Heritage Gives Spoelstra an Inside View of Filipino Basketball
It's why he is going back in August. The grassroots love of the game that he saw there was startling.
"It's fanatical. The passion for basketball is really inspiring,'' Spoelstra told FanHouse last week. "You'd be driving down a street, see the extreme poverty all around, but you'd still see basketball hoops everywhere, on sides of buildings, on store fronts, in the middle of the street. Kids would be playing barefoot, or in sandals, the hoops would be bent, and everyone was playing, everywhere you went.''
Spoelstra has a unique perspective on the grip that basketball holds on the people of the Philippines. His mother was born and raised there, making him the first and only head coach in the NBA -- or in any of North America's major sports leagues -- of Filipino decent.
His return last summer was his first visit since she took him home to visit as a 3-year-old. He met uncles and aunts last summer that he hadn't seen in more than 35 years. He met cousins he had never seen before.
"I knew basketball was big because everyone on my mother's side of the family is a big fan,'' he said. "I think they're proud of me. And I'm very proud of my heritage.''
Spoelstra almost played in the professional league there after he left the University of Portland as a four-year starter at point guard. He regrets now that he never did, going to Germany instead for two years as a player-coach before getting his foot in the door with the NBA.
The Philippines is one of three countries in the world -- the other two are Lithuania and Serbia -- that boast basketball as their most popular sport.
Spoelstra, now 39, was there last summer as part of a sports envoy program put together by the U.S. State Department and the NBA. He was the natural choice to lead the delegation, attracting large and captive audiences wherever they stopped.
People responded to him, and it touched him deeply. He and his staff conducted camps for kids and clinics for coaches at every stop during a week-long visit. The corporate people in the group distributed shoes at every stop. He delivered the basketball message.
And what they found was a stunning knowledge of the NBA throughout the country.
"The kids would come to the camps with no shoes, but they knew all about the NBA, and not just about the star players. They knew everyone. They knew my assistant coaches,'' he said. "Some of what the little kids knew about the NBA just blew me away.''
The tour was designed to promote United States goodwill through basketball. This time when he returns, he is going as part of the league's outreach program. His interest is more than sincere. It's personal.
His mother, who once taught at Mindanao State University in Marawi City, came to the United States in 1966. Erik grew up around the NBA because his father Jon Spoelstra worked in the front offices of the Portland Trail Blazers, Denver Nuggets and New Jersey Nets.
"It wasn't just me they were interested in. It was the whole NBA. I kept hearing the Heat was their favorite team, but I think they were just being polite,'' he joked. "I saw a lot of LeBron fans, a lot of Celtics and Lakers fans, too.''
At a semi-private family reunion late in the week, more than 80 friends and family gathered, some even showing him baby pictures of himself that he had never seen before.
"It was a very emotional week for me, almost surreal at times,'' he said. "I'm excited about going back this summer. When my mother first left more than 40 years ago, I don't think she ever thought her son would be back representing the NBA. I feel a sense of pride and responsibility. ''