Rookie coach has Heat rising
Erik Spoelstra, 38, has guided Miami into playoff contention in his first season
The Pat Riley disciple methodically worked his way through the Heat organization
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Pat Riley's eyes were closed.
Maybe it was age finally catching up to the Hall of Fame coach, or perhaps it was the toll of a lifetime of 18-hour days spent in pursuit of winning above all else. Whatever the reason, then-Heat assistant Erik Spoelstra felt he had interrupted his boss from a well-deserved respite.
"He would be sitting there with a pad of paper and a pen with his eyes closed," Spoelstra recalled. "I quickly realized he would just sit there and think about the team, think about the game, think about the players. And any ideas that would come up, he would write down on his pad of paper.
"The first time I saw him do it, I thought, This is weird, but now I'm doing the same thing."
That's because Spoelstra has to think about the Heat each night as Riley's successor on the bench. And halfway through the season, it appears Riley, a five-time NBA champion as coach, knows how to pick talent as well as mold it.
Coming off a 15-win season in 2007-08, Miami was 25-21 through Sunday and in the thick of the Eastern Conference playoff race. Clearly, a healthy Dwyane Wade has been instrumental to the turnaround, and the addition of rookies Michael Beasley and Mario Chalmers has helped. But it's also impossible to ignore the guiding hand of a 38-year-old coach who began his tenure with Riley with a lie.
"Pat couldn't bring his staff from New York" when he left the Knicks to take over the Heat in 1995, said Spoelstra, who was a recent entry-level hire in Miami when Riley arrived. "Pat asked me if I could be his video coordinator. Without hesitation, I said, 'Absolutely, I'm your guy.' But I had no idea what that meant.
"I learned by making lots of mistakes and staying in the video room virtually every waking hour. I tried to give everybody everything they wanted, and I tried not to be seen. I wanted to be the guy people could go to get something done, regardless if it was video or picking up the dry cleaning. I wanted to be the office concierge."
Spoelstra's efforts in the "Cave," where he recorded and edited all manner of game and player videos, soon earned him a job as an advance scout. He spent two-and-a-half years in that position before joining the bench as an assistant coach in 2001. With fellow assistant Stan Van Gundy (who would later become Heat head coach) serving as a mentor, the son of former Trail Blazers front office executive Jon Spoelstra went about learning everything from diagramming plays to losing your appetite after a loss.
"If you've never been in the NBA, you've got to start down at the real bottom and dedicate your life to your passion, and that's what he did," Riley said in a telephone interview. "He really learned the game inside and out. And learning happens by assimilation -- by observing, by listening, by truly watching, by studying books and other people's philosophies, looking at all the videotape and attending all the great coaches' clinics.
"If watching me and listening to me over all of those years and how I operate and what I demanded [influenced him], then maybe something dropped a little close to the tree here. But guys like Stan Van Gundy, Jeff Van Gundy and probably even Erik Spoelstra really do it on their own, and that's what separates them. As they become their own men, they have a number of different philosophies."
True to his Riley-influenced upbringing, Spoelstra espouses the hope that "if you turned on the TV and saw the Miami Heat play [now], you would say that, defensively, that looks like a Pat Riley-coached team." Riley describes that approach as "being the hardest-working, best-conditioned, most professional, unselfish, toughest, nastiest, disliked team in the NBA."
On offense, Miami has incorporated a bit more movement, a shift Spoelstra attributed to the lack of a dominant post presence as well as the varied styles he absorbed scouting 80-100 games a season.
"Probably one of the most valuable lessons of doing that job was the fact that there are many different ways to be successful in this league," Spoelstra said. "And you take some of those things from other teams. Some of the concepts we've taken on offense, you can probably point to some of the things Rick Adelman did in Sacramento."
Underpinning almost everything Spoelstra does is an extensive use of advanced statistical models, the kind that gained recognition in the best-selling book Moneyball, an inside look at general manager Billy Beane and the Oakland A's that the Heat coach reads each year.
"I probably spend way too much time with stats," Spoelstra said. "We have a full-time computer engineer, and I spend a lot of time with him designing our statistical database. It's all about trying to evaluate our players and compare our team with other teams, to find tendencies.
"Do the numbers give me answers? Not necessarily. But it gets me to ask questions and it gets me to look into different layers of situations maybe a little deeper than I would have initially."
No amount of number-crunching, though, will win over the loyalty of a locker room mixed with All-Star veterans and celebrated rookies. To his credit, Spoelstra has kept the Heat humming quietly, all while dealing with an often disgruntled Shawn Marion and handling the ups and downs of No. 2 overall pick Beasley.
"The fact that he's young himself" helps him connect with the players, sixth-year veteran Udonis Haslem said of the NBA's youngest coach. "Before practices, he'll play rap music on the radio, which is something we've never done. We also do a lot of fun drills to warm up before practice and during practice. There's a lot of stuff to keep things light around the locker room and around players.
"We've also done a good job of policing ourselves, keeping ourselves in line and being professional. We try not to bother Coach Spoelstra with a lot of other stuff, so he can just coach the team."
Spoelstra, a former University of Portland point guard, coaches Miami with a confidence that belies his inexperience but isn't overbearing.
"There's a real fine line between being an ass-kicker and being a bully," Riley said. "If you're a bully, eventually somebody's going to challenge you, and the bully's going to cower. If you're an ass-kicker who can communicate and somebody tries to challenge you, you'll kick his ass. I think Erik has learned to be an ass-kicker the right way. You can't let the players run right over you; otherwise, you will be out of there."