Miami Heat's Erik Spoelstra joins the growing list of famous sports personalities who are either pure or part Filipino. Of course on top of this list is eight-division world boxing champion Manny Pacquiao. Then we have billiards wizard Efren "Bata" Reyes, pro-wrestler Dave Bautista (Batista), and UFC contenders Mark Munoz and Brandon Vera to name a few.
"My heritage is very important to me. I'm proud to be Filipino. It's one of the main reasons why I come back," said the reigning NBA champion coach, who is also the first Asian American head coach in the history of the four major American sports leagues to win a championship. Spoelstra has been visiting the country at least once a year since 2010. His mother, Elisa Celino, is from San Pablo, Laguna, while his dad, Jon, is a Dutch-Irish-American who became an NBA executive for the Portland Trailblazers and New Jersey Nets.
In a meeting with executives of the companies owned by businessman and sportsman Manny V. Pangilinan, dubbed "The Champ's Playbook," at the Meralco Theatre last Friday, Spoelstra shared some of his experiences as a five-year chief tactician of the Heat. And in several instances, the Filipino trait in him becomes apparent, especially with the manner the 41-year old coach handled the huge personalities in his team. Among his players are NBA superstars Lebron James, Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh. His mentor and boss is NBA Hall of Famer Pat Riley.
Particularly interesting is his practice of giving the physical touch to every single player in his team, every single day. A simple tap on the shoulder or chest is something that Erik never fails to do with members of his team before he heads home. Such gesture is common among most Pinoys. "I truly believe in the physical touch every single day. I don't allow a single day without giving a physical touch to each of my players. I ask my assistants to do the same. One touch every single day. It's more than just a simple hello. And it's not just with the players. I make sure I pass by the office of my boss (Riley) to say hello and give a physical touch," said Spoelstra.
Filipinos are known for their close family ties, which is something that Erik also instills in his team. In an Eastern Conference semis game against the Indiana Pacers a few months ago, Spoelstra engaged Wade in a shouting match during one time-out. But after the game, Wade went to him and said, "Coach, we only want the same thing. We're family. But I got you. I got you next game." In the nine years that they have worked together, Spoelstra said he and Wade disagreed a lot but their personal and professional relationships remained strong. "Sometimes in your own family you don't like each other. But you always love each other," adds Spoelstra.
After serving the Heat organization for 13 years as video coordinator, scout and assistant coach, Spoelstra was picked by Riley to be his successor as head coach in 2008. "You can imagine what the speculation was by the media. They called me a young kid who got an overnight opportunity. I was 37 years old but I looked 22. It's the Filipino genes, isn't it?" quipped Spoelstra. "They said I was not ready. But it wasn't an overnight opportunity. I started out as an intern with the Heat 17 years ago and was fortunate enough to earn the trust of my boss Pat Riley to get a promotion. So that overnight opportunity ended up to be a 13-year overnight opportunity."
Despite all the detractors, Spoelstra refused to be bothered by them and just continued to work hard. Another Filipino trait.With all the challenges he has faced in being the leader of now the best professional basketball team in the world, Spoelstra revealed that he is inspired to write a book on leadership. He said the book title would be "Leadership Sucks," in jest, of course. "Being a leader is tough. Sometimes it feels great just to sit in the back and let somebody else do it….I think it would be a great book. It might be a best seller. But the reason why I'm making a joke about it is that there's nothing else I would rather do. I don't know what else I could do. I don't have any other set of skills. Leadership is something I can always try to improve on. It never stops."
Spoelstra's last advice to the business executives present is to lead with honesty. "I think the No. 1 key to it (leadership) is to try to be honest. The first thing the players want to see is honesty. They want to be coached, pushed, and disciplined. But they do not want to be told something that's not the truth."
It's clear that the successful young basketball coach has inherited many Filipino traits, which make him one of the most loved personalities in the NBA. Despite his instant fame, Spoelstra remained down-to-earth.
"I hope to visit here every year and try to be involved in the grassroots development of basketball here. I want to teach as many kids as I can. This will be my small contribution to Philippine basketball," said Spoelstra, whose short visit here included hosting a dinner reunion with his relatives from San Pablo, which he expects to be about a hundred.
Editor's note: The blogger's views do not represent Yahoo! Southeast Asia's position on the topic or issue being discussed in this post.