There are worse places to be these days than in Erik Spoelstra's shoes. In fact there are few places better. At 42, the coach of the Miami Heat is in charge of the reigning NBA champions and has his star-studded team playing better this year than last. After winning 27 consecutive games, six short of the all-time NBA record, the Heat finally lost to the Chicago Bulls last week in a particularly bruising battle. However, nothing changes. They are still the best team in the league and still the odds-on favourites to repeat as champions.
And not only did Spoelstra earn a lucrative contract extension last year, the boyish coach is also dating a stunning former Heat team dancer 18 years his junior, which makes him perhaps the first coach in the history of the NBA whose players are actually envious of his partner. Spoelstra also carries one other notable first in his young career: he is the first Asian-American head coach in the history of the four major American sports.
Granted, professional sports in the US, and in particular Major League Baseball, operated for years under a de facto colour code that prohibited blacks and minorities from advancing through the ranks of management. But here we are in uber progressive 2013 and Spoelstra is still the only coach yet of Asian descent. Of course, had Spoelstra grown up in his mother's hometown of San Pablo in the southern part of Laguna province in the Philippines there is virtually no chance he would be coaching in the NBA today. But because he was raised in Portland, Oregon, his ancestry became less of an issue. It also helped greatly that Spoelstra's father, Jon, was an executive with three NBA teams and that his grandfather, Watson Spoelstra, was one of the most prominent sportswriters of his generation.
Still none of that stops most people in the NBA-mad Philippines from thinking of the man known as coach Spo as one of their own. For Spoelstra, his rise to prominence has hardly been conventional. After a college career as a point guard at Portland, Spoelstra played and coached in Germany for a spell before his father helped him land a job with the Miami Heat in 1995 as a video co-ordinator. When legendary coach Pat Riley took over the Heat shortly thereafter, he appreciated the work the perceptive and diligent Spoelstra was doing and slowly he rose up the ranks. "The only thing he used to be able to do when I first got here was the Christmas videos," Heat star Dwyane Wade said of Spoelstra.
After Riley decided to step aside from the daily grind of coaching in 2008, he named the then 37-year-old Spoelstra as the surprising choice to succeed him. "This game is now about younger coaches who are technologically skilled, innovative, and bring fresh new ideas," said Riley. "That's what we feel we are getting with Erik Spoelstra. He's a man that was born to coach."
Two years later, Spoelstra found himself in the eye of the storm when the Heat signed All-Stars Chris Bosh and LeBron James, arguably the greatest player in the world, to team up with Wade. Almost immediately, critics felt the inexperienced Spoelstra was out of his depth and would soon be replaced. A slow start by the Heat seemed to confirm the superstars did not respect him. But he maintained an even keel and a cool demeanour, despite some juvenile behaviour from Wade and James, and managed to get the Heat to the finals in 2011 before winning in 2012.
Spoelstra has been a stable and classy presence amid the madness and yet he can't win even when he wins. A trained chimp, we are told, could coach this roster to victory. But history is rife with coaches who have not been able to get superstar egos to gel. What makes Spoelstra so good, aside from his innate knowledge of the game, is actually his total lack of ego.
After being fêted at the White House by President Barack Obama, the team headed to a nearby military hospital where a group of workers admitted they thought Riley was still the Heat's coach. "That doesn't bum me out at all," Spoelstra said. "I don't have an ego about it. That's partly why we've been able to work together effectively for so long. My job is to land the plane."
No matter how much you may hate the Heat, it's hard to hate Spoelstra. It's even harder to dismiss his success.