The NBA recently named Erik Spoelstra as the Eastern Conference Coach of the Month for December.


MANILA — There’s a strong possibility that Miami Heat coach Erik Spoelstra will be back in Manila this year after visiting as a sports envoy with the U.S. Department of State in 2009 and an endorser of the NBA Fit program last August.

Spoelstra’s first cousin Hannah Celino, who lives in Santa Monica, California, and is in town for the holidays, told The Star the other day the NBA’s first Fil-Am coach is considering another trip to his mother’s home country. Celino’s father Tony is the brother of Spoelstra’s mother Elisa, a Filipina.

“Erik and I met up in Los Angeles when the Heat played the Lakers on Christmas Day,” said Celino, a University of Wisconsin graduate and the oldest of four children, all born in the Philippines. “We hung out before and after the game. Erik hardly talked about basketball. When we get together, he just wants to chill out and relax. He asked me about my plans of visiting Manila in the summer. That’s an indication he may come for another trip. I’m sure he’d like to continue the work he started in Manila and besides, he enjoyed his trips over.”

Celino, however, said Spoelstra’s off-season schedule is tight. “Erik doesn’t really have much time to take a break even during the offseason,” she said. “There’s just a little window where he can take off. He’s very focused on his job. After the season, he gets busy with the draft, the summer league and training camp.”

Spoelstra, 40, is in his third year as Heat head coach. He made NBA history by posting the biggest one-season turnaround ever for a rookie coach in leading the Heat from 15 to 43 wins in 2008-09.

Spoelstra now ranks third among Heat coaches with 118 career wins.

This season, Miami brought in LeBron James and Chris Bosh to team with Dwayne Wade in a serious bid for the championship.

After a shaky 9-8 start, the Heat rattled off 12 straight wins and has now won 19 of its last 20. Miami hasn’t lost since dropping a 98-96 decision to Dallas last Dec. 13.

Spoelstra piloted the Heat to a 15-1 record during the period as Miami became the first team ever to win 10 consecutive road games in a single month.

He also set a franchise record for most wins in a month.

For Spoelstra, it wasn’t easy jumping out of the hot seat.

There was talk early this season he would be fired particularly after James appeared to show disrespect by bumping his shoulder while walking from the court to the bench for a timeout in a losing game against Dallas last Nov. 27.

James did the same thing to his former Cleveland coach Mike Brown in 2007.

Spoelstra didn’t seem to mind the contact.

But it reportedly prompted a 30-minute meeting between Spoelstra and James.

As if on cue, the Heat went on to win 12 in a row and is now firmly on top of the Southeast Division.

Only four NBA teams show less than 10 losses so far – San Antonio (29-6), Boston (27-7), Dallas (26-8) and Miami (28-9).

“I don’t think Erik’s thinking championship at the moment,” said Celino. “He’s got to deal with the East first and that means getting by Boston. Erik’s very focused on what he’s doing. I’m just happy and proud things are working out with the Heat.”

Celino said she and only a handful of Miami fans braved hostile territory by wearing Heat shirts during the Christmas Day game at the Staples Center. “It was very quiet after Miami won,” she recalled. “The fans weren’t booing and they weren’t happy.”

Despite the Heat’s awesome firepower, it’s been more defense than offense fueling Miami’s surge.

During the recent 12-game winning streak, Miami won six by holding opponents to less than 90 points.

The Heat was merciless in crushing the Lakers, 96-80, last Dec. 25.

Miami has lost to Boston twice, 88-80, at Boston last Oct. 26 and 112-107 at Miami last Nov. 11.

The Heat plays the Celtics twice more – on Feb. 13 at Boston and April 10 at Miami.

Other big games in Miami’s schedule are Orlando on March 3, the Lakers on March 10 and San Antonio on March 14.

Focus is critical in Miami’s ascent to the top. “I understand the magnitude of this opportunity,” said Spoelstra, quoted by Tim Povtak in The Sporting News Pro Basketball Yearbook. “We all do. But again, some of the things that I’ve always stressed that what’s going to be key – not only for myself but each individual and the team this season – is we’re going to have to focus on the process.”

Wade agreed that it’s all about focus. “We’re not here to sell jerseys, to pump our ratings,” he said. “Our goal is to win championships and I think we’re up for the challenge. We’re going to have a bull’s eye on our backs. And that’s how we like it. We’ll be getting the best from everyone we face and we look forward to it.”

James summed it up by saying, “we know everyone will be watching and that’s great for all of us...we have one goal and that’s to win an NBA title in Miami.”

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