An Insider's Guide to Miami Heat Head Coach Erik Spoelstra

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An Insider's Guide to Miami Heat Head Coach Erik Spoelstra

In coaching circles, Erik Spoelstra may be considered a star.

In public, however, he doesn't make much of a stir, unless he's at the ESPYs and Jon Hamm is jokingly mistaking him for musician Bruno Mars. 

By now, Spoelstra has won two championships, guiding one of the most celebrated teams in modern times, and yet he still can slip into the shadows when out anywhere other than South Florida or on his summer visits to his mother's home country, the Philippines. 

In fact, there are likely still some who passively follow basketball and still aren't sure of his role with the Miami Heat. Consider what occurred in January in Washington D.C. 

Spoelstra had just been on the White House's East Room stage, receiving praise from President Obama for his steadiness in steering the Heat to the 2012 championship. The next stop was Walter Reed Army Medical Hospital, where a staffer didn't understand why this young man with the jet black hair was being introduced as the Heat's coach.

"I thought Pat Riley coached the team," the staffer said, as Spoelstra laughed.

Doug Benc/Getty Images

If you think this relative anonymity bothers Spoelstra, you need to get to know him a bit better. This is someone who recoils when reporters ask him to cooperate for stories about him, who appears awed and embarrassed when other coaching luminaries know his name, who says simply of his Heat responsibility: "My job is to land the plane." 

Still, now that he's landed two titles, it's worth letting the world in on some of his secrets. 

To that end, here—from a sportswriter who has covered the Heat for South Florida newspapers since 1996 and currently does for The Palm Beach Post—are 10 things to understand about the Heat's head coach:

 

1. He's big on Bono: Music says a lot about a man, but Spoelstra's not all that different in this sense than many of his generation. Not yet a teen when U2 released Boy, he first saw the Irish quartet while a college senior (and point guard) at the University of Portland. Since that show in Seattle, he's seen them at least six times.

He claims he's not a groupie, and he didn't appear to be one during the 2011 show at Sun Life Stadium; LeBron James got invited backstage, while Spoelstra stayed up in a suite. 

Photo courtesy of The Big Lead

 

2. Some of him is stuck in his 20s: And, no, not just because his girlfriend, former Heat dancer and current art gallery director Nikki Sapp, hadn't been born by the time he finished Jesuit High School in Portland. Or because he still has all of his hair, without a trace of grey.

It's common, after team shootarounds or when he's jogging around the arena, to see him wearing his hat backwards as if at a fraternity function. He wore Air Jordan IV "White/Cement" shoes to James' 2013 MVP press conference, and little excites him more than when Juwan Howard brings extra new (old) Jordans to the facility for him to wear. Howard is only two years younger than him, while sometimes somehow seeming centuries older.

 

3. Oregon still inhabits him: Spoelstra's family still lives in the Portland area and, in addition to the trip back during the season to see his father (a former NBA executive) and his mother (who can't bear to watch his games), he gets back in the offseason as well.

This summer, after the parade and draft, he went back to spend some time about an hour away from the city, on the coast, where his iPhone would not get good reception. It's natural for someone with an Oregon upbringing to be environmentally aware, and Spoelstra, while a video coordinator, was frustrated by the waste of paper, so he later led the push for the Heat to start recycling. 

Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

 

4. He's a sports junkie: Well, two-sport junkie, anyway. Spoelstra is a football fan, especially college football, and especially the University of Oregon, which is how he began to establish an ongoing friendship with now-Philadelphia Eagles coach Chip Kelly. But he's even more passionate about boxing when Manny Pacquiao, the Filipino superstar, is fighting.

Spoelstra called it "a dream to meet him" before they conducted youth clinics together in the Philippines. That relationship rendered it odd when Pacquiao pushed back his fight against Timothy Bradley in 2012 to cheer on the Boston Celtics in Game 7 of the 2012 Eastern Conference Finals. Spoelstra joked that he needed to "have a talk with Manny." Not necessary. The Heat won. Pacquiao lost. 

 

5. He's the local library: Spoelstra reads plenty, but he doesn't stop there. He also likes to share. In recent years, he's given his players copies of everything from Band of Brothers to Outliers to Mindset to Clutch, with the expectation that his erudite group will seep in some of the same wisdom.

Believe it or not, many have, including the bookworm Chris Bosh, who has sometimes had to inform Spoelstra that he's already read the latest selection, but that he appreciated the thought.  

 

6. He has a haunting place in history: When the Heat were struggling some during the 2010-11 season, Spoelstra soothed his own nerves by stepping back and realizing that, worst-case scenario, he would look back in 25 years and think of the opportunity that someone from his background had to coach such a special team.

Now he'll be remembered for leading that team to titles. Still, college basketball fans will always link him to something else, something he wishes had never occurred and he had not witnessed. As a sophomore, he was playing in a West Coast Conference tournament semifinal when Loyola Marymount star Hank Gathers collapsed and died a couple of feet away. 

 

7. He speaks multiple languages: One is German, which he picked up during his two years playing there after college. He can even say a few words in Tagalog, one of the languages of the Philippines. But, for the purposes of this assignment, let's split his primary language (English) into two—the sort he speaks on the podium, or in other on-the-record sessions with the media; and the sort he speaks in more relaxed settings, with friends or reporters.

The first one sounds a bit like a variation of Pat Riley's professorial dialect, with philosophical sayings and repeated references to "process" and "identity" and "purity." A Spo-Bot of sorts. The second one? Well, it is quite a bit more raw, colorful and, well, real. 

 

8. He's not all analytics: When a coach rises up the ranks from a video room known as "The Dungeon," sits next to the current video coordinator (Dan Craig) on team flights, pours over statistical breakdowns until the wee hours and frets most about facing coaches with a similar grasp of the game's numbers and nuances...well, you'd assume that coach might get so caught up in the computerization of the sport that he dismisses the importance of relationships.

Yet Spoelstra will definitively say that the most critical part of his job is managing egos, with all the stats only going so far. After all, it was his relationship with Dwyane Wade (as an individual shooting coach) that propelled him on his current path.

Brian Bahr/Getty Images

 

9. He's a Stan Van man: Most of Spoelstra's friends in coaching are of a similar age, especially those with scouting or video backgrounds. On his current staff, he's tightest with David Fizdale, and he has given Fizdale so much responsibility (as a communication bridge to the stars and in the re-design of the offense) that the assistant has emerged as a hot head coaching candidate.

Still, when asked about his closest friends, Spoelstra will also always mention former Heat head coach Stan Van Gundy. And Van Gundy will, from time to time, mention that when they hang out together, Spoelstra tries to avoid the bill.

 

10. He has one regret. Things worked out rather well for Spoelstra after he joined the Heat's video room at age 25, and—after Pat Riley finally learned his name—impressed the Heat president enough to stay. He's a millionaire, respected by his peers, atop the hoop world.

Still, he has repeatedly mentioned that he wished he had played at least one season in the Philippine Basketball Association. Young as he looks, maybe he still could. With a backwards cap. And some Air Jordans. 

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