Upwardly mobile

Erik Spoelstra has dealt with his fair share of challenges as Miami's coach this season. Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images for ESPN The Magazine

This story appears in the May 2, 2011 issue of ESPN The Magazine.

IF THE PINNACLE of the Heat's playoff run ends with a victory, Erik Spoelstra will be able to say the road to the top spot began quite literally in The Dungeon. Outsiders might view such a statement as another harsh knock on the young coach, but those long-tenured members of the team's closed-door fraternity know exactly what The Dungeon is: that converted windowless storage room in the bowels of the old Miami Arena.

As a 25-year-old, in 1995, Spoelstra had applied everywhere in the college basketball world for a low-level coaching gig, but he didn't get so much as a bite. So when the Miami Heat offered him an entry-level job helping with draft preparation, he jumped at the chance. "I figured maybe an internship for the summer would give me some experience and help the résumé a little bit," he says. "That was my only thought." Before long, Spoelstra was spending 10 hours a day figuring out how to operate newfangled video technology under the direction of the software company's trainer, a former Israeli military man. "I remember one particular day, I was struggling, just messing up, freezing the software," Spoelstra says. "The guy got so frustrated, he said, 'You're an idiot,' and left the office."

Spoelstra might not have impressed the Israel Defense Forces, but new
head coach Pat Riley and assistant Stan Van Gundy began to notice. As video coordinator, Spoelstra gradually learned the system and provided the coaching staff with exactly what it was looking for -- precise analysis of what was working and not working for the Heat on both ends of the floor. And to do the job the right way, the way he thought it should be done, Spoelstra wound up sleeping in The Dungeon several times a week. Pretty much the only time he left was to drive his old Toyota station wagon in the middle of the night to deliver game film to the Delta cargo planes bound for the Heat's next destination. "My family used to ask me, 'How's Miami, how's the weather?'" recalls Spoelstra, who grew up in Portland and is the son of a former Trail Blazers executive. "Pat and Stan were so demanding that first year, I don't think I ever saw sunlight."