Published October 16, 2008 THE DAILY
Spoelstra, 37, Is The NBA’s Youngest Head Coach After 13 years on the staff of the Heat, including the last seven years as Director of Scouting, ERIK SPOELSTRA was elevated in April to head coach by President PAT RILEY.
At 37, Spoelstra is the NBA’s youngest head coach. His task is to restore the Heat, which in ’07-08 had the league’s worst record (15-67) two years after winning the NBA title in ’06. Spoelstra makes his regular-season coaching debut on October 29 in N.Y. against the Knicks.
He spoke with SportsBusiness Journal N.Y. bureau chief Jerry Kavanagh just before the Heat left for a series of preseason games in Europe.
Favorite vacation spot: Maui, without a doubt. I go once a year with my family. I just learned how to paddleboard there this summer. That’s with the surfboard and an oversized oar. I can only do it in calm water, though.
Favorite music: U2. I’m not a groupie, but I’ve seen them in concert six or seven times.
Favorite book: “Atlas Shrugged” by AYN RAND.
Author: JOHN MAXWELL. He writes leadership books.
Last book read: “Blink.”
Favorite Web sites: I read HoopsHype religiously every day. It consolidates all the articles from different NBA cities.
Favorite quote: It’s something my dad gave me and I’ve used it with the Heat so many different times – “Every job is a self-portrait of the person who did it. You should autograph your work with excellence.”
Favorite movies: “Gladiator” is at the top of the list with “Remember the Titans” and “Fletch.”
Sports movies: A toss-up between “The Natural” and “Hoosiers.”
Pet peeve: It’s tough to deal with people who don’t tell the truth.
Regrets: That I didn’t take the opportunity to play in the Philippines after college.
Smartest player: MICHAEL JORDAN.
Greatest competitor: ALONZO MOURNING, for so many years and for so many different reasons. To compete and fight back from his kidney disease is truly inspiring.
Earliest basketball memory: Shooting basketballs with my grandpa on a little makeshift hoop in my room. I must have been 5 or 6 years old, and he taught me how to play H-O-R-S-E.
Q: You have a tough act to follow in Pat Riley.
Spoelstra: It’s an exceptional challenge, but I’m really looking forward to taking the torch of a legacy that he has built here over the years and leading the team in the future for hopefully many years to come.
Q: Riley is still in the picture, as team President. He came back once before and relieved STAN VAN GUNDY on the bench. Do you feel any pressure to show immediate improvement?
Spoelstra: No, we don’t have a time limit on what we’re doing. The great thing about working for Pat and the Heat is that we are always going to be a championship organization. So, every move I make, every decision on the basketball side, is with that in mind. That is the carrot. We tasted it two years ago and we are all very excited about the opportunity to try to build this thing back up to that level.
Q: What’s the No. 1 lesson you learned from Riley, who also was hired (at age 36) without any coaching experience?
Spoelstra: Professionalism. To work for Pat, your attention to detail has to be at such a high level that you start to build very good habits early. Commitment to discipline, hard work – those qualities you learn pretty quickly when you work for him.
Q: Is there a typical start to your day or a morning office routine?
Spoelstra: I get here very early. I’m always the guy to make the first pot of coffee. I check my e-mails and usually read the local newspapers to start off each day. During the season, I’m watching film or writing reports with my first cup of coffee.
Q: It’s a long day?
Spoelstra: It can be, once we start playing games. I get in here about 5:00am and sometimes we don’t get out of here until 10:30 in the evening on game days.
Q: What has been the most difficult part about the transition from assistant
to head coach?
Spoelstra: So far, there hasn’t been a major transition. I’m sure that will come once we start playing games. One of the biggest things would be the fact that I’m noticed and approached more often on the street. When I go out to eat or to a movie, people come up and want to talk basketball. When I was assistant, I was able to walk through the town without ever getting noticed.
Q: There is strong competition in the East. The Celtics, Cavs and Pistons have all been to the Finals in the last four years. The Heat had 15 wins last year, just two years removed from an NBA championship. What’s the first order of business?
Spoelstra: To get everybody here in camp healthy and on the same page. We bring them into the family and start to lay down what our expectations are. When we convene for training camp, everything will be about building good habits and the type of program where people want to buy into it.
Q: Back in April, in the Sun-Sentinel, Riley said he was “embarrassed” that the payroll for last season “left his team paying an $8[M] luxury tax.” He said, “I really don’t want that to happen again.” Of you, he said, “We want to give him as many assets as we can. We also want to create a financial model that’s going to be economically sane.” Where are you with that financial model?
Spoelstra: Right now, we’re under the tax. That’s where our owner, MICKY ARISON, wants to be. Last year was really an aberration. We normally are running our operation below the tax, and we think it can be done. That’s the challenge that you have on that side, and that’s what Pat will be dealing with. I’ll have some input [on] building the team and on trying to get the pieces without going over the tax.
Spoelstra Says Shaq Trade Will Not Create Cap Space Until At Least Next Summer
Q: The trade of SHAQ last year created more cap space.
Spoelstra: That actually won’t happen until next summer or possibly even the summer after.
Q: Does the salary cap work against long-term success?
Spoelstra: You could make an argument either way. You could probably classify us as an organization that’s had a lot of long-term success, at least in the 13 years that we’ve been here.
Q: JOE DUMARS said, “If you control the amount of free agents you have coming up, then you have a chance to sustain it.”
Spoelstra: That’s their model, but I’ve seen it other ways also.
Q: DWYANE WADE looked very strong at the Olympics. Has there been any piggyback benefit to that success?
Spoelstra: Absolutely. We’ve had a better commitment from guys coming in this summer and getting ready for the season earlier than we’ve had in so many years. Virtually everybody on our roster has been here for the last five or six weeks. And many of them attribute that to saying, “Hey, Dwyane has been working out since May. We’ve seen him on TV and the level he’s playing at. We have to get our game ready.”
Q: You have been on the Heat staff for 13 years and Director of Scouting for the last seven years. Tell me about the evolution of NBA scouting and how has it changed. You have a few more tools to work with now.
Spoelstra: Right, and it’s getting more competitive each year. When I scouted, it was probably one of the most challenging jobs I’ve ever had. I must have spent 20 to 25 nights a month out on the road for two years. Basically, you just trail each team and write up a scouting report on what they do and send it back to the team so that it’s prepared. You have no contact really other than the reports you’re sending.
Q: Sounds like a solitary life.
Spoelstra: It’s a pretty lonely existence out there. It’s a very important job, but it’s also one where there’s a little bit of a disconnect. The travel made it challenging, but one of the most beneficial parts of the job for me personally was the fact that you almost become a part of the team you’re following. I’d see a team maybe three or four times in a row. After I’d see them, watch film on them, do the stats and write-up a report, by the time I’d sent it back to our coaches, it was almost as if I knew that team better than I knew our team.
Q: Was it a valuable learning experience for you?
Spoelstra: The beauty of it was that after two seasons doing that, I really got to learn so many different coaching philosophies. Learned different ways of doing things, different offensive and defensive schemes and ways of communicating and coaching and teaching players. I really thought it was a fantastic learning experience.
Q: I read where you had said, “Basketball has now become a science — a game of statistical probabilities and of floor strategies.” You also talked about analyzing opponents and beating them at their own style of play. Tell me about that.
Spoelstra: I’ve actually developed over the years part of our proprietary software, a statistical database. A lot of that is just to try to dig out any kinds of trends on other players and teams. It’s also how we evaluate our team. There’s been a lot of debate on whether you rely on stats too much. But we’ve always tried to be one of the more proactive teams in terms of technology. Really, it’s just a way of accumulating as much information as we can.
Q: Speaking of technology, Riley said, “This game is now about younger coaches who are technologically skilled, innovative and bring fresh new ideas.” Technology seems to go hand in hand nowadays with scouting and statistical analysis.
Spoelstra: It can, but you have to keep in mind that it ends up being about the players and their performance. When you’re coaching, it’s really about your interpersonal relationships with the players and their interactions with their teammates and opponents. It always ends up being about the 10 players on the court playing against each other.
Q: How have you used technology with the players?
Spoelstra: I’m planning on putting our playbook (which in the past was 300 pages) in a notebook. The players will have to flip through it. It’s in paper. I’m also going to put that on an iTouch. You know that all these new guys coming into the league now are techno/gadget guys. They want the latest and greatest toy. We figure it’s another way to communicate with them and get more information to them. So, I’m putting our video playbook on there, diagrams of our plays, motivational quotes, articles that we’ve seen on our players, on players from other sports and even on people with interesting lives that we can relate to.
Q: It seems like a long way from the days of RED AUERBACH.
Spoelstra: Yeah, I guess. But even with all that we’re doing with technology, it’s still the game that’s being played, five-on-five, between those four lines.
Q: What’s the biggest challenge facing the NBA?
Spoelstra: I don’t necessarily see it as a major challenge, but the reality is that the league has become slightly younger. Now, we can’t have high school guys come in; immediately after their freshman year in college they are allowed to enter the NBA. One of the challenges for the league is not only to teach the game and strategy, but also to develop men and to really ingrain the qualities of professionalism, to get guys to understand what it really means to be a professional.
Q: Is that a good rule – the NBA age minimum?
Spoelstra: I think so. I think it’s better than allowing high school players to come in. I’ve noticed a difference now even with just that one year. A kid can come in and spend a few months in college and start to mature, learn what it’s like to live on on his own and be coached. And sometimes some of the players really enjoy the college experience. They may end up staying [more than one year].
Spoelstra Supports NBA Playing Games Abroad
Q: Basketball is a global game. The Heat plays a series of preseason games in Europe, where you played professionally. And you have expressed a desire
to help develop basketball in the Philippines.
Spoelstra: Right. I am half Filipino. I’m proud of my heritage. I didn’t know when I got hired that I was the first Asian-American head coach in the NBA. So, I took that with a great deal of respect and honor. I think any time that you can be a part of something to possibly break down any kind of barriers or stereotypes, then I’m all for it. And if it’s at all possible for somebody down the line to have a door opened or see an opportunity that might not have been there before, then I think that’s a tremendous opportunity.
Q: If you were NBA commissioner for a day, what one thing would you change?
Spoelstra: There has been talk over the last few years of possibly making the NBA game a little bit more like FIBA in terms of allowing any kind of defense – illegal defense – to be played. If I were commissioner, I would keep the rule the same. I like the NBA game the way it is. If anybody should be altering their rules, it should be the people around the world.
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