The Miami Heat's slogan this season is "Something to Prove" and it applies just as much to the team's baby-faced rookie coach, Erik Spoelstra, as to the Heat itself. Not only is the 38-year-old Spoelstra the youngest head coach currently in the N.B.A., he has the unenviable job of shepherding a team that had the league's worst record last year, just two years removed from a championship season.
But now it's time to look ahead, not back, says Spoelstra, a former assistant coach who was hand-picked by Heat coach and president Pat Riley to take over the team last year. "There are only four returning players, so other than the first day of training camp we don't talk about last year," Spoelstra says. "We're young. We're going into the season with a little bit of a chip on our shoulder. We do have something to prove, that we can create something special here in Miami." So far the team's off to a 4-4 start, having shown flashes of greatness as well as ineptitude.
Spoelstra initially joined the team as a part-time gofer and videotape assistant in 1994 after playing pro ball in Germany for two years. Before long he was running the team's videotape operations and then moved on to scouting, attending up to 120 games a year and creating a statistical database the team still uses to track the strengths and weaknesses of Heat players and their opponents. A self-described overachiever, Spoelstra treated every job he had with the Heat as if it were the most important on the team, so when Riley asked him to take over as head coach last year, he wasn't entirely surprised. "He got a pretty good audition," Spoelstra says of Riley.
Spoelstra, who watches anywhere from six to eight hours of videotape before each game, is part of a new breed of young N.B.A. coaches like the New Jersey Nets' Lawrence Frank who pore obsessively over statistics and video. "It's really gone to another level," says Spoelstra of the preparation N.B.A. teams routinely go through. "At the same time, you can get paralysis through over-analysis."
Growing up in Portland, Spoelstra idolized the Trailblazers and dreamed of becoming a pro, especially since his father served as general manager of the team for a while (his grandfather was a long-time beat writer covering the Detroit Tigers). At 6-foot-1, Spoelstra was good enough to star in high school and at the University of Portland, but he eventually realized he didn't have the physical assets to make it to the N.B.A. Coaching was the next best thing. "The first time I told my father I wanted to be a coach he asked, 'Where did I go wrong?'" Spoelstra laughs. "All the coaches he knew were in his mind some of the craziest people he'd known."
Indeed, N.B.A. head coaches have to be a little bit insane to want a job that can be so demanding. Including training camp, the pre-season, and the playoffs, the season can last as long as nine months, with much of that time spent on the road. On days the team plays at home, Spoelstra shows up at the American Airlines arena before the Heat's 10 a.m. shoot-around and doesn't leave until 12 or 13 hours later. On days off, he leads practices or travels to the next road game.
The grind has yet to add wrinkles to Spoelstra's youthful appearance, something he's been teased about since high school. "But wait a few months and I might look like I'm 48," he says.