It's an exciting time to be a basketball fan right now. We're in the midst of the NBA Finals, and it's down to the Dallas Mavericks and the Miami Heat, whose coach, Erik Spoelstra, is the first Asian American head coach in the history of the four major American sports. His father is Irish Dutch American, and his mother is a native of the Philippines.
After the 2007-08 NBA season, who would have thought that the Miami Heat would have been title contenders three seasons later? After Pat Riley stepped down as head coach, the team appointed Spoelstra, who was then assistant coach, as their new leader. I thought it would have taken him at least several seasons to turn the team into a top-tier playoff squad.
Of course, with a little help from the additions of LeBron James and Chris Bosh this past off-season, the team instantly became a contender to win their first NBA championship since 2006.
When the announcement was made of Spoelstra's appointment to head coach, the reality of it didn’t sink in with me immediately. After seeing Yao Ming make waves in the NBA for several seasons, having an Asian in the NBA was something that I was already accustomed to seeing.
It was only a few weeks later, as I learned more about Spoelstra, that it began to hit me about how important it was.
There had always been a fascination with Asians in American sports, but most of the attention was focused on the import athletes. Players like Ming and Major League Baseball’s Ichiro Suzuki dominated the headlines of the sports section.
But a head coach making waves? That was something totally new.
Coaching in any professional sport is no walk in the park. As a leader and manager of talented athletes, it can be a daunting task. But Spoelstra’s experience with the team prepared him for this transition.
Spoelstra joined the Heat organization in 1995 as the team’s video coordinator. Two years later, he was named assistant coach. Through his work as a video coordinator, he helped develop star guard Dwyane Wade’s shooting touch in 2005. Wade would lead the Heat to their first NBA title in 2006.
Spoelstra knew the players. The players trusted him. And with the support of team president Pat Riley, Spoelstra now has the Heat back in championship form.
It’s not often that we see an Asian American taking on such a major leadership role in sports. Along with the pressures of being a pioneer for other Asian American coaches, Spoelstra has handled all of it very well.
Even though he has the luxury of superstar players James, Bosh and Wade on the team, the biggest challenge for Spoelstra was how to handle these talents and find complementary roles for each of them. The expectations were set very high for the Heat. After eliminations in the first round for the past two seasons, championship gold now became the team’s ultimate goal when the season started.
Spoelstra didn’t stumble in his new challenge. He wasn’t forceful in his approach to the new-look team. Instead, he allowed each new player to find their niche on the court. It led to a few speed bumps early on in the season, and there was some panic surrounding the Miami faithful. It took the team about a month to get on track. By the end of the season, they were playing their best basketball.
The Heat cruised to the division title and steamrolled through the first three rounds of the playoffs. The players trusted their coach and the coach believed in his players.
Now the Heat are in the NBA Finals for the second time in franchise history. And behind all that is the league’s first Asian American head coach -- a confident man that the players trust.
Samuel Lam is the San Francisco 49ers beat writer for Examiner.com.
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