MANILA, Philippine – Miami Heat head coach Erik Spoelstra will have a chance to make basketball history on Friday when his team takes on the Oklahoma City Thunder in Game 5 of the NBA Finals on their homecourt at the American Airlines Arena.
If the Heat win Game 5, they will be crowned NBA champions and Spoelstra will be the first Filipino-American coach to steer his squad to a title in any professional sport in the United States.
Miami Heat head coach Erik Spoelstra calls a play in the first quarter against the Oklahoma City Thunder during Game 4 of the NBA basketball finals in Miami, Florida, June 19, 2012. REUTERS/Mike Segar
Spoelstra’s mother, Elisa Celino, is from San Pablo, Laguna. His Dutch-Irish-American father, Jon Spoelstra, worked as an executive with various NBA teams.
After four years as a starting guard at the University of Portland, Spoelstra briefly considered playing for the Philippine Basketball Association (PBA) in 1992.
In a story by Rafe Bartholomew on Grantland, it was revealed that Spoelstra’s relatives in Laguna sent him videos of local playoff games, and that Toronto Raptors scout Jim Kelly tried to arrange for him to play in Manila.
Kelly had worked as a consultant for PBA teams in Manila and believed Spoelstra could have succeeded as a player in the PBA.
“He was multi-positional. Over there (in the PBA), he could have even been a big guy. But more than that, he was a thinking-man’s player,” said Kelly. “Probably big on heart, a little bit less on skill, and that’s why he’s a good coach.”
But Spoelstra would never play in the PBA; instead, he played for a team in Germany before getting hired as a video coordinator by the Miami Heat in 1995.
Spoelstra has visited the Philippines for the past three summers to conduct basketball clinics. In the Grantland story, Spoelstra reportedly promised that if the Heat win a title, he will bring the Larry O’Brien trophy to the Philippines.
Replacing an icon
Spoelstra became an assistant coach for the Heat in 1997, and was promoted to advanced scout in 2001. After two more years, he was named director of scouting.
His biggest break came when he was handpicked by iconic NBA coach Pat Riley to be the next head coach of the Heat.
Since then, it has been a remarkable journey for Spoelstra, who has been credited with helping develop the perimeter game of Heat superstar Dwyane Wade.
In his first season as head coach, Spoelstra steered the Heat to a 43-39 record, third in the Southeast Division. They were booted out in the first round of the playoffs. In the next season, they improved to 47-35 but got eliminated in the first round again.
Spoelstra would be under tremendous pressure during the 2010-2011 season, when the Heat acquired superstar LeBron James and Chris Bosh through free agency, joining Wade in a South Beach version of a “Big Three.”
The Big Three’s first year under Spoelstra was a struggle, and they fell short of expectations when they lost in the Finals in six games to the Dallas Mavericks.
Following that Finals loss, Spoelstra’s job security was questioned, but Riley announced last December that the Heat extended Spoelstra’s contract.
“We have one of the great young coaches in the league,” Riley said at the time. “We want to extend him and keep him in the family and not have someone steal him away from us.”
This season, Spoelstra once again steered the Heat to the Finals, where his team are on the brink of only the second title in franchise history.
Along the way, he encountered a few problems, including an argument with Wade during a timeout of Game 3 of their second-round match-up against the Indiana Pacers.
Spoelstra brushed off the incident, however, saying it happened during a “very emotional part of the game.”
“Those exchanges happen all the time during the course of an NBA season. Dwyane and I have been together for a long time. We’ve been through basicall everything... That really is nothing,” he said.
The Heat eliminated the Pacers in six games to book a place in the conference Finals, and Spoelstra was commended by James for the adjustments he made against Indiana.
“Coach Spo from Game Three on made some unbelievable adjustments that allowed us to do the things we did,” James said.
“He put us in a position offensively and defensively to make the plays, to help us win,” he added.
“Just as he says that we played spectacularly, he coached spectacularly this series.”
In the conference Finals, the Heat overcame a series deficit to oust the Boston Celtics in seven games, booking their second straight Finals apperance.
Although they lost Game 1, the Heat have since reeled off four straight wins.
“Coach Spo” now stands on the brink of history, though he insists the job was far from done.
“It was a normal day of work, long film session, went through some things in practice, and now, we’re going to try and rest up and get our bodies and minds right for this battle tomorrow night,” Spoelstra said.
“It’s Game 5, but we gotta treat it like it’s Game 7. We are preparing for Game 5 to protect our homecourt and to take care of business,” he added.
James, who has been spectacular against the Thunder, seems to fully trust that Spoelstra will help them get the job done.
“Coach Spo and the coaching staff will give us a great game plan, and I’ll make sure myself and my teammates are ready to execute it,” he said.