Miami's Erik Spoelstra has walked a long, long road to his fifth berth as a head coach in the NBA Finals. Spoelstra, who has won two championships, took an unconventional path in what appears to be headed toward a Hall of Fame career.
Recruited out of Beaverton's Jesuit High school, he was a four-year starter at the University of Portland, earning WCC Freshman of the Year honors his first season.
After two seasons as a player-assistant coach in Germany, Spoelstra caught on as video coordinator with the Miami Heat in 1995, held the job for two years before combining it with roles as assistant coach, advance scout and player personnel jobs under Pat Riley. In 2008, Riley retired as head coach, moved into the front office and hand-picked Spoelstra as his head coach, saying, “He’s a man who was born to coach.”
Indeed, Erik was born with a sports legacy. His father, Jon, was general manager of the Trail Blazers and worked in the front office for the Buffalo Braves, New Jersey Nets and Denver Nuggets. His grandfather, Watson Spoelstra, was a long-time sports writer for The Detroit News.
Ron Culp spent nearly four decades as an athletic trainer, in Cleveland, Portland and Miami and logged more NBA games in that capacity than anyone else in history. He was the Trail Blazers’ trainer during the championship season of 1976-77 and first laid his eyes on Spoelstra when the latter was “about 10 or 11.”
“I had a Volkswagon van and Erik's mom and dad borrowed it for a little trip to Bend or somewhere in central Oregon,” Culp said. “That’s my first recollection of him.”
Culp was working in Miami when Spoelstra was hired as video coordinator for the Heat.
“He is a mini-Pat Riley,” Culp said. “No detail goes un-diagnosed. There is nothing about his efforts and drive that he leaves to chance. It’s just the way Eric is. If there’s a coach in the area who does seething unique, he seeks him out. Whether it’s basketball or another sport. He’s always trying to get better.”
And make no mistake, Spoelstra started at the bottom.
“He definitely worked his way up from the tombs," Culp said. “That’s the video room.”
Larry Steele was a Trail Blazer whose number hangs in the rafters of Moda Center. He played for three coaches -- Jack Ramsay, Lenny Wilkens and, in college, Adolf Rupp -- who are in the Basketball Hall of Fame.
He was Erik Spoelstra’s college coach at the University of Portland and looks back at one big mistake he made during Spoelstra’s four seasons as a point guard for the Pilots:
“I should have consulted with him much more,” said Steele Monday. “There is no doubt, and I’m really being serious about this, he understood the game so well. He was always looking to improve, in all aspects of everything he did, but primarily around basketball.”
Steele saw in Spoelstra something special, right from the start.
“His success has been no surprise to me because of his extraordinary love for the game,” Steele said. “Pat Riley must have seen in him what i would have seen in him -- an elite dedication to the game, on top of his personality and love for the game.
“I think people, whatever profession they’re in, there’s people who come along that you just know they have what it takes. I have to give credit to Pat Riley -- who I’ve never talked with, other than playing against him -- and people in charge of making decisions, for promoting him and seeing what he has, who he is and what he is.
“And the players he’s coached, whatever his relationships were when he first went to the Heat, that allowed him to continue his progress.
“His personality and his leading by example. There was nobody working any harder than Erik Spoelstra. He is the ultimate gym rat, leading by example because that's who he is. I’m positive that was picked up by the players when he was video coordinator. I’m sure it has continued throughout his career.
“I’m really impressed.”
Steele said he can’t take any credit for his former player’s success.
“He didn’t learn anything from me,” Steele said with a laugh. “Except that I played him a lot. He was a very, very smart basketball player. His success is not a surprise.”
And Culp said, “He’s earned every minute of it.”