hotels the next day.
"You never saw him," Wallace said. "He was in what was sort of his laboratory there. . . . It wasn't a glamorous position, staying up all night and never seeing the sun."
Spoelstra shot down reports that he kept a cot the video room. There was, he said, nothing quite so comfortable.
"It would be," he said, "more like passing out in your chair while working."
Riley said Spoelstra at first impressed him from a distance, eliciting rave reviews from former Heat assistants Van Gundy and Jeff Bzdelik. After several years as a video coordinator, Spoelstra was promoted to scout, which meant he escaped The Cave and earned hundreds of nights on the road, where he filed detailed reports on the Heat's opponents.
"These jobs don't get any easier," Spoelstra said. "My only communication for two years with the team was through e-mails and faxes."
Spoelstra might have felt disconnected, but Riley was growing more and more attached to him.
"Everything was always on time, always prepared, always diligently done, always well thought out," Riley said. And "he began to send me individual reports, general thoughts and ideas and what-do-you-thinks.
The thinking "was ahead of the wave. He's a very smart person. . . . His notes and reports to me reflected that. I was impressed with him."
It was during the Heat's 2005-06 championship season when Spoelstra was a full-time assistant coach that Riley first hinted that big things could lie ahead for him. One night after a tough loss, Spoelstra recalled, Riley said: "Hey, are you ready for this?"
"Ready for what?" Spoelstra said, desperately hoping Riley would elaborate.
"He said, 'Someday . . .' and walked away," Spoelstra said.
Spoelstra analyzed the conversation for days, wondering: "What did he say? What did he mean?"
The son of Jon Spoelstra, a longtime NBA marketing executive with the Portland Trail Blazers and other teams, Erik Spoelstra for years attended all 41 Trail Blazers home games as a boy. So determined was he to improve his chances of winning a college scholarship, he shot 30,000 three-point field goals between his junior and senior years at Portland's Jesuit High, charting the result of each attempt in a notebook. That winter, he won a full ride to the University of Portland, where he played point guard.
"It really reverts to work ethic and focus," Jon Spoelstra said by phone from Portland. "The Spoelstra family has either been blessed with that or cursed with it, I'm not sure the right word."
Heat players noticed Spoelstra's devotion. In recent years, he was one of the most involved assistants, staying well after practice or arriving early to work with players on various skills. Wade said Spoelstra spent hours pushing and shoving him while he took jump shots, trying to force him to keep his balance even under pressure.
"We've been here a while together," Wade said. "There have been many days in the gym, just me and him. We're just comfortable with each other. . . . He spent a lot of extra time after practices and before games, all to help. I appreciate him for it.
"He hasn't tried to be Van Gundy. He hasn't tried to be Pat Riley. He's just Spo."