Eric Spoelstra is looking to legitimize his place among the great coaches

Eric Spoelstra has his young and surprising Miami Heat in the Eastern Conference Finals against the Boston Celtics.

The other three coaches with their teams still in the playoffs include Brad Stevens (Celtics), Frank Vogel (Lakers), and Mike Malone (Nuggets). Unlike his counterparts though, Spoelstra brings a resume that already includes two NBA championships.

He is also the only minority coach who still has his team playing. Spoelstra, being of Filipino descent from his mother’s side, is actually the first Asian-American to coach in any of the major professional American sport leagues let alone the first to win a title. That of course was with a team that named itself the “Heatles” because as star player Lebron James put it “they sell out every stadium they tour on the road”.

Today’s team however is quite different. Instead of the “Heatles” he is leading a group that depends on major contributions from two rookies, Kendrick Nunn and Tyler Herro. They are joined by second– and third-year players, Duncan Robinson and Bam Adebayo, the latter who is on the cusp of becoming a superstar. Together with veterans Jimmy Butler, Goran Dragic and Andre Iguodala this fifth seeded Heat has by far exceeded all expectations.

Some coaches are known for handling big egos. Phil Jackson comes to mind. Other coaches are known for their expertise in handling young players. Larry Brown comes to mind. While one can argue that the two championships Spoelstra has won were due to the superstar talent under him, nobody can deny his performance with the current squad.

Eric Spoelstra’s entire life has been dedicated to studying the game.

Born in Evanston, Illinois, only a stone throw from my house, young Eric spent his childhood in Portland where his father was a marketing executive for the Trailblazers. That meant free access to players and practices. The late Jack Ramsey left quite an impression on him as a ten-year-old.

He would go on to star at Jesuit High School and had the opportunity to compete against future NBA greats such as Alonzo Mourning, Shawn Kemp and Bobby Hurley. Eric then spent four years as the starting point guard for the University of Portland, where he graduated with a degree in communications.

But it was the West Coast Conference tournament semifinal game during his sophomore season against the Loyola Marymount Lions that he will always remember. That was the day All American Hank Gathers, who led the nation in scoring and rebounding the previous year, collapsed on the floor, and would be diagnosed with an abnormal heartbeat.

Spoelstra recalls “When he fell to the ground it was like time ran in slow motion. I was frozen on the court, watching. I still remember how eerie the sound of an absolutely silent gym sounded, the piercing silence — it was shuddering. It’s something I won’t forget.”

Gathers took medication and started playing again but died at age 23 after collapsing for the second time that season during the semifinals of the 1990 WCC Tournament.

In 1995 as a 25-year-old, and shortly before the arrival of Pat Riley as the new head coach of Miami, Spoelstra was hired as a video coordinator. That began his rise within the organization. Stan Van Gundy, Riley’s assistant once said he has only met two people whom he knew, right away, were going to be standout coaches and Spoelstra was one of them. By 1999 he had become an advanced scout and was handing Riley reports way beyond the simple X and Os.

In April 2008, at age 37, Spoelstra became the head coach of the Miami Heat and the youngest coach in NBA history. Then, in 2010 he was handed the keys to a title, when Riley signed James and Chris Bosh and re-signed Dwyane Wade. He would coach the team to four straight finals appearances and two championships.

With the prospect looming that he may once again coach in the finals, surely there is nothing that could motivate him more than defeating the player, LeBron James, who got most of the credit and attention for the two championships in Miami.

A title this year would solidify Spoelstra among one of the all-time greats and nobody could take that away from him.