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 GIVING BACK. Miami Heat coach and USA Basketball assistant Erik Spoelstra, seated at center in the front row, poses with campers and clinic staff after a basketball clinic in Manila, the Philippines. Spoelstra, whose mother hails from the Philippines, is back there for the first time in 11 years during the World Cup. (AP Photo/Tim Reynolds)

GROWING THE GAME. Miami Heat coach and USA Basketball assistant Erik Spoelstra. (AP Photo/Aaron Favila)

From The Asian Reporter, V33, #9 (September 4, 2023), page 5.

Erik Spoelstra believes coaching in the Philippines at the World Cup is a perfect homecoming

By Tim Reynolds

The Associated Press

MANILA, The Philippines ó Erik Spoelstra had a plan. He was going to finish college and head to the Philippines to play professional basketball in his motherís homeland. Heíd 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 last month, 30 years or so behind his original schedule, Spoelstra had a game awaiting in the Philippines. Heís an assistant coach for USA Basketball, which won its World Cup opener in Manila against New Zealand, 99-72. Spoelstra wore the red, white, and blue of the U.S. ó in an arena where the blue, red, and white of the Philippines flag swayed. And, after thousands of games heís been part of in his life as a coach and player, this one had a certain significance.

"I have a great deal of pride in my heritage and Iím 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. Thatís 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.

"Itís a very cool thing that heís 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. Itís the same type of thing and he deserves it. Itís 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 menís and womenís. The clinic had some local staff helping out. One of the coaches in attendance was actually one of the kids who was taught by Spoelstra at another clinic a decade or so ago.

Itís proof that his mission ó to grow the game there ó 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 thatís a beautiful thing as well. It didnít 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 heís made to the Philippines as the Heat coach.

The Larry OíBrien Trophy ó heís won two as a head coach ó 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.

"Iíd tell the NBA on those trips that I wanted to do as many clinics per day as possible," Spoelstra said. "Iíd 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 heíd bring with him on those trips ó mostly Heat staff ó would always end up taking a long ride to Tony Celinoís house at some point for a party. Uncle Tony. In Spoelstraís 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 Tonyís, you were required to do a shot of his other specialty, coconut moonshine. Itís even made it over to the U.S. Itís legendary within Spoelstraís innermost circles. When Uncle Tony gets to Manila, itís a safe bet some of his concoction will be along for the ride.

"Itís one thing to tell people about what itís 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 itís brought me great joy."

Coming back to the Philippines is not, technically, a homecoming for Spoelstra. Heís not from here. He wasnít born here. Heís 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.

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