From 2001 to 2008, he served as assistant coach and director of scouting for the team. Thereafter he was promoted to head coach. Prior to the 2010–11 season, team President Pat Riley assembled a superstar trio of free agents LeBron James and Chris Bosh joining Dwyane Wade. While he was head coach, the Heat, led by LeBron James, made four consecutive finals appearances including trips to the 2011, 2012, 2013 and 2014 NBA Finals, winning the championship in both 2012 and 2013.
Born in Evanston, Illinois, Spoelstra later spent his childhood in Buffalo, New York then Portland, Oregon by the late 1970s. Spoelstra attended Jesuit High School in Beaverton, Oregon, where he excelled at point guard on the basketball team. He wore number 30 during high school and later in college in honor of then Trail Blazer Terry Porter, one of his favorite NBA players. Before his senior year, Spoelstra participated in Sonny Vaccaro's Nike All-Star camp in Princeton, New Jersey alongside future NBA players Alonzo Mourning, Shawn Kemp, Billy Owens, and Bobby Hurley.
Spoelstra received basketball scholarship offers, and eventually accepted one from the University of Portland in his hometown. In 1989, he was named West Coast Conference freshman of the year. Spoelstra was the Pilots' starting point guard for four years, averaging 9.2 points, 4.4 assists and 2.4 rebounds per game. He is a member of the school's 1,000-point club, and is among the Pilots' career leaders in several statistical categories. During a 1990 WCC Basketball Tournament game against Loyola Marymount, Spoelstra was on the court standing just a couple of yards away from Hank Gathers when Gathers collapsed and later died of a heart condition. Spoelstra graduated from the University of Portland in 1992 with a degree in communications.
After graduating from the University of Portland, he was hired and spent two years as a player/assistant coach for TuS Herten, a German professional basketball club based in Westphalia, Germany. It was in this setting where Spoelstra got his first coaching job, as coach of the club's local youth team. He began having back problems after the end of his second year with the team, and contemplated having surgery. In 1995, Spoelstra was offered another two-year contract with the club, but the NBA's Miami Heat also offered him a position. Although both offers held appeal, he chose to take the Heat position.
Roya Vaziri, then the director of player personnel for the Heat, convinced then General Manager Dave Wohl to offer Spoelstra a position with the team. Spoelstra was hired as the Heat's video coordinator in 1995, although at first he was not promised the position past the summer of that year. Pat Riley was named the Heat's head coach not long after Spoelstra's hiring. Erik's father, Jon Spoelstra, said, "Contractually, Riley wasn’t allowed to bring in his video guy, otherwise, Erik would have been out of a job right then."
After two years as video coordinator, he then served two years as an assistant coach/video coordinator. Spoelstra was promoted to assistant coach/advance scout in 1999, and later became the Heat's assistant coach/director of scouting in 2001. Many of Spoelstra's colleagues attribute his ascent in the Heat coaching ranks to his strong work ethic. As an assistant coach, he was credited for improving Heat star shooting guard Dwyane Wade's balance and jump shot after Wade's return from the 2004 Summer Olympics. Spoelstra won his first NBA championship as an assistant coach when the Miami Heat defeated the Dallas Mavericks in the 2006 NBA Finals.
In April 2008, Spoelstra became the head coach of the Miami Heat after Pat Riley's decision to step down. Spoelstra was Riley's hand-picked successor. In naming Spoelstra as head coach, Riley said: "This game is now about younger coaches who are technologically skilled, innovative, and bring fresh new ideas. That's what we feel we are getting with Erik Spoelstra. He's a man that was born to coach." Spoelstra became the first ever Asian American NBA head coach, and the first Asian American head coach in the history of the four major North American sports leagues. He led the Heat to the NBA Playoffs in his first year as head coach, despite the team's league worst record of 15-67 the previous season. The Heat, however, were defeated in seven games by the Atlanta Hawks in the first round. Spoelstra's team once again reached the postseason the following season, but again lost in the first round to the Boston Celtics in five games.
Expectations of the team's success were raised significantly for the next season and beyond, after the free agent acquisitions of LeBron James and Chris Bosh in the summer of 2010. After the team started off the 2010–11 season with a 9–8 record, some Heat players reportedly were "frustrated" with Spoelstra, and questioned if he should remain their head coach. Chris Bosh intimated that the team was being worked too hard and that the players would rather "chill". LeBron James famously bumped into Spoelstra on his way to the bench during a timeout in a game. These two issues, coupled with the relatively poor start to the season, put Spoelstra on the coaching hot seat. The team bounced-back, however, and made the playoffs while posting the second best record in the Eastern Conference. Spoelstra led the Heat to an appearance in the 2011 NBA Finals, but lost to the Dallas Mavericks in six games. After Spoelstra failed to win a championship during his first season as head coach of the "big three", Heat executive Pat Riley was asked if he would consider returning to coach the team. Riley, however, turned down the idea and supported Spoelstra as the head coach going forward. Spoelstra received a $6 million contract extension in December 2011 which lasted through the 2013–14 NBA season.
The following season Spoelstra again guided the team to the postseason as the two seed. The Heat overcame a 2–1 game deficit against the Indiana Pacers in the Eastern Conference semi-finals, and a 3–2 game deficit against the Boston Celtics in the Eastern Conference finals to reach the 2012 NBA Finals despite an injury to starter Chris Bosh that forced him to miss nine straight games. Spoelstra's Heat defeated the Oklahoma City Thunder in five games to win the NBA championship. He became the first Asian American head coach to win an NBA championship, and the second Heat head coach to win the title. He also became the only Miami Heat head coach to take the team to the NBA Finals multiple times.
During the 2012–13 regular season, Spoelstra was selected as head coach of the 2013 Eastern Conference All-Stars in the 2013 NBA All-Star Game, with the Heat holding the best record in the Eastern Conference at the time of selection. He later coached the Heat to a 27-game winning streak (second longest in NBA history). It started with a 100–85 win over the Toronto Raptors on February 3, 2013, and ended with a 97–101 loss to the Chicago Bulls on March 27, 2013. The team made the playoffs as the one seed while posting the best overall NBA regular season record. After sweeping the Milwaukee Bucks in the first round, the Heat won a seven-game series with the Indiana Pacers in the Eastern Conference Finals, and advanced to face the San Antonio Spurs in the 2013 NBA Finals. The Heat defeated the Spurs in seven games and became the first team to win two straight titles since the 2009–2010 Los Angeles Lakers. Spoelstra also became the eighth coach to lead his team to two straight championships.
On September 29, 2013, the Heat extended Spoelstra's contract to an undisclosed multi-year deal. Details were not released, but Spoelstra was expected to receive a pay raise and a bigger role in the front office. Spoelstra led the Heat to the 2014 NBA Finals, becoming the third coach to lead his team to four straight Finals. The Heat faced the San Antonio Spurs once again, only this time losing the series in five games.
Spoelstra is the only son and younger of two children of Jon Spoelstra and Elisa Celino. Jon is Dutch–Irish-American Filipino and a former NBA executive of the Buffalo Braves, Portland Trail Blazers, Denver Nuggets and New Jersey Nets. His mother, Elisa, is a native of San Pablo, Laguna, Philippines. He is also the grandson of Watson Spoelstra, a long-time sportswriter for The Detroit News.
On September 17, 2015, Spoelstra announced his engagement to former Miami Heat cheerleader, Nikki Sapp. They married on July 22, 2016.
Spoelstra has also been an active participant in the SportsUnited Sports Envoy program for the U.S. Department of State. In this function, the Filipino-American coach has traveled to the Philippines two times between 2009 and 2014, where he worked with Derrick Alston, Alison Feaster, David Fizdale, and Sue Wicks to conduct basketball clinics and events that reached more than 375 youth from underserved areas. In so doing, Spoelstra helped contribute to SportsUnited's mission to advance the status of women and girls around the world.