MANILA, Philippines - Miami Heat coach Erik Spoelstra is counting down the days leading to the start of training camp and with high expectations of a glowing performance in the NBA next season, the latest Fil-Am success story boldly declared the team is ready for the challenge.
TV commentator Jeff Van Gundy, whose brother Stan coaches Miami rival Orlando in the Eastern Conference, recently said the Heat has a chance to break Chicago’s 72-10 record set in 1995-96 and the Los Angeles Lakers’ mark of 33 straight wins established in 1971-72.
But Spoelstra, who was in Manila for a week to promote the NBA Fit program and visit his mother Elisa Celino’s family in San Pablo, brushed off the speculation as a distraction that he won’t think about in staying focused on the job.
“We know what the goal is,” said Spoelstra, entering his third year at the Heat helm after piloting the team to a 43-39 record as a rookie coach in 2008-08 and 47-35 last season. “Right now, we’re getting ready for training camp. We’ve brought in players who fit the Miami fabric, guys who embrace our philosophy and culture. We’re looking forward to the challenge. We’ve got a diverse staff, a coaching staff and the players to get the job done. The key is to stay focused.”
Spoelstra said he can’t compare the feeling heading into his first season and now, coming close to opening the campaign with a powerhouse lineup bannered by Dwyane Wade, LeBron James and Chris Bosh.
“It’s different each year,” he said. “Each season is unique in its own way. Obviously, we’re excited about this coming journey. We know what we need to be. We built our team not thinking about how other teams are or will be. We brought in guys who know how to win, how to play under pressure, guys whom we can be proud to call Miami Heat players.”
In the offseason, the Heat underwent a major facelift. Gone were Michael Beasley, Dorell Wright, Jermaine O’Neal and Quentin Richardson. Recruited were James, Bosh, Zydrunas Ilgauskas, Juwan Howard, Mike Miller and Eddie House. Staying over were Wade, Udonis Haslem, Joel Anthony, Mario Chalmers, James Jones, Carlos Arroyo and Jamaal Magloire.
Spoelstra singled out Haslem as the ultimate Miami Heat warrior. “Udonis embodies our philosophy and spirit,” he said. “He could’ve gone to another team for more money but chose to stay. It’s all about attitude. Udonis and Dwyane have that leadership quality, the character we need to bring our team to the next level.”
Working with Miami president and legendary NBA coach Pat Riley is an advantage, noted Spoelstra, because of his knowledge and experience. “Pat’s my boss and mentor,” said Spoelstra. “His office is just down the hall from mine. When I need to consult him about something, I just knock on his door and go straight in. I’ve learned a lot from him and I haven’t stopped learning from him.”
As the only NBA coach picked to endorse the Fit program, Spoelstra said nothing beats exercising regularly and eating healthy. He chuckled when reminded he’s turning 40 on Nov. 1.
“Sometimes I feel old for my age with all the stress of an NBA coach,” said Spoelstra. “But you feel young when you’re fit, doing what you love to do. For exercise, I do different things. I love to run – it clears my mind, refreshes you. I bike and lift weights, too. In a way, exercising is my release and it’s fun to do. It helps you physically and mentally. As for my diet, I’m a creature of habit in that I eat nearly the same thing over and over. For breakfast, I do three eggs, whole wheat bread, tomatoes, oatmeal and fruit – home and away. For lunch, I do a salad with tomatoes, leafy veggies or broccoli and grilled chicken or fish. For dinner, it’s about the same. I don’t do junk food although I do have my cheat days which aren’t that often. When I do unhealthy food, I get sluggish. During the season, I try to eat healthy all the time.”
In Manila, Spoelstra said he enjoyed interacting with collegiate players, coaches, fans and of course, his Filipino relatives. He described his visit to San Pablo to “deepen” his ties with his mother’s family as “a special moment.” Spoelstra also visited several school campuses to conduct camps and promote fitness during physical education classes. He watched PBA and UAAP games and gathered elite varsity cagers, male and female, with coaches from all levels up to the pros for an NBA-style workout at the Araneta Coliseum.
“What I notice from watching the collegiate and pro games was the passion of the spectators,” he said. “It was an awesome atmosphere and reminded me once more of my greatest regret in life – not being able to play in the PBA. The atmosphere in the collegiate game was electric with all the bands and cheerleaders. In the PBA, I saw the competitiveness of the players and how well-coached they are.”
Spoelstra said in conducting his clinics, he never failed to stress the importance of urgency.
“It’s respect for the game,” said Spoelstra who handled the drills with Miami assistant coach Dave Fizdale. “We call it a sense of urgency, that whatever you do on the court, you do it well, you do it with impact. The game can be taken away from you very easily because someone out there is waiting to move in and willing to work harder. You respect the game and it treats you right in return. Basketball is a beautiful game and you play it with discipline, commitment and respect. I thought the response of the kids to our message of urgency was terrific.”
Spoelstra said he’s not surprised to observe the high skill level of Filipino players,
“The Philippines is one of the few countries in the world where basketball, by far, is the No. 1 sport,” he said. “People play it all over the place. I’ve seen makeshift goals in streets and kids playing even without shoes. Kids start playing at a young age so they learn early. Fans are very knowledgeable about the NBA and everywhere I go in the country, I’m asked about next season. I know there are a lot of Laker and Celtic fans among Filipinos. I’m hoping to encourage more Miami Heat fans.”
Spoelstra said he’d like to visit the Philippines after each NBA season and continue the developmental work he began last year. There’s no place like home – or at least, his mother’s home – and it helps that the Philippines is basketball-crazy.