Erik Spoelstra’s return to the Philippines to coach Team USA is a ‘pinch me’ moment


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MANILA, Philippines — The Americans’ chartered jet, on its way from the Arabian Peninsula, flew over a range of forested mountains as it began its initial descent into the Philippines, where only the occasional dirt path splitting the trees seemed to be a reasonable means of navigating the jungle.

As the plane flew east, across this nation of 7,640 islands, and approached the Ninoy Aquino International Airport in Manila, thousands of tin roofs covering shacks and huts made out of plaster or cement brick dotted the landscape. Some of the structures, whether they were homes or former businesses, collapsed on one side, exposed to the air.

Awaiting Team USA on the tarmac was a welcoming delegation. Local dignitaries, women in traditional gowns, placing hand-woven scarves of silk and gold around the necks of players and coaches, and airport workers taking cellphone footage.

The team buses, guided by police escort, could only partially navigate the stifling traffic in Metro Manila. Hundreds of mopeds and mini motorcycles weaved through cars. Makeshift buses with cabs look like they were made out of a giant tin can, called jeepneys, clogged lanes; a truck filled with live pigs passed on the right. A 10-minute drive to downtown, to skyscrapers and attractive restaurants and the team’s five-star hotel are surrounded by palm trees, took 40 minutes.

Miami Heat coach and Team USA assistant Erik Spoelstra can’t quite call this place “home,” because he was neither born nor grew up here. But he is a first-generation Filipino-American — his mother, Elisa, is from San Pablo, Laguna, a community in the mountains about two hours south of Manila.

But Spoelstra, 52, visited the Philippines once when he was 3 and visited Manila for four summers, from about 2008 to 2012, to run basketball camps for children in this basketball obsessed country.

Now that Team USA is on the ground here and will compete for the FIBA World Cup being hosted in Manila, Spoelstra is calling the chance to coach here a “pinch me moment.” He is thrilled to not only reconnect with his roots, but also to share his heritage and Filipino culture with the rest of the American players and coaches.

“The spirit of it, it’s hard to explain; I do feel like it’s home in a way,” Spoelstra said Wednesday after leading a basketball camp for high-school children at the gym connected to the team hotel.


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“This is a country of extremes,” Spoelstra said. “You’re here (at the team hotel in downtown Manila), and it feels like you’re in Brickell (an upscale neighborhood in downtown Miami with a similar tropical climate), and then you go 10 minutes out of here, there’s extreme poverty.

“You marvel sometimes how Filipinos can have such an amazing spirit. When we would look and say, wow, ‘You are without,’ they think they have everything. And that’s something that I’ve always wanted people to come on a trip with me to be able to see.”

There are two basic parts of Filipino culture Spoelstra is excited for his USA colleagues to see; the general way of life, with things like local culinary delicacies, and the specific obsession with basketball here that was strong enough to lure the FIBA World Cup.

Spoelstra said his uncle Tony, who still lives in Laguna, cooked the best lumpia, or thin, fried egg roll, he has ever tasted and used to freeze dry and mail them to the Spoelstras, who were living in Portland, Ore.

“We’d microwave it and eat it,” Spoelstra said. “No matter where I’ve tried it, he always made it the best. … it’s kind of like snacking on potato chips.”

And then in the home growing up, Spoelstra said, Elisa Spoelstra cooked chicken adobo, which is essentially fried chicken in an Asian stew.

Spoelstra enjoyed some lumpia at breakfast Wednesday, he said, in the private team dining room at the hotel, which means any of the American players or coaches could’ve tried it. But taking any of the NBA players out with him onto the streets of Manila, or into a village, where the food is cooked in shacks or fryers on wheels, that would be virtually impossible. They would be mobbed almost instantly because, as American pro basketball stars, they are akin to royalty.

In just the smallest examples, Grant Hill, managing director of Team USA and a famous former college and pro star who broadcasts the NCAA Final Four for CBS, finished a workout next to the basketball gym where Spoelstra held his camp Wednesday. There were probably two dozen fans, Filipino media and people who otherwise could get past security in the lobby, and they encircled Hill, one by one attempting to pose for pictures until finally hotel security had enough and escorted Hill through glass doors and onto the elevator.

The NBA’s biggest stars from the last 20 years, players such as LeBron James, Kobe Bryant and Stephen Curry, have been to Manila on tours promoting their signature shoes and come away shocked and touched by the overwhelming adoration shown to them by the thousands who attended their events.



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Spoelstra, who played in college at the University of Portland and professionally in Germany, said it was a goal of his as a teenager and young man to eventually play in the Philippine Basketball League, of which his family would send tapes — probably accompanied with the frozen lumpia.

“I just saw how crazy the crowds were, and I was like, ‘I want to do that,’” he said.

Spoelstra’s first trip to Manila to run basketball camps for the NBA was in 2008, shortly after he was promoted to head coach of the Heat. He said he brought Heat assistants with him each summer that he conducted those camps so they could experience the attention and appreciation.

“We would do four or five clinics a day, and we had no idea what to expect,” Spoelstra said. “Sometimes they would be in a gym with enough basketballs and air conditioning, sometimes there would be no air conditioning, sometimes there wouldn’t be a gym. … Sometimes there would be 200 kids that would show up.

“And then there was this one time when there were probably 800 or 1,000 people that showed up at two basketball courts, and we probably had four basketballs and less than 10 staff members,” he said with a laugh. “We had to figure out, like, how we were going to do a clinic.”

The day Spoelstra described was the day the bus carrying him, his assistants and NBA staff members was swarmed and rocked, side to side, by the boys, girls and adults who came to the camp. Spoelstra said he and his troupe eventually pushed out of the bus, where they were swarmed for pictures and autographs, and “we ended up making an incredible day of it — it’s a day that’ll never forget.”

Spoelstra said his annual Filipino tour lasted about 10 days each time. He said that, to the chagrin of NBA security, he would order the bus to stop in the various villages, and he and his staff would get out to walk the streets and look for basketball courts. He said children would be playing at rims with no nets, in their bare feet, on courts surrounded by flooded streets in monsoon season. Each Spoelstra tour would end at Uncle Tony’s, up in the mountains of Laguna.

“We’d finish the whole two weeks of clinics with a big party at his house, and I made it mandatory, like if you’re going to work the clinics and do everything during the week, you had to finish and take the hour-and-a-half to three-hour bus ride, depending on traffic, to go to Laguna for Uncle Tony’s party,” Spoelstra said. “One of the years we actually did a basketball clinic at the school where my mom used to go.”

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Team USA assistant (and Heat head coach) Erik Spoelstra is surrounded by media after a basketball clinic in Manila on Aug. 23, 2023. (Nathaniel S. Butler / NBAE via Getty Images)

The last of Spoelstra’s tours, in 2012, was the same summer in which Spoelstra won his first NBA title as coach of the Heat. He said he brought the Larry O’Brien Trophy with him.

Filipinos are so excited to host the World Cup (preliminary rounds are also being held in Indonesia and south Japan), that on Friday, the start of first-round games, a national holiday has been declared.

Street lamps and buses are covered in World Cup posters. A new NBA Store, at the Mall of Asia, connected to the arena where the Americans will play, is filled to the brim with vintage jerseys of past NBA greats (like Michael Jordan’s USA No. 9 jersey) and jerseys and shorts for today’s teams.

Down the stairs from the NBA Store is a Nike outlet, where national team jerseys for the Philippines, for France, for Greece (with Giannis Antetokounmpo’s No. 34 on the front, and his name and number on the back, even though he is not playing because of injury) and USA jerseys all hang on racks.

The USA jerseys are entirely void of jersey number or player name, as though it’s a nod to the newness of the roster — only a few All-Stars, and no one considered an A-lister who’s usually playing for the Americans. A local journalist asked Spoelstra about the relative lack of star power on the team, compared to the coaching staff, which is loaded with NBA champions Spoelstra, Steve Kerr and Tyronn Lue.

Spoelstra said all of that is about to change.

“The coaches should not be the ones that are recognized,” Spoelstra said, “and in three weeks, that’s going to be a fact. We have some amazing basketball players on this team. This is the future of the NBA; these are the future stars. Anthony Edwards, that’s gonna be a household name, it already is. Jalen Brunson, Jaren Jackson, the list goes on and on.

“It’s just an exciting group. It’s a humble group. It’s an ambitious group. It’s a group that understands that we have to work together, accomplish our ultimate team goal.”

And if the Americans learn a little about the Filipino culture Spoelstra knows so well, all the better.

(Top photo of Erik Spoelstra: Stephen Gosling / NBAE via Getty Images)

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Alexandra Williams
Alexandra Williams
Alexandra Williams is a writer and editor. Angeles. She writes about politics, art, and culture for LinkDaddy News.

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