Work Ethic, Erik Spoelstra

Lee Jenkins, Sports Illustrated (

The Heat began training at La Salle in 1996, when Spoelstra was an entry-level staffer, fetching coaches’ laundry and walking their dogs. His office in Miami Arena was a windowless storage room nicknamed the Dungeon, where he edited video all night, then had cut-ups ready for the team at dawn. La Salle represented a rare opportunity to encounter players in person and in daylight. He shagged rebounds for Keith Askins and Dan Majerle. He lifted weights alongside Tim Hardaway and Alonzo Mourning. He watched Pat Riley put Miami through a practice that started at 9 a.m. and ended at 4:30 p.m., after which the coach told his team, “You think that was hard? We’re so entitled. That wasn’t even a full American workday!”

Beyond the Coconut Grove campus, boats sped through Biscayne Bay and women sold ­sunflowers on South Miami Avenue, but within La Salle’s borders the Heat forged a personality that belied their tropical surroundings. They were the lion on the wall, ferocious and defiant. “Erik was the guy at the bottom,” says current Miami assistant head coach David Fizdale, “absorbing everything.”

He acted as Knicks point guard Charlie Ward on the scout team and went one-on-one against prospects in predraft workouts. A Magic official, after watching Spoelstra eviscerate a potential draftee at La Salle, lost interest in the prospect but asked Heat assistant Tony Fior­entino, “Who’s the other guy?” Technically, Spoelstra was the video coordinator, but practically he was becoming the soul of an edgy expansion franchise. “He was very sharp,” Fiorentino says. “But he was also very tough. He wasn’t a computer guy learning basketball. He was a basketball guy learning computers.”

Spoelstra felt like Ralph Macchio’s character in The Karate Kid, washing cars for Mr. Miyagi. He progressed to daily ­90-minute phone calls with Stan Van Gundy during the assistant’s congested afternoon commute south to Pinecrest. He wrote 25-page reports, on Riley’s preferred blue stock paper, about subjects ranging from pick-and-roll defense to the DNA of a champion. His apartment on Brickell Avenue was robbed three times, and when roommate Tim Scheibe once called to lament the loss of personal ­mementos, Spoelstra asked, “Did they take my black shirt?” That was the only material possession he seemed to care about, a plain polo.

Promotions followed. A new arena with a shiny training facility opened in 2000. A roster for the ages was assembled in 2010. But Spoelstra ensured that the organization’s underpinnings, laid at La Salle, remained intact. As the young coach of a dazzling team, he didn’t run seven-hour practices, but he did put Dwyane Wade on one side of scrimmages and LeBron James on the other to fuel competition. He played documentaries in the locker room that featured sparring lions. He rejected an office with a view for a windowless alternative down low, another Dungeon. When the Big Three started 9–8, Spoelstra invited a few friends to his condominium and promised them, “I’m not going out like this.” Miami won 21 of the next 22.

Casual observers may have seen Spoelstra as a babysitter to the stars, but inside the organization he was author and practitioner of The Heat Code, a spiral-bound guidebook filled with theories and quotations that outline the club’s mission. On one page of the manual, handed to players before each of the past four seasons, Spoelstra defines their identity. “We want to be: the hardest working, best conditioned, most professional, most unselfish, toughest, nastiest, most disliked, most prepared team in the NBA.” An unusual number of pictures in the book include blood.

There is much they will miss about the era gone by, from the packed arenas to the omnipresent cameras, keeping them consistently on guard and on point. “That electric feeling,” Spoelstra says. “It wasn’t a life less ordinary.” Sometime, early in the season and late in the shot clock, they will find themselves looking feverishly for number 6. Of course, they will miss him too. But during the meals with Wade and Bosh a familiar defiance returned, which Spoelstra described better than anyone in that address before camp last fall:

“It is a relentless, relentless competitiveness to do whatever you have to do to win. You have to develop this mentality. This is who you guys are. This will forever be who the Miami Heat is. There will always be motherf—— in this Miami Heat jersey.”

Somewhere in the console of Spoelstra’s black Range Rover is an Earl Nightingale CD. He doesn’t listen to it every week or even every month, but occasionally he’ll queue up the “Dean of Personal Development,” whose reassuring lilt transports him to the kitchen of his childhood home in Portland. On mornings before school, the air was filled with the voices of motivational speakers like Nightingale and Zig Zig­lar, reminding the Spoelstras that “we all walk in the dark and each of us must learn to turn on his or her own light.” Erik and his older sister, Monica, had to take notes about the 20-minute cassettes before they could eat breakfast.

Jon Spoelstra was senior vice president of the Trail Blazers from 1979 to ’89, a period when they sold out every game. Jon’s marketing acumen was so renowned that in ’83 he offered two weeks of his services to Indiana for point guard Don Buse—and the Pacers took the trade. Jon doted on his two children but demanded they practice what Nightingale instructed and flip their own switch. He never let Erik win at Monopoly. He threw a Wiffle ball at his chin after a home run. He pushed him ahead in school and sports, where Erik was often the youngest, the smallest and the only minority, his mother having emigrated from the Philippines. “You start out in scramble mode,” Erik says, “and adapt.”

In eighth grade Spoelstra was cut from the A team at Whitford Middle School and responded by uncorking 30,000 jump shots over a single summer, charting each one. Most of the Whitford standouts went to Beaverton High, while he starred at Jesuit, becoming a top player in the state and a pickup rival for future lottery choice Damon Stoudamire. A pattern emerged. Challenges presented themselves, and Spoelstra worked himself into a lather meeting them.

His heroes were coaches, like the Blazers’ Rick Adelman, who had a regulation basketball court in his backyard. Spoelstra played under Adelman’s floodlights, but he also sneaked into his home office, editing VHS tapes of Michael Jordan and Mitch Richmond. He barnstormed gyms around the city with Geoff Petrie, the Blazers’ shooting coach and future Kings GM, to demonstrate Petrie’s techniques. In college he noticed that rival Montana used an intricate series of hand signals, and he deciphered what they meant. “He knew every play,” says former Portland assistant Art Wilmore.

Beneath Spoelstra’s bold speeches is a fear of failure that was not always easy to conquer and channel. He accepted the job as head coach at Sherwood (Ore.) High but backed out a week later so he could return to Germany. He only applied for the Heat’s video coordinator position in 1995 as part of a bet with his German teammates. When a club official called with a date for an interview, Spoelstra was inclined to pass because he had tickets to a Grateful Dead concert. Even after landing the gig, he was ready to turn it down until his sister called and asked if he’d lost his mind.

When the Heat promoted him to advance scout in 1999, he balked, partly because he didn’t think his penmanship was as neat as his predecessor’s. When Riley made him an assistant coach two years later, he resisted again, wondering how he could reach his boss’s exacting standards. “I was comfortable and change scared me,” Spoelstra says. “I’d get this pit in my stomach, that fear of being a disastrous failure.” He compensated with work, starting at 4:45 a.m., compiling reports on every team in the league when other staffs were splitting the load.

“We went to Miami for Christmas one year and were all unwrapping presents in the hotel,” recalls Monica, who is now a nutrition counselor and lifestyle coach in Portland. “He fell asleep on the floor.” Each spring Spoelstra put out feelers for college openings, believing he could advance further at a lower level. Van Gundy finally wrote him a letter that read, “You can coach in this league.” Spoelstra still keeps it in his office desk.

“People assume a good team is easy to coach,” says Adelman. “But the pressure to maintain the trust of these talented players, and keep the whole thing from disintegrating, is very hard.” Every day was like another two-miler at Portland. Spoelstra started with a huge lead but saw the field closing on him. Most of the time he held it off. On the rare occasions he didn’t, the despair was deep because the expectation was immense. “I hate this quality, but I can go to dark levels when we lose,” Spoel­stra says. “It’s not a panic attack, but there’s anxiety. I’m inconsolable. I’m a train wreck. I’m being myself. Then I get this crazy, intense focus, where I get desperate not to be embarrassed again. That dark spot is what I tap into. Creativity comes from there.”

He pours his anger into his laptop. Spoelstra keeps daily notes on everything from historical events to pick-and-roll actions. His entries include stats (“We’ve been outrebounded in eight of 11 games”) and quotes (“MLK: ‘We must live together as brothers or perish together as fools’ ”), questions (“How has success changed us?”) and definitions (“Hubris—extreme pride or arrogance that often indicates a loss of contact with reality and an overestimation of one’s own competence”). He addresses individual players (“You’re stubborn and how is that working for you?”), the group (“Let’s come up with a solid solution, not just say we need to ‘ball’ ”) and himself (“Do I seriously have to prove myself in our fourth year? Yes. It never stops. The process never stops”). He muses (“It’s always easier to sacrifice when you’re not the one who has to do it”) and motivates (“We can’t lose when you have blood on you”). He stresses snacks (“Peanut butter, almonds, apples”) and sunlight (“Vitamin D”). He is upbeat (“All of you are good but all of you together is overwhelming”) and downcast (“God forbid if you’re thinking about your vacation plans”). He tends to use all caps.

Sometimes Spoelstra won’t remember what he wrote after a game. “When I was a player I’d black out and shoot for hours,” he says. “Now I’ll work through the night until the next afternoon when I see the team.” His assistant Dan Craig will tell him, “I really like the talk you just gave the guys.” Spoelstra looks at him with a blank expression. “I have no idea what I just did,” he replies.

The first time Miami fell in the Finals, to the Mavericks in 2011, Spoelstra installed an organizational “improvement program.” He ordered coaches to read books and attend clinics, then write reports about what they learned. One staffer was instructed to mine every Malcolm Gladwell article for relevant thoughts. Spoelstra, who listened to John Maxwell leadership CDs on the drive to work every day, was taking the equivalent of 30,000 jumpers again. He discovered a book by Carol S. Dweck called Mindset and became consumed with the distinction between a growth mind-set and fixed mind-set.

“When you subscribe to a growth mind-set, you challenge yourself to do things differently, and you actually produce a drug in your brain that allows you to work more creatively,” he says. “That’s when you’re most alive.” For someone naturally wary of change, the material was revelatory. Spoelstra and his assistants got into peak shape so they could carry lessons onto the practice court, where they devised the pace-and-space offense that yielded two championships, along with a 27-game winning streak in 2012–13. Love them or hate them, the Heat were the first superpower of the Information Age. They had to be seen, heard and tweeted about. They simultaneously bemoaned the scrutiny and fed off it.

His process will not change just because the preseason predictions do. He will still agonize over every setback, then retreat to one of the three yoga studios where he is a member and breathe it out. “I like yoga because you have to keep your eyes on your own mat,” Spoelstra says. “If you’re not focused on the spot in front of you, you’ll fall over.” Less than a month remains until training camp, and he is asked what he will tell the team, what messages will fill his daily notes, what the offense will look like on opening night. “I don’t know yet,” he says. The pit is back in his gut, that fear of spectacular failure, no different from when the Heat made him a scout. It is a source of discomfort for Spoelstra but assurance for everyone around him. He attacks it and dissolves it every time. He adapts and reinvents. He turns on his own light.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s