Filipinos can play in the NBA, says Spoelstra

Erik Spoelstra
Photo Credit To JGLiPhoto by Joseph G. Lariosa

CHICAGO (Apr. 18) — NBA playoff-bound Filipino American Miami Heat coach Erik Spoelstra can no longer hide his feelings. He said Filipinos can play in the NBA.

His stock in assessing the ability of Filipino players rose last week when he guided the lowly regarded Miami Heat to the NBA playoffs.

When the Eastern Conference playoffs open this Sunday at 8 p.m. (EST), Spoelstra’s fifth seed Miami Heat will visit fourth seed Atlanta Hawks for Game 1.

A proud Filipino nation will be rooting for his success in the same manner that he takes pride of being the first ever Filipino American and Asian American to coach an NBA team.

When Miami Heat President and Head Coach Pat Riley, one of the winningest coaches in the NBA, stepped down last year as Miami Heat coach, he anointed the 38-year-old Spoelstra (pronounced Spoll-Stra) as his successor and the 14th coach of the team, saying, “I believe Erik Spoelstra is one of the most talented young 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 who was born to coach.”

Not only was Riley’s prophesy self-fulfilling, Spoelstra was also overachieving. Riley’s Miami Heat last year merely won 15 games for the season. This year, Spoelstra’s Miami Heat team won 43 games, an improvement of 28 more games than last year’s. Not only that, Miami is also in the playoffs this year.

As if wanting his modest success rub off on Filipino players, Erik said, “several years ago, if you ask anybody if a Filipino or a Filipino American can become a head coach of the National Basketball Association, the question would have elicited this reply: ‘That’s a crazy question.’”

As the NBA goes international, Spoelstra also thinks it will no longer be a “crazy question” if someone asks him if a Filipino or Filipino American can play in the NBA.

“Yeah, anything can happen. The opportunities now for players are really global. The NBA is welcoming any player from any country in the world and every player from out there; picks the right player, the right situation, the right time.

“Yao Ming (of China) broke down a lot of barriers. Twenty-five years ago, I don’t know, if anybody will say that there will be a perennial all-star in the NBA, coming from China.

“We have an MVP years ago from Germany,” Spoelstra said, referring to Dirk Nowitzki of Dallas Mavericks, the first Most Valuable Player from Germany.

“The game is now so much more global than it has ever been.

“The game of basketball obviously is a pastime in the Philippines and I can definitely say there is a possibility.”Spoelstra, a bachelor, also said, “I have plans to do basketball clinic during off-season in the Philippines for the NBA.”

He said this is his way of appreciating the support of the Filipino Americans and the Filipino people to his young career. “I feel very honored” to do the clinic.

“Hopefully, the fact that a Filipino American has the opportunity to be head coach of the NBA, I am hopeful that this will open up more doors and more dreams for the Filipinos out there.

“And that if they believe that they can do anything, then they can do it, if they put their hearts and minds into it.”

At six-foot-one-inch tall and 185-pound, Spoelstra, was lured as player/coach of Tus Herten, a team in the professional league in Germany, for two years.

It was right after he graduated from the University of Portland with a degree in communications in 1992.

“I would have been playing in the Philippines if I were not playing in Germany,” according to the Chicago’s suburban Evanston, Illinois native and son of an American-Irish father and a Filipina mother said. His father, Jon Spoelstra, is an Irish-American. His mother, Elisa Celino, is from San Pablo, Laguna in the Philippines.

In college, Spoelstra played as a starting point guard for four years for the Pilots and was named the West Coast Freshman of the Year.

When he returned to the United States after his stint in Germany, Erik was hired by the Heat as the team’s video coordinator in 1995. He would forget playing in the Philippines.

In the Heat organization, Spoelstra spent two years as video coordinator, where he was responsible for preparing scouting tapes and heading up the team’s information technology for the coaching staff.

He would serve as Assistant Coach/Video Coordinator the following two seasons (1997-99).Filipino American rookie head coach Erik Spoelstra (left) shakes the hand of reporter Joseph G. Lariosa before the game between the Heat and the Chicago Bulls last Thursday (March 26) in the United Center in Chicago, Illinois. (JGLiPhoto by Larry L. Hernandez)

He was, then, promoted to Assistant Coach/Advance Scout and served in that role for two seasons (1999-01) before being elevated to Assistant Coach/Director of Scouting, a role he served for seven years.

Spoelstra and Lariosa
Spoelstra and Lariosa

When Riley appointed him last year, Spoelstra told this reporter when his team visited the Chicago Bulls on March 26, “It was very humbling for me to take over the place of my idol and role model. I know it was a big shoe to fill but I will try to step up to the challenge.”

Chris Perkins, NBA writer for The Palm Beach Post, said, “The best rookie coach of Miami Heat would have been Stan Van Gundy, who in his rookie coach, had Shaquille O’Neal in his first year, and won 59 games. He (Gundy) had a huge advantage; he had a much better team. You look at the team that Erik has, his team does not have a lot of experience and great talents, except for Dwyane Wade and Jermaine O’Neal, they are doing a much better job.”

He said Gundy at the time aside from Shaquille O’Neal had Dwyane Wade in his second year and Alonzo Mourning.

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