CHICAGO - Like moths drawn to his flame, a small cluster of people milled outside the Miami Heat's visiting team locker room last Sunday night hoping to get a private audience with head coach Erik Spoelstra.
I was among those in line at the crowded United Center hallway, where an endless stream of security personnel, arena staff and reporters went about their business in a dizzying blur. Time seemed to pass by slowly while waiting, but I went with the flow. Unburdened by impatience, inspired by the anticipation.
After wrapping up his post-game press conference - an autopsy of a gruesomely unwatchable 100-93 Miami victory in which the Heat missed 19 of 32 triples while the Chicago Bulls made only 33 of 89 field goals - Spoelstra, with team VP and GM Andy Elisburg behind him, walked a few steps towards the media dining room and began to work the waiting crowd.
When you look at coach Spo, you might want to put on a pair of shades: His future is so incredibly bright.
The hand-picked successor of the great Pat Riley, Spoelstra has been a head coach since April 2008 and currently making $5 million a year. He guided Miami to back-to-back NBA titles in 2012 and 2013 and his overall win-loss record is 451-293, a healthy 60.6. percent clip. He has a degree in communications from the University of Portland and is well-liked around the league.
And he is just 47 years young.
As always, Spo looked like he just stepped out of a GQ magazine cover. He wore an elegant black suit with a matching immaculate white shirt. Except for former NBA head coach Ron Rothstein, I didn't recognize the guys Spo met with but he inter-acted with them warmly, smiled earnestly and his handshakes were stiff as a best friend's.
After about 30 minutes, when the place was emptying like a bar at 4 a.m., I finally got my turn.
I broke the ice by congratulating Spo, whose adorable wife Nikki, a former Heat dancer and art dealer, is pregnant with a baby boy. The couple dated for three years before plunging into the marriage pool last July 2016 in a romantic sunset ceremony at the gardens of the affluent Villa Vizcaya in swanky Miami.
He last visited the Philippines in 2014 and I wondered if a trip back to his mother Elisa's homeland would present a challenge now that he is married with a family on the way. He didn't think so, but he just can't say when for now.
When I told him that the Miami Heat Facebook page currently has some 5.8 million followers in the Philippines, 300,000 more in the entire United States, Spo said it was "unbelievable" and reflective of the Filipinos' passion for basketball and the NBA.
Last March this year, the NBA's Facebook page shared a video of Fox Heat reporter Kristen Hewitt visiting Lutong Pinoy, a Filipino restaurant along 17048 W. Dixie Highway in North Miami. It has since been viewed over 2.1 million times, a record in franchise history. During our coverage of the 2013 NBA Finals, T.J. Manotoc and Boom Gonzalez of ABS-CBN, Den Cortes of PhilBoxing.com and myself went for Sunday lunch at this place where we gutted the lechon baboy, the main entree' in the sumptuous buffet offering.
Coach Spo hasn't been to Lutong Pinoy lately but he still loves Filipino food. "Pansit is my favorite, my mom used to cook it. I also like chicken adobo."
I wanted to ask more questions: "Do you miss the LeBron James circus? Are you worried about Hassan Whiteside's continuing health issues? How is Juwan Howard doing so far as an assistant coach? What's it like to work for a legend like Pat Riley? With an expiring contract, is there a yearning to consider taking another job elsewhere?
But since he accommodated me on his own personal time instead of the mandated media availability session, I decided against it and thanked him profusely. As I was retreating, coach Spo offered me an interesting tidbit, "I recently spent some time with Tim Cone in San Francisco."
That little morsel of information opened the door for me to ask him if he would consider becoming a coaching consultant for our national team.
He didn't think so, which isn't exactly breaking news considering the things on his plate. He did assure me, however, of his continued support for Gilas and that he will "stay friends" with several coaches in the Philippines.
And with that we parted ways. Hopefully we shall meet again in January 15, 2018 when the Heat play the Bulls for the second and last time at the United Center this season.
SILENT THUNDER. On paper, there still is Thunder in Oklahoma City. But on the hardwood court, the streaks of lightning are few and far between.
Despite the acquisition of former Indiana Pacers guard Paul George and former New York Knicks forward Carmelo Anthony, the Thunder are languishing in ninth place in the Western Conference. With a sloppy 9-12 slate, they are 1.5 games behind for a playoffs spot.
The Big 3 of Russell Westbrook, George and Anthony score 62.6 points a game, which is a good thing. What is bad, though, is that the Thunder's supporting cast and bench is as shallow as a kiddie pool. Beyond Westbrook and Co., the only meaningful production the Thunder can muster comes from Steven Adams (12 ppg) and Jerami Grant (8.6 ppg).
While OKC outscores its foes 100.2 to 99.3 per game, the Thunder is outgunned in field goal shooting (44.7 percent to 43.7 percent) and 3-point accuracy (35.6 percent to 31.2 percent). The Thunder are also losing the rebounds (42.7 to 42.7) and assists (21.3 to 20.8) battle per contest.
As the team performance continues to go decreasingly grandiose, the fans have gone increasingly disappointed.
Maybe the Thunder can still turn this thing around, but after 21 games, the sample is big enough to determine that they are who they are, which is a probable playoff team with no legit chance of contending for the title.