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Looking back at an unusually condensed season that he calls nothing less than “chaotic”, Filipino-American Erik Spoelstra counts himself lucky to have pulled away with the league’s top prize. Besides being the only Fil-American and person of Asian descent to clinch the NBA championship, let alone coach a major North-American sports team, “Coach Spo” made a name for himself through captivating comebacks. Besides helping the Miami Heat bounce back from finishing as the worst team in the league, to a 43-win season with the greatest improvement in NBA history by a rookie coach, in his debut season in 2008, the defensive-minded tactician continues to overwhelm audiences with stunts like fighting back from being behind in three different game series this fateful playoffs. With innumerable haters and huge superstar egos on his roster to deal with on a daily basis, Spoelstra’s prolific ability to produce results lie in making all this heat play to his advantage.
As a kid, could you have ever imagined yourself coaching in the NBA?
No. Growing up in Portland, Oregon, I was actually a huge Trailblazers fan and aspired to play for them. I later aspired to become a high school or college basketball coach, but I guess I did a little better than that.
How did it feel like at first when you became the first person of Asian descent to coach a North American sports franchise?
I still feel very proud to be a representative. I feel like my opportunity can open people’s eyes and open doors to other people of similar backgrounds to mine, so it also feels like a great responsibility.
How about when you became the youngest coach in the NBA?
I didn’t necessarily think anything about it. I was just honoured to be part of this first class organisation, the Miami Heat, and wanted to do my best. Someone around that time asked me what I thought about my “overnight success”. I replied, “yeah, if you count 13 years as overnight.”
Are there any Filipino or Asian sportsperson you look up to?
Of course – Manny Pacquiao.
Being involved with so many charities, which is your favourite form of social work?
I like coming to Asia and giving back to the game. Asia and the Philippines are very close to my heart because of my heritage. It really has good karmic repercussions! The Heat and I don’t take what we have for granted. As an ambassador of NBA FIT, I like teaching kids the value of good lifestyles, nutrition, teamwork and “sweat equity”, through which we tackle problems like obesity and lack of physical fitness. We get to coach excited young players of different levels and basketball is about having fun, while being involved in something bigger than yourself.
Would you and the Miami Heat like to do anything to revive Asia’s interest in basketball and the NBA?
We’re playing against the Los Angeles Clippers in Shanghai and Beijing soon. We’re always looking for opportunities to get people interested in basketball and, at the same time, earn more fans.
Did anything feel different after you guys won the NBA championships this year?
Not really. We definitely became a more recognisable sports team, but we still kept ourselves very busy after the finals. The gratification we felt was from being able to do it together. We have had a lot of bumpy roads and have been the target of unusual amounts of scrutiny, but we did it, and it was the scrutiny that helped us come together.
So how important was it for you to win this season’s title to silence your detractors?
We didn’t think about it that way at all. We were just focussed on getting the best chance to get back to the finals. We acknowledged that nothing is guaranteed and that was our immediate goal for the regular season; we weren’t at all constantly obsessing about the title. The gratification came from the long journey – it’s been ups and downs, sacrifices and success, and an all together roller-coaster ride. That gratification outweighed any kind of vindication.
Of the whole roller-coaster ride, what was your most memorable moment leading to this win?
Our 2011 loss to Dallas in the finals. We went into the summer mourning, but that experience fired us up to win the 2011-12 trophy.
Who was the second most deserving of the 2011-12 championship?
Definitely O.K.C. (runners-up Oklahoma City Thunder) We have a great amount of respect for them. As much as people think they fell apart in the later games, I think they didn’t at all.
Is it as difficult as it seems to manage a team of super-egos?
It’s never what it seems. Outsiders have a certain perception of the Miami Heat, but our team is made of players who are open, who want to be coached and want to be an important part of the team. LeBron (James) is always the first one on the court for training sessions, and Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh have similar work ethic.
What does it take to command the respect of physically intimidating athletes who know that they’re incredibly gifted?
I have to earn their respect, every single day, by my own work ethic and competency. It takes time, but I show them that they can count on me every day.
Doing this every day is not easy. How do you concentrate on game-winning strategy while having to deal with the enormous stress from the media, players and higher management?
We have all learnt the importance of compartmentalising. We stay in the moment and always focus on getting better. We can’t control other factors like what the media says, so we don’t bother about it. The first six weeks after we (James, Wade, Bosh and me) were put together in July 2010 were uncomfortable, but we learnt how to shut the external noise out and concentrate on playing basketball.
How do you relieve all that stress?
What really helps me relax and manage my emotions is yoga. If it’s not yoga for 45 minutes to one hour in the afternoon, then it’s biking, spinning, running or pilates.
Do you think your team is more well-rounded after your recent acquisition of two iconic shooters?
Yes, I like to think that we got rid of one of our main rivals, Ray Allen, by signing him. Rashard Lewis has caused our team a lot of grief in the past and has been stuck in a losing team, but has proven himself to be a great player by bringing the Orlando Magic to the NBA finals. He’s coming back from an injury and I think signing him excellent timing.
How do you get stars like these to accept pay cuts to join the Miami Heat?
I used recruitment words like “Dwayne Wade”, “LeBron James” and “Chris Bosh”. We are also very fortunate to have former players like Alonzo Mourning and Tim Hardaway working in our office.
What’s the best course of action when you realise that your organisation has signed a difficult player?
It really depends. Communication is, of course, key, as well as persuading the player to buy into our culture.
How has your relationship with Miami Heat owner and former coach evolved?
He is my biggest mentor and has seen me grow throughout my career. I started out as an intern, whom he had asked just before the season to be his video coordinator. I would fetch his coffee and pick up the dry-cleaning, and he probably didn’t even know my name. Our relationship has developed in so many ways and in different capacities. In the last couple of years, it has become more of a friendship. He has been a great influence on my life, like Stan Van Gundy (former Miami Heat and Orlando Magic coach), Rick Adelman (present Minnesota Timberwolves coach), my college coach and my late high school coach.
What does it take to be a great coach?
I’m still working on it. My insecurities about my own shortcomings drive me to always get better.