MANILA – Erik Spoelstra had a plan. He was going to finish college and head to the Philippines to play professional basketball in his mother’s homeland. He’d been watching games from that part of the world on VHS tapes for years and wanted to experience those atmospheres for himself.
The plan changed. The paperwork he needed to play in the Philippines got delayed, so he played in Germany instead. And after a little time there, he got a chance to interview for a video-room job with the Miami Heat. The rest is history. He never got to Manila as a player.
But on Saturday, 30 years or so behind his original schedule, Spoelstra has a game awaiting in the Philippines. He’s an assistant coach for USA Basketball, which plays its World Cup opener in Manila against New Zealand on Saturday night. Spoelstra will wear the red, white and blue of the U.S. — in an arena where the blue, red and white of the Philippines flag will sway. And, after thousands of games he's been part of in his life as a coach and player, this one will have a certain significance.
“I have a great deal of pride in my heritage and I’m close with my family over here,” said Spoelstra, the Heat coach who took his team to the NBA Finals this past season. “When I first started coming over, I just wanted to give back and do as much as I could, in terms of clinics and continue to grow the game and just be involved in the movement. That’s what I call it. Basketball really is like a religion in the Philippines.”
If it is a religion, then he may as well be considered one of its saints. He is an icon in the Philippines because of his heritage. Walk off the elevator at the hotel, someone wants a photo. Walk down the street, someone wants a photo. Go into a restaurant, someone wants a photo.
Having Team USA play anywhere is a big deal, but in Manila, the biggest star on the American roster sure seems to be a 52-year-old assistant coach.
“It’s a very cool thing that he’s doing this,” said fellow U.S. assistant coach Tyronn Lue, the coach of the Los Angeles Clippers. “He gets a chance to go home, see his family, see his fans. It reminds me a lot of when we went to China with Yao Ming when we were in Houston. That was crazy. It’s the same type of thing and he deserves it. It’s so cool to see it and be a part of it.”
A day after arriving in Manila, Spoelstra led a clinic for about 40 elite high school and college players, both men’s and women’s. The clinic had some local staff helping out. One of the coaches there on Wednesday actually was one of the kids getting taught by Spoelstra at another clinic a decade or so ago.
It’s proof that his mission — to grow the game there — is working.
“I never played in the PBA like I wanted, but I ended up getting to share the game in a different way,” Spoelstra said. “And that’s a beautiful thing as well. It didn’t need to be me playing. It worked with me going back and giving back and still getting to do this.”
Spoelstra has many stories from past trips that he’s made to the Philippines as the Heat coach.
The Larry O’Brien Trophy — he’s won two as a head coach — has made the trip with him in the past. Spoelstra has led dozens of clinics, many of them in less-than-ideal circumstances. No air conditioning, sometimes no gym, and they were often completely overbooked. One of his favorites he said was a day where about 1,000 people showed up for a clinic on two courts, with four basketballs and 10 staffers, some of whom might have been worried when the campers started rocking the bus when Spoelstra pulled up. They figured it out that day, just like they did another time where there were no basketballs. That entire clinic became about footwork, jump stops, head fakes and pivoting. Nobody missed a shot. Nobody took a shot. And Spoelstra said nobody complained.
“I’d tell the NBA on those trips that I wanted to do as many clinics per day as possible,” Spoelstra said. “I’d tell them not to worry about fatigue. Fatigue would not stop us.”
And when fatigue set in, there would be sustenance, Uncle Tony style.
Spoelstra and those he’d bring with him on those trips — mostly Heat staff — would always end up taking a long ride to Tony Celino’s house at some point for a party. Uncle Tony. In Spoelstra’s mind, Uncle Tony makes the best lumpia (a type of spring roll) in the world. And if you were going to hang out at Uncle Tony’s, you were required to do a shot of his other specialty, coconut moonshine. It’s even made it over to the U.S. It’s legendary within Spoelstra's innermost circles. When Uncle Tony gets to Manila, it’s a safe bet some of his concoction will be along for the ride.
“It’s one thing to tell people about what it’s like to go there, see my family, the clinics, see all that the Philippines has to offer,” Spoelstra said. “They get it when they experience it. And it’s brought me great joy.”
Coming back to the Philippines is not, technically, a homecoming for Spoelstra. He’s not from here. He wasn’t born here. He’s never lived here. None of that seems to matter. For this World Cup in Manila, halfway around the world from where he lives, Spoelstra is right at home.