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On the hot seat, Erik Spoelstra has stayed cool for Miami Heat

By Amalie Benjamin
Globe Staff / June 3, 2012
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It was during a flight to London for a scouting trip in 1995 that Chris Wallace first urged then-Heat general manager Dave Wohl to take a chance on a kid he had known since high school. Erik Spoelstra had played basketball at the University of Portland and in a professional league in Germany, and was now out of work.

Wallace, the Heat’s director of player personnel, had ties to the Spoelstra family, with Spoelstra’s father having given him his first job in the NBA, with the Trail Blazers. He thought Erik could handle the video coordinator job.

But more than that? That wasn’t on Wallace’s mind.

“I didn’t have this grand plan that he would become the head coach of the Miami Heat,’’ Wallace said Saturday. “I didn’t quite see it all through to that extent. I just knew that he was someone that I thought would do the job and be very eager and earnest.

“It’s quite a success story. It’s a basketball Horatio Alger success story.’’

The interview, as Wohl recalls, took perhaps 15 or 20 minutes. Thirty, at the most. He saw a smart, sharp kid, he saw a future. He just didn’t see this future.

“Sometimes,’’ Wohl said, “you just get a really good feeling about somebody.’’

The feeling is just as good now as Spoelstra has risen through the Heat organization, named head coach in 2008.

Back then, though, Spoelstra didn’t know much about being a video coordinator. But Wohl was looking for someone with basketball experience, an ex-player type. What mattered was that Spoelstra knew how to say yes, and he knew how to get a task completed, his “incredible work ethic’’ noted by Wohl from the start.

It was hard work that got Spoelstra here, that got him promoted and promoted and promoted again. But there was something else, something Keyon Dooling remembers being struck by in 2004-05, when he played for the Heat and worked closely with Spoelstra, then an assistant coach.

“It’s the It factor,’’ Dooling said. “It’s hard to explain.’’

Pressure unrelenting

Spoelstra was hired in 1995, just months before Pat Riley took over as coach. Riley could have found someone else to be the video jockey. He didn’t. He kept on Spoelstra, and in the 17 years since, the kid has moved up the rungs of the organization.

He remains young at 41, though still gaining experience in the midst of one of the most scrutinized sports teams ever. He has been entrusted with greatness, with three players who should be able to deliver Miami a title at some point in their tenure together.

“When you’ve never been a head coach, now matter how talented you’re perceived to be, no matter how hard-working, no matter how personable and charismatic, no one knows whether you’re going to succeed when you move over 18 inches from the assistant chair to the head coach’s chair,’’ said Wallace, now GM of the Memphis Grizzlies.

“There’s no test to take that’s a coaching SAT that you say, OK, he passed his test, we know he’s going to be an excellent head coach. There’s many coaches in all sports that just don’t make that jump from the really hot assistant candidate to being the head coach.’’

When Riley resigned as coach following the 2007-08 season and became team president, he turned to Spoelstra as his replacement. Spoelstra has navigated the development of Dwyane Wade and overseen the influx of talent brought on by LeBron James’s decision to move to South Beach.

In Spoelstra’s first two seasons as head coach, the Heat lost in the first round each time. They made the jump last year with James and Chris Bosh, losing to the Dallas Mavericks in the NBA Finals.

The goal this season is no less than a title.

“He comes in and proves he can coach in the league, and he’s proven he can mold a team and progress that team in an extremely high pressure, heavily scrutinized environment,’’ Wallace said. “Every decision now is very closely watched and studied, the outcome of every game and practically every possession, graded and rehashed.’’

And there is Spoelstra, still boyish, still learning, still living in the shadow of the man whose influence suffuses the Heat organization.

“I don’t know of another coach that has been under a microscope as much as Erik without really a whole lot of time to develop prior to being hit with this,’’ Wohl said. “There’s a certain amount of willfulness that goes with being able to coach great players. It’s not as easy as it looks. And for Erik, he’s had it at a very, very young age, with not a lot of experience in that seat. I think he’s done a tremendous job.’’

Success was expected

Except for those few months in 1995, all Spoelstra has known of professional basketball has come with Riley at the head. Spoelstra was Riley’s hand-picked successor, with all of the pressures and difficulties that entails. And with the creation of Miami’s Big Three, that has only increased.

For Spoelstra, not winning a title is failure, really.

“It just builds character,’’ said Dooling, who called Spoelstra the best workout coach he’s ever had. “But he’s doing a phenomenal job right now, and that’s all that matters. He’s got his team playing well. One of their best players went down, and he’s found a way to get the most out of the guys, to get the guys to step up.

“So you’ve just got to tip your hat to him and congratulate him on his success.’’

Dooling and his Celtics teammates are trying to prevent that success, continuing with Game 4 of the Eastern Conference finals Sunday night at TD Garden.

Wohl sees similarities between Spoelstra and the man standing in front of the other bench, Doc Rivers. Wohl was an assistant under Rivers in Boston and spent two seasons as Celtics assistant GM.

“The kind of qualities that he had when I saw him in that interview were the kind of qualities that were going to serve him, I think, in whatever he decided to do,’’ Wohl said of Spoelstra. “Those are qualities in terms of looking at a dream and wanting to follow it, and not letting anything be more than an obstacle to figure out how to go around.

“It was the same way with Doc.’’

With Rivers, Wohl saw that same ‘It’ factor that Dooling had described of Spoelstra. He just needed a team and a GM that believed in him, that supported him. Rivers found it with Danny Ainge. Spoelstra has it with Riley.

As far back as 1995, Wallace and Wohl could see a future for Spoelstra. Dooling saw it in 2004. He had the dedication and he knew the demands, coming from a basketball family - his grandfather was a sportswriter, his father a basketball executive.

“You knew he had all the tools to be a head coach,’’ Dooling said. “I didn’t know it would happen so fast for him, but he’s definitely made improvements. Even from last year to this year, you can definitely see his confidence and getting that experience, that championship experience last year really helped him.’’

That, and the players. But the flip side of having all that talent is that the blame might just fall on him if the Heat don’t win the title.

“The thing about coaching is when you win, you have all the answers, and when you don’t you’re looking for that next job,’’ said veteran forward Shane Battier, who joined the Heat this season. “Usually when you have the best players, you usually have the right answers.

“Hubie Brown started every coaching clinic he ever did with the most important lesson in coaching - and he made everyone write it down - he said if you do not have good players, you will not win. The secret of coaching.’’

Spoelstra has that part down. Now it’s up to him to finish the job.

Amalie Benjamin can be reached at abenjamin@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @amaliebenjamin.

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