Commentary

The mystery guest has arrived

Heat head coach Erik Spoelstra has risen from "The Dungeon" to the NBA spotlight.

Originally Published: June 1, 2011
By Kevin Arnovitz | ESPN.com

SpoelstraAP Photo/Michael PerezErik Spoelstra once toiled in relative darkness. That all changed this season in Miami.

They call him "No Problem."

Mind picking up some dry cleaning?

No problem.

Can you throw together some video clips of our pick-and-roll defense?

No problem.

We need someone to make a sandwich run.

No problem.

This is 1995, the Miami Heat's seventh year of existence. Expansion teams never get an engraved invitation to legitimacy. At some point, if they want to become a franchise that matters in the NBA, they have to cultivate an organizational identity, find a leader or two and lay down a path.

On the periphery of that process is a 25-year-old named Erik Spoelstra.

After playing a couple of seasons of pro ball in Germany, Spoelstra is eager to return to the United States to get into coaching. His father, Jon, a well-respected NBA marketing executive, puts a call into his friend Chris Wallace, the director of player personnel for the Heat, to see if there's anything available in Miami.

The Heat are in a state of flux following a 32-50 season. Pat Riley will arrive in September but, at this moment, executive vice president of basketball operations Dave Wohl is in charge under the new ownership of Micky Arison.

The draft is coming up and the Heat are a little shorthanded. How about a summer gig helping out with that?

The answer is an unequivocal yes.

Once the draft is over, Spoelstra's job status is uncertain, particularly since there still isn't a head coach. But among the items on the Heat's to-do list is developing a video department.

Would Spoelstra be interested in getting that project moving?

Spoelstra doesn't know jack about video: coordinating video, editing video, or the coordination of video editing. All he knows is that he wants to be around basketball. He has applied everywhere for a college coaching gig, but has come up empty. If the Heat are interested in having him stick around, then he'll gladly take on whatever tasks they have for him.

"I was kind of like the concierge-slash-video coordinator my first year," Spoelstra remembers. "I just figured I wanted them coming to me with as many different things as possible to lean on, whether it was basketball-related or not. I wanted to be the guy who they'd pick up the phone and say, 'He'll get it done.' "



Erik SpoelstraZUMA PressErik Spoelstra wasn't the A/V type, but found himself in charge of the Heat's video department.

The Early days


Jack Ramsay presents Spoelstra with a copy of his book, which Spoelstra graciously accepts. The Hall of Fame coach is in town to broadcast the Heat's final regular-season showdown against the Boston Celtics. As Spoelstra removes the hardback from the plastic shopping bag, he nods as he flips through the pages, then recounts a story about Ramsay.

A young Erik, about 10, is at the Portland Trail Blazers' family picnic. Erik is dressed a little more nicely for the occasion, and his father eagerly introduces him to everyone in the organization, including Ramsay.

After the introductions, Ramsay, a renowned fitness enthusiast who coached the Trail Blazers to their only NBA title in 1977, insists that everyone on site stretch for a pre-lunch jog. No exceptions!

"And by everyone, I mean everyone," Spoelstra says, still holding Ramsay's book. Administrative folks in the Trail Blazers offices, people from the sales department, virtually every Trail Blazer employee jumps to attention -- including young Erik, jogging in his school shoes and slacks.

After finishing the story, Spoelstra smiles and returns to the pages of Ramsay's book. There are only a couple of people within earshot of Spoelstra's recollection. The memory is intended to honor a man, not to entertain an audience.

Growing up in Portland, Spoelstra excels as a point guard at Jesuit High School in suburban Portland. Though Portland is a hotbed of pro basketball, it lies a bit off the radar on the high school basketball landscape -- and this is especially true in the pre-Internet 1980s.

After his junior year of high school, Spoelstra is eager to see how his skills match-up against the best players in the country, and Sonny Vaccaro's Nike All-Star camp in Princeton, N.J., is the place to do that. The camp has only about 120 slots, reserved for the best of the best, but Spoelstra really wants an invitation.

"It was a chance to play against the best," Spoelstra says. "The top talent in the nation. Any kid would take that." Wallace, who is then an executive with the Trail Blazers, also works closely with Vaccaro at the Nike camp. He ensures that Spoelstra's résumé gets a fair look back East. A few months later at the camp, Spoelstra is the point guard for the premier high school player in the country, a kid named Alonzo Mourning.

Before he packs for Princeton, Spoelstra is given a directive: Don't be a matinee idol. Take a couple of shots per game, but your job this summer is to feed Mourning the ball.

"I had never seen a player that big and gifted who was so fierce," Spoesltra says of Mourning.

Was he intimidated by Zo's intensity, especially since this was arguably the biggest stage of his basketball life?

"He was on my team, so it was great," Spoelstra says.

At camp, Spoelstra also witnesses something he's never laid eyes on before, a brand of freakish athleticism belonging to a player he had to face in his first game.

"He was doing things none of us had seen before and doing it in an easy way," Spoesltra says of the 6-foot-9 prodigy.

The kid's name is Shawn Kemp and, mercifully, Spoelstra never draws him on a switch.

For the 17-year-old Spoelstra, facing Kemp in a competitive five-on-five environment isn't the most humbling experience of that summer.

"I got absolutely annihilated at camp by a skinny white kid who was a year younger than me," Spoelstra says. "I remember after that camp, going home and thinking, 'I'm not nearly as good as I thought I was' and 'I don't know if I had a future in college basketball, because this kid kicked my ass.'"

The skinny white kid's name? Bobby Hurley.

Spoelstra underestimates his talents. He receives scholarship offers, and ultimately lands at University of Portland, where he has a solid college career as a four-year starter at point guard in his hometown.

But during the defining moment of his collegiate career, Spoelstra is merely a terrified spectator. It happens at the West Coast Conference tournament semifinal game during his sophomore season.

"When he fell to the ground it was like time ran in slow motion," Spoelstra says. "I was frozen on the court, watching."

Seconds earlier, Spoelstra is guarding Loyola Marymount's Terrell Lowery on an LMU fast break. Lowery flings a beautiful lob over Spoelstra to the left side of the rim, where LMU teammate Hank Gathers flushes the ball for a thunderous dunk.

As Gathers runs up the floor at Gersten Pavilion in Los Angeles, he collapses a yard or two away from Spoelstra's feet.

"I still remember how eerie the sound of an absolutely silent gym sounded," Spoelstra says, "The piercing silence -- it was shuddering. It's something I won't forget."

Spoelstra and his teammates are led into the locker room, where they remain for three hours, at which point they're told the remainder of tournament has been canceled.

Spoelstra's body of work at Portland is enough to earn him a roster spot as a player/assistant coach on a Pro-B midlevel professional German team in Westphalia.

"What that really means was the head coach and I would go get some beers and talk basketball and I'd bring the basketballs to practice," Spoelstra says, downplaying the slash between player and coach.

In addition to his duties in the backcourt and the bierpalasts of West Germany, Spoelstra is also in charge of coaching the club's local youth team, his first real head coaching gig.

"I get out there my first practice and they're all 12 years old," Spoelstra says. "I don't even know what kind of offense I'm going to run and how to organize a team. I had balls flying all over the place. I had kids screaming and yelling in a different language. Everybody was out of control, running and bumping into each other. It was probably the most chaotic practice anyone has ever run anywhere."

The kids eventually teach Spoelstra how to speak in German. Meanwhile, Spoelstra uses the season to appreciate that basketball is a lingua franca that can bind a Filipino-American kid from the Pacific Northwest to a bunch of Teutonic preteens in Herten, Germany.

Reports from players and coaches in the Heat organization suggest Spoelstra runs a considerably tighter practice these days.


The Dungeon


"That's what we called it," Spoelstra says. "It was in the bowels of the old Miami Arena. It wasn't even part of the offices. It was probably an old storage room. When they decided to make a video department I think they just cleared everything out, threw a couple of VCRs in there and said, 'OK, this is the video room.'"

[+] EnlargeSpoelstra
ZUMA PressFor our younger readers, those items stacked next to Spoelstra are VHS video cassettes.

Spoelstra is the Heat's Dungeonmaster. He rarely sees the Miami sunlight and will sometimes go days without visiting the inside of his Miami Beach studio -- a converted hotel room -- because he overnights in The Dungeon. There, he breaks down game tape, evaluates players, figures out where the pick-and-roll defense is failing and which offensive sets are producing results.

Sometimes Spoelstra's late-night findings after a game need to reach the Heat while they're traveling. Since the main FedEx office in Miami closes early, Spoelstra hops into his old Toyota station wagon it the middle of the night and drives out to the cargo terminal at Miami airport.

"I started asking around, 'There's gotta be somewhere you can ship a package [late at night],' Spoelstra says. "I dug around and found out that I could basically almost hand-deliver the package to the airplane."

If you ask Spoelstra how he rose up through the ranks from The Dungeon all the way to the head coaching position, he'll offer you a self-deprecating variation of Woody Allen's old adage that 80 percent of life is just showing up.

His willingness to stay late and do the work nobody else wants to do is enough to keep him around. As people come and go from the organization, he invariably moves up because Pat Riley and the organization prefer to tap someone in-house over bringing in someone from the outside.

Stan Van Gundy was Riley's assistant coach -- then assistant head coach -- from 1995 until earning the head coaching position in 2003. Van Gundy, who now coaches the Orlando Magic, says he's only met two people whom he knew, right away, were going to be standout coaches -- current University of Arizona head coach Sean Miller and Spoelstra.

"Very early on in his career, we all knew he'd end up where he is," Van Gundy says. "I don't think anyone is surprised that he's gone to that level. Erik might say he's surprised, but no one else in [the Heat] organization is."

In a field in which many of the highest achievers exude mad ingenuity and flamboyance, Spoelstra might strike some as programmatic. But Riley sees Spoelstra as someone with a unique combination of conventional and unconventional training, a sensibility that's both conservative and creative.

"What [Spoelstra] did was prime the pump for 11 years, years of learning down in The Dungeon." Riley says. "Sometimes I think being a video coordinator and an advance scout prepares you better to be a head coach than just becoming an assistant coach. You're forced to look at X's and O's and so many things. He had such a great reservoir of basketball knowledge."

Once Spoelstra is promoted to advance scout in 1999, he develops a unique habit of providing what Riley calls "above the brain thinking" with the general scouting report and game plan.

"It was outside your normal realm of thought as a scout or coach, whether it was a story about a player, or a theme for that night based on something that happened with that opponent, or a quote from a book he had read, a news clip from USA Today," Riley says. "These were things a lot of guys probably wouldn't send to the head coach."



Erik SpoelstraMark J. Rebilas/US PresswireThe scrutiny on Spoelstra intensified last fall when the Heat sputtered to a 9-8 start.

Stay-in-the-present momentism


Ask a dozen people and you'll get a single impression: Spoelstra is among the game's hardest workers, most prepared coaches and respectful characters. The uniformity of these testimonials is so extreme, it demands a little diversity of opinion. Can Spoelstra possibly be as unimpeachable as everyone says he is?

"Let me save you a lot of time and phone calls -- yes," says one NBA general manager. "All he does is work his balls off and treat everyone the way they should be treated. He treats the film kid the same way he treats Pat Riley. He knows the game as well as anyone. But the big thing is -- he's respectful of the opportunity he's been given. He doesn't have amnesia about where he came from."

Those are all admirable qualities, but the basketball world is filled with plenty of guys who fit that description. But only a handful of them can wrangle superstar egos, develop a coherent message for seven or eight months and coach a championship brand of basketball.

That's the question surrounding Spoelstra last summer when the Heat reel in LeBron James and Chris Bosh and re-sign Dwyane Wade. After amassing that unprecedented concentration of talent, Riley decides to entrust the job of delivering not one, not two, not three, but multiple championships, to a young head coach without an NBA playing pedigree or a playoff series victory to his name.

Lakers coach Mike Brown, who coached the Cavaliers for five seasons, understands what it's like to confront the burden of expectations as a young head coach. At age 35, Brown was hired to lead the Cavaliers and James with nothing less than a title as a measure of success.

"In order to be successful at this level, you have to have management skills, people skills," Brown says. "If you have that, you have a chance to reach guys who make more money than you and have more staying power than you. ... At the end of the day, the NBA is about players. And you have to respect that to a certain degree."

Even though they're old friends who faced off years ago in the WCC when Brown played at the University of San Diego, Spoelstra intentionally doesn't seek out Brown's specific advice in the summer of 2010 on working with James, both on and off the court.

"I didn't want to know," Spoelstra says, shaking his head. "I just didn't. This is a different year and it's about staying in the present."

Spoelstra's devotion to the present has been one of the central themes of the Heat's season. When you ask him if he subscribes to any "-isms" as a thinker, he'll offer only one.

"I'm a stay-in-the-present momentist," he said.

Is Spoelstra fearful of what Brown might tell him? That James is a handful who requires constant maintenance? That he isn't coachable?

"I just didn't want to know," Spoelstra says adamantly. "And LeBron is coachable. One of the most coachable players we've ever had."

Spoelstra's tone rarely gets dismissive, but when he's asked how he manages personal expectations or prepares for potential disappointment, the notion is baffling to him.

"I don't," he says. "I don't even think about that. I'm thinking about right now."

"Right now" almost always means work. The job keeps him completely occupied, though he maintains a close stable of friends in Miami and Portland that's seen very little turnover over the years. He takes a certain comfort in the grind and doesn't dwell on his singlehood, but confesses that a workaholic's isolation has its hazards.

"My dad probably put it best when somebody asked him about me a couple of years ago," Spoelstra says. "He said we grew up with the Spoelstra work ethic. It's either an incredible blessing or a curse, depending on how you look at it. When I heard that, I laughed because I immediately knew what he was talking about."

Like a lot of athletes and coaches, Spoelstra has taken to the yoga mat -- along with jogging and spinning -- to unwind, at the recommendation of his mom when his back started acting up.

"I've found a lot of other mental and emotional benefits," Spoelstra says. "It's really helped slow things down. I think it's helped manage a lot of the possible anxieties you could feel in a position like this."

Spoelstra emphasizes the word "possible" very pointedly, as if to say: I don't succumb to such anxieties, but I could see where a less balanced person might.


Contact


Erik Spoelstra is Kevin Martin.

Well, not really, but Spoelstra's impression of the Houston Rockets shooting guard during Heat shootaround is uncanny -- right down to Martin's funky left-leaning release on his jump shot.

"[Spoelstra] had it down pat," Heat assistant coach David Fizdale says. "You know how [Martin] has that wind-up shot and how he's always shuffling his feet? It was unbelievable. He literally had the whole team on the floor laughing."

Fizdale stresses that Spoelstra isn't trying to ridicule Martin. Like virtually everything else Spoelstra does as Heat coach, it's about preparation -- in this case, for the Heat's upcoming game against Houston. The laughter brings the shootaround to a standstill.

"He knows everything," Wade says. "He knows the player, knows his tendencies. We died laughing. It just shows you how much film he watches and how much he prepares. It was just like [Martin]. But he wasn't laughing. He was serious."

[+] EnlargeDwyane Wade & Erik Spoelstra
AP Photo/Wilfredo LeeIn many ways, Spoelstra and Wade have grown up together in the Heat organization.

Wade harbors a special appreciation for Spoelstra's mastery for the finer details of Martin's game because, for many years, Wade is Spoelstra's subject, both on film and in the gym.

When Wade comes to the Heat as a rookie in 2003, his jump shot still needs some refinement, and Spoelstra takes on that challenge as a project.

"We worked a lot of hours," Wade says. "You saw that he knew the game of basketball. You knew he was a hard worker. He gave me the confidence to think, 'I can do it.'"

Spoelstra works Wade out incessantly. He wants Wade to establish more balance on his shot and to learn to absorb contact.

"I used to do my 1-2 step-in, wide base and he would literally shove me so I could learn how to shoot with contact," Wade says. "And once I got that done, he made me do it with a shot fake, which is even harder."

Fast forward to a game in November 2004, with the Heat and Jazz tied in overtime. Guarded by Raja Bell on the last possession, the ball goes into Wade.

"It was the exact shot we'd been working on," Wade says. "I hit the game-winner and I remember looking over at him, smiling like, 'This is working.'"

Dogged preparation and intelligence puts Spoelstra in a strong position to succeed as an NBA head coach, but as is the case in any professional context, the support of important people is essential to withstand the political challenges that come with the job.

Spoesltra might be a relatively unknown quantity around the NBA, having resided in one of the NBA's most insulated organizations for the entirety of his career, but the fact that his two biggest champions are Riley and Wade isn't a coincidence.

"He's got a believer in Dwyane Wade already there who has won a championship," Brown says. "When stuff gets rocky, Dwyane's presence helped Erik Spoelstra."

Riley shares the belief that connectivity between coach and superstar is vital to a coach's standing. He credits his relationship with Magic Johnson as among the primary reasons for his early and enduring success in Los Angeles.

"You've got to have a very personal contact with these guys," Riley says. "You've got to talk to them through the course of the game. You have to ask their advice and take their advice. I learned that from Earvin Johnson and he became my greatest ally and I became his."

Wade offers an eerily similar explanation, perhaps not that eerie when you consider he's never known any other organizational culture than the Heat's. For him, the buy-in works in the same symbiotic manner that Riley describes.

"We understand that we can't win without our leader," Wade says. "We need him to lead us. And we also understand he needs us to help lead him. It's a team thing. He's always going to get a lot of flak. We're going to get a lot of flak and we're going to do it together. If we win, he's going to look like a genius, and we're going to look like great basketball players. And if we lose ..."

Wade raises his eyebrows as he finished his thought.

"We're all going to look like something is wrong. With all of us. But if we win, he's the young Pat Riley. Right? He's the next good-looking young coach with that same style of team."


Integrity of intentions


Whether Spoelstra can reach his band of superstars the way Riley did in his prime is the central question heading into the season. If you believe some of the media reports, it's practically a referendum on his capacity to hold onto the head coaching job.

The Heat struggle out of the gate last fall, going 9-8 over their first 17 games. The stretch culminates with the notorious bump during a timeout in Dallas, when LeBron James collides with Spoelstra. Only one man knows whether James intentionally bumps Spoelstra's shoulder, but the incident sets off a public firestorm.

Wade We need him to lead us. And we also understand he needs us to help lead him. It's a team thing. He's always going to get a lot of flak. We're going to get a lot of flak and we're going to do it together. If we win, he's going to look like a genius, and we're going to look like great basketball players.

-- Dwyane Wade

During this rocky period, Riley urges Spoelstra to pay special attention to internal communication with the team.

"When things got rough, I told him, 'Make sure you don't lose contact with the players,' Riley says. "Regardless of what's being said or who's being blamed, don't lose contact with them because they're your allies. Your greatest allies are your best players and their greatest ally is their head coach."

Listening to Riley, one gets the impression contact is written with a capital C, like so many other of the battle cries that are scrawled in red on the Heat's whiteboard -- buzzwords such as "trust" and "process." According to Riley, contact is Spoelstra's greatest challenge this season. X's and O's, practice drills and film sessions? That stuff is routine and academic, particularly for a guy with Spoelstra's résumé. But talking to superstars three times a day? That's the tricky part.

"He's never lost contact with Dwyane and he's making contact with LeBron and with Chris," Riley says. "Not that they need special attention, but those are the guys that the gauntlet is falling on every single night."

For Spoelstra, communicating well with players is as much a manual task as a verbal one. He's perfectly capable of delivering a locker room address, peppered with those Heat-ish constructs like the "Band of Brothers" theme, but leadership is more nuanced than that, though Spoelstra insists it isn't brain surgery.

"There's an integrity to my intentions," Spoelstra says. "I probably look at this more simplistic than you want. It doesn't matter whether you're a former player or you come up through the video room, whether you come from college. You have to earn that trust from NBA players every day. It doesn't stop unless, of course, you win 10 rings. But even at that point, you have to prove that there's competency, there's a work ethic, there's a plan, there's an organization to your thoughts. Then, at some point, they believe you can help them achieve what they want to achieve."

Wade acknowledges the heightened level of frustration that surfaced when the team struggled at the outset of the season. But here's what the public misses: The Heat's superstars might be a little pigheaded at times, but they're pragmatists at heart, particularly after they pushed all-in on this experiment.

"It was tough," Wade says. "We were into the unknown. It looks great on paper, but then it becomes real, and tough to make all this work. There was frustration -- from LeBron, from Chris, from Coach, from me. Then we got together and we said, 'This is a decision we all made. We all want to be together. This is our head coach. He's not going anywhere and we're not going anywhere. Let's figure out a way to make sure this works for the betterment of us and our careers.'"


SpoelstraEzra Shaw/Getty ImagesSpoelstra's work ethic, preparation and temperament are cited as his best qualities as a head coach.


Winning the job


After the bump in Dallas, the Heat come home to Miami for a brief homestand, with James' return to Cleveland on the immediate horizon later that week. At Spoelstra's media availability that Monday, there's a palpable tension in the Heat's interview room. The buzzards are swirling amid reports players are unhappy with the coach.

Spoelstra won the Heat's head coaching job on April 28, 2008, and he wins it again on Nov. 29, 2010 -- the day of the news conference.

At the podium, Spoelstra comes across as a hero in an Aaron Sorkin play. There isn't a trace of defensiveness in his remarks. He's strong in his conviction that these conflicts are essential to the process. Verbiage that can be easily dismissed as transparent spin instead convey a strength rooted not in self-delusion but in self-confidence. The atmosphere is defused by the weight of a man who knows he's in the right, no matter what the NBA's chattering class is saying.

"I think it's great they had to go through the turmoil they went through because, at the end of the day, it will help prepare them for the playoffs," Brown says as a man whose seat was frequently on the warm side in Cleveland. "I thought Erik did a nice job staying even-keeled and preaching the same things he was preaching since Day 1. The more you can preach your message through turmoil and get through it, that's when guys start to believe."

James is petulant in the days leading up to that sideline collision of Spoelstra -- complaining about minutes and routinely pouting at the podium. But the two-time MVP now regards that period with a healthy hindsight.

"When it seems like the world is crashing down on us, he's always like, 'We're gonna get through it. It starts with me and we're all going to get through it. Let's just stay focused and continue to grind,'" James says. "Then things would get better. You respect that. When your general doesn't panic, no matter what the situation is, then the rest of the soldiers don't panic either."

Spoelstra has traveled about as far an NBA lifer can -- from The Dungeon to the first chair on the most scrutinized sideline in recent NBA history. But in many respects, his temperament hasn't really changed. The office might be cushier and he's no longer chasing cargo planes in the middle of the night, but he's still fundamentally the same guy with the same habits.

"We never seen him out anywhere," James said. "Dinner? Never. We never see Spo."

Where is he?

"He's probably breaking down the next game, or breaking down the game we just got done playing," James says. "He's preparing. He's always prepared."

Wade, who knows him as well as anyone, has another theory.

"He's like Batman," Wade said. "He goes into his cave. Nobody sees him."