Time for the NHL to Get Head Smart

Nostalgia on Repeat

Courtesy of Monica Spoelstra Metz TBD

Spoelstra in the Philippines

Spending a few days abroad with the coach of the Miami Heat

Somewhere north of the U.S. Embassy in Manila the white charter bus carrying Miami Heat coach Erik Spoelstra made a wrong turn. The group, which included Spoelstra, two NBA employees, a handful of bodyguards, and a driver, was headed toward Torres High School, where Spoelstra planned to lead a basketball clinic. For now, however, they found themselves crawling through the cramped alleyways of Tondo, the most densely packed district of the world’s most densely populated city, where more than 600,000 people scrape out a living in three square miles along the banks of Manila Bay. While the panicked driver jabbered into his cell phone about a missed stoplight, Spoelstra and company stared through the windows at Manila street life: pedicabs zipping around the lumbering bus; children being bathed in plastic basins along the sidewalk; and freelance trash collectors pushing wooden wheelbarrows, beseeching anyone in earshot to donate “diyaryo’t bote” — newspapers and bottles. Block after block, the coach saw homemade basketball hoops, some with rims bent out of repurposed rebar and others with plywood bed frames serving as backboards, hanging over street corners and tucked away in narrow walkways. The game was everywhere.

A couple of miles away, another bus sat parked in a courtyard within Torres High School. Inside were Heat assistant coaches David Fizdale and Chad Kammerer, two NBA Asia employees, and Spoelstra’s sister, Monica Spoelstra Metz. Outside the van were more than a thousand restless teenagers eager to see the NBA’s only half-Filipino head coach. Actually, the students were excited to see pretty much anyone foreign. I made it three steps past the school’s gates when a swarm of young girls and boys spotted me and started shrieking. A few kids screamed “Younghusband!” — a reference to Phil Younghusband, the Filipino-British star of the men’s national soccer team who dates a famous actress and appears topless on canned-tuna billboards. No one actually believed I was Younghusband; they only meant that I looked foreign enough to be someone worth squealing over, that I must have come from somewhere far away from Tondo. And they were right — I had arrived earlier that morning on a Philippine Airlines flight from Los Angeles. I had dropped in on the middle of Spoelstra’s weeklong trip to the country, and would be spending the next four days following him around to basketball clinics, mall appearances, and family gatherings. Unlike Spoelstra, I don’t have any Philippine heritage, but the visit was homecoming for me, too. I spent three years in the Philippines, starting in 2005, to learn about the country’s love for basketball, and the opportunity to watch Spoelstra interact with local fans and connect with his roots felt like a logical extension of that work.

That morning, I walked to Torres from an elevated train stop near Manila’s Chinese cemetery. It was an uncharacteristically balmy stroll for August, which is the heart of the Philippine rainy season, and along the way I stayed cool by drinking Cobra, an electric-chartreuse energy drink. The neon beverage, which was poured into a plastic bag so the bottle could be returned to the brewery and refilled, contains roughly the same ingredients as Red Bull, but in such concentrated amounts that each sip from my straw seemed to add three to five beats per minute to my heart rate. A block from the school, a hearse drove by me, blasting what sounded like an ’80s Peter Cetera ballad. The name JHEREMIAH was stenciled in the window in yellow bubble letters, and I wondered if Jheremiah was the name of the undertaker’s son or the deceased. My guess: the former. This, among other things, is what I love about the Philippines. The country keeps you guessing, and I hoped that somehow, in the midst of a stage-managed NBA tour or Manila, I’d get a chance to see Spoelstra interact with this side of the country.

Inside Torres I made it through the gauntlet of screeching teens and boarded the NBA bus. A few hundred teens stood around it. A few knocked on the windows to make the passengers turn and smile for cell phone pictures. More students joined them, and before long all those little fists had the bus rocking. That’s when a phone call came through to announce that Spoelstra’s bus had lost its way and would arrive 20 minutes late.

Spoelstra’s trip to Manila was part of the NBA FIT program, the league’s initiative to promote healthy lifestyles, and his visit to Torres was cosponsored by the Philippine Department of Health. Until the coach arrived, however, the students would have to settle for his assistants. As it turned out, this was not a problem. When Fizdale and Kammerer stepped down from the bus, a crowd of schoolgirls in uniform orange blouses and ankle-length maroon skirts erupted in applause, cheers, and shrieks. For two bald, bench-bellied assistant coaches in their late 30s and early 40s, this was an unusual response. They walked to the basketball court, where about 50 students wearing gym pants and gray NBA Cares T-shirts waited under the shade of an aluminum roof. A cordon of teachers encircled the court and shooed away students who tried to rush in for autographs.

The initial frenzy wore off just as Spoelstra arrived. The coach said a word of thanks and swiftly began coaching. “Stance!” he shouted, and the kids bent their knees and stretched their arms in a defensive position. “Good!” Then a five-second pause. “Up!” The pattern — “Stance! Good! Up!” — continued for five minutes. A few of the students looked up; their black bangs were sweat-plastered to their foreheads and a hint of panic was in their eyes. Usually, these visits from basketball royalty involve little more than high-fives, layup lines, and pats on the back. NBA Asia’s Ed Winkle crept behind me and whispered in my ear, “Once he gets going, I don’t think he can differentiate between these kids and his players.”

“I can do this all day!” boasted Spoelstra. His wave of black hair was starting to glisten with sweat and his shirt clung to a wet spot on his lower back. Luckily — for the students — the NBA had a schedule to keep. After a half hour of drills, Spoelstra and his assistants joined school administrators, a Manila city councilman, and higher-ups from the departments of health and education on a stage next to the court. The benefits of exercise, dedication, and public service were extolled; the Filipino speakers said “thank you” and the Americans said “maraming salamat“; and as many hundreds of students as could fit into a wide-angle camera shot were invited to pose with Spoelstra.

After the group photo the students were given the green light to pursue any autograph or cell phone picture they desired, and in a matter of seconds bedlam ruled the courtyard. Spoelstra was hustled away to a classroom for a press conference, but Fizdale and Kammerer were left in the scrum. A horde of teenagers surrounded each coach and presented spiral notebooks, sweaty handkerchiefs, and assorted limbs for them to sign. When Kammerer tried to sign a notebook, another student placed his notebook above the other one, and when Kammerer tried to sign that notebook, another kid jammed his forearm between the page and Kammerer’s pen. This went on for at least 20 minutes, until the coaches were summoned to the bus. It was noon already, and they had to get to another clinic. Away from the mob, Fizdale said: “I don’t think I’ve ever felt swarmed like that. I think I signed some kids’ heads.”

Spoelstra, whose mother hails from San Pablo, a midsize city about two hours south of Manila in Laguna province, has traveled to the Philippines in each of the past three summers. Every time he visits he promises basketball fans, fawning reporters, and his extended family that he will return the next year. Every time he does, the reception he receives — from media and everyday fans — gets warmer. This is largely due to Spoelstra’s commitment to the country, but also to the fact that since July 2010 and “The Decision” the Miami Heat have gone from being Eastern Conference noncontenders to NBA finalists and the league’s most scrutinized team. In a hoops-mad nation like the Philippines, people take enormous pride in seeing one of their own as head coach of not just any NBA franchise, but the team whose uniforms LeBron James and Dwyane Wade wear.1

Winkle, the NBA Asia official who has accompanied Spoelstra during each of his visits, said things were pretty low-key back in 2009. The coach could walk through a crowded mall and hardly be noticed by other shoppers. Times have changed. The day before I arrived in August, President Noynoy Aquino made time to host Spoelstra at the Malacañang Palace, where he briefed the coach on his plan to grow the Philippine economy. And later in the week, when Spoelstra had an appearance at the SM Mall of Asia, hundreds of fans lined up just to shake his hand and ask him to sign a T-shirt.

Spoelstra spent two of his afternoons during this year’s trip at the Mall of Asia’s activity center, an open-air atrium looking out on Manila Bay. The NBA lined up an array of demonstrations and workshops, all highlighting exercise and proper nutrition under the NBA FIT banner. When called upon, Spoelstra dutifully extolled the virtues of eating right and regular exercise. NBA FIT’s cause was a worthy one, and especially necessary in the Philippines, where a typical diet might consist of little more than white rice and pork or — if you’re on a budget — white rice and canned sardines. Close to 12 million Filipinos suffer from high blood pressure, and local pharmacies sell glucose-regulating dietary supplements in designated areas called “Diabetics Corner.” Among the several hundred mall-goers who stopped to watch Spoelstra, dozens probably would do well to heed the NBA’s advice — “go for a jog; eat a salad” — but it was easy to see how that message could get lost amidst the slate of restaurants surrounding the activity center. They included fast-food staples such as Burger King, Chowking, and Jollibee; Dennis the Grill Boy, whose window signage promised UNLIMITED RICE; a pork-rind emporium called Guby’s Chicharon Espesyal;2 and the Spam Jam kiosk.

Spoelstra may not be able to single-handedly save the Philippines from its love of fried pork fat, but he certainly managed to connect with his heritage and Filipinos’ affection for basketball. Toward the end of the Mall of Asia event, he delivered a version of the spiel he closed almost all of his appearances with: “Remember, there is nothing better than being here in this open air with this ball and this basket. That’s life right there. Respect this game, and it will respect you back.” Coming from almost anyone else, that line might ring false — just another boilerplate-gilded sports cliché. But coming from the mouth of an NBA head coach, and hearing it in the Philippines, where millions of people really do plan their days around afternoon pickup games, neighborhood tournaments, and broadcasts of the local college league, it sounded simply golden. Throughout the mall people stopped chattering, pocketed their cell phones, and nodded along with Spoelstra’s words.

Back in 2009, Spoelstra was anxious about visiting the country. The last time he had set foot on Philippine soil, he was 3 years old — “You were carrying a Snoopy,” his sister quipped during one breakfast in Manila. He had been born in the States and raised in Portland, Ore., where his father worked in the Trail Blazers’ front office. Spoelstra had long wanted to return to the Philippines, but he never found the right opportunity to schedule a trip during the 1990s and early 2000s, when he was clawing his way up the Heat’s organizational chart, from the video-coordinator’s “dungeon” to the coaches’ bench. When he finally made it back, he didn’t know what to expect. “Coming from an American background, I didn’t know how I was going to be received,” Spoelstra said. “I didn’t know if anybody would know who I was.”

Growing up in Portland, Spoelstra didn’t have many opportunities to connect with his Asian heritage. The city is almost three-quarters Caucasian, and 30 years ago it was even whiter. Only one of Spoelstra’s childhood friends was Filipino. Since his father is American, his parents spoke in English, and for the most part he only heard Tagalog when his mother called her relatives. His family’s consumption of Philippine cuisine was limited to staple dishes such as chicken adobo and sacks of frozen lumpia shanghai — little pork- and beef-filled spring rolls the size of stubby fingers. While Spoelstra has always felt aware of his ethnic background, he has spent most of his life expecting others to be stumped by his dark skin and Dutch surname. “Back home the majority of people just have no clue what I am,” Spoelsta told me one morning in Manila.

Since his mother didn’t like flying, the Spoelstras never made another family trip to Laguna after that first visit in the early ’70s. Over the years, Spoelstra didn’t devote too much effort to engaging with his Laguna roots. Since childhood, the core of his identity has been basketball, and that probably won’t ever change. But he said his mother imparted Filipino values to him, and his trips to the country since 2009 have confirmed that, along with the understanding that being pathologically devoted to hoops is as sure a sign as any that Spoelstra is in touch with his Filipino side.

It shouldn’t be too surprising, then, that much of Spoelstra’s exposure to the Philippines during high school and college came through basketball. During his years as the University of Portland’s starting point guard,3 the motherland had a way of creeping into discussions about Spoelstra’s basketball career. “When you’re a kid in high school your dream is to play in the NBA,” he said. “And then from there, you’re like, ‘OK, where else can I play?'” For a while, the Philippine Basketball Association seemed like the answer. Spoelstra’s relatives in Laguna would send videos of local playoff games, which in that era meant smoke-filled arenas packed to the rafters with near-delirious fans and an occasional hailstorm of one-peso coins when a referee missed a call. Jim Kelly, a Toronto Raptors scout who had worked in Manila as a consultant to PBA teams and remained in touch with local coaches, tried to arrange for Spoelstra to play in Manila after Spoelstra finished his college career in 1992.

“When Jim first talked to me, he was like, ‘This can happen, I can get you in,'” Spoelstra said. “I was fired up.” In Spoelstra, Kelly saw a 6-foot-3 point guard with a Division I pedigree and the size to play anywhere but center in the Philippine league. “He was multipositional,” Kelly recalled. “Over there he could have even been a big guy. But more than that, he was a thinking-man’s player. Probably big on heart, a little bit less on skill, and that’s why he’s a good coach.” If Spoelstra’s hypothetical PBA career went anything like that of Ricardo Brown, another Filipino-American point guard from the West Coast Conference who played in the PBA throughout the 1980s, Spoelstra might have ended up listed alongside Brown with the 25 greatest players in league history.

Instead, Spoelstra signed to play with a second-tier German team and then joined the Heat in 1995 as video coordinator. The plan to play in the Philippines fell through when he heard he might have to spend a season in the minor leagues while waiting to receive dual citizenship instead of going straight to the PBA. “It got delayed, and I never got an affirmative answer,” Spoelstra said. “I couldn’t just get drafted from the States. There was some kind of plan, but it sounded really shady, so I ended up playing for peanuts in front of 500 people in Germany. Looking back on it, it was a crazy decision.”

Since 2009, Spoelstra has been making up for the years he never got to spend in the Philippines. If he was initially worried about how people would receive him, he’s grown more comfortable with each successive visit. “I don’t think he really felt Filipino until he went there,” said Fizdale, who has accompanied Spoelstra on all three trips. “Then he got to the country and saw his upbringing reflected in everything.”

That process started with a clinic in Zamboanga City, a regional hub in the Philippines’ far south, closer to Malaysia than Manila and a frequent battleground in the ongoing armed conflict between the Philippine government and Muslim separatists. “ZAMBOANGA CITY” is the dateline you see when bombs explode in a public market or a couple of Westerners get kidnapped; it is not typically the first place sports luminaries are brought when they visit the Philippines. But the 2009 tour was sponsored by the U.S. Department of State, which is always keen to send something other than military aid to Southern Mindanao, so Spoelstra and his assistants were enlisted as basketball envoys to win some hearts and minds.

While driving from the Zamboanga City airport to a local gym, the coaches didn’t spot any Kalashnikov-waving guerrillas. Instead, Spoelstra said they passed scenes of semirural poverty — grains of rice spread out to dry along the side of the road, children lounging in the shade of modest bamboo or cinder-block homes, a family of six or seven riding a single motorcycle with the youngest draped over the handlebars. “Everybody on the bus was just really quiet,” Spoelstra said. “It seemed like we were driving through a baryo. I couldn’t believe we were actually going to a gym.” He also saw the role basketball played in people’s lives. “Every little alley had some crazy basket hung up on a telephone poll and made out of a garbage can and you saw kids playing barefoot, like a basketball oasis,” Spoelstra said. Despite the Spartan living conditions and the fact that the people of Zamboanga City inhabited a region that occasionally turned into a war zone, Spoelstra responded not with pity or fear but inspiration at finding a nation of people who shared his ethnic heritage and passion for the game. “For basketball enthusiasts, it’s a dreamland,” Spoelstra said. “There’s no place like this in the world.”

When they arrived at the gym, they found an entire neighborhood gathered inside — not just the players slated to participate in the clinic, but also their younger siblings, mothers, fathers, uncles, and grandmothers. Security guards holding machine guns and assault rifles surrounded the court and guarded the doors. About 200 kids and teenagers stood on a single full court. As Fizdale remembered it, some wore basketball sneakers, some had on dress shoes, many sported flip-flops, and others were barefoot. All were ready to play, but the clinic’s organizers brought only a handful of basketballs (Spoelstra recalled four and Fizdale said two). To make the coaches’ job even more challenging, many of the young Zamboangueños spoke very little English and not even that much Tagalog, the Manila-centric basis for the Philippines’ national language. The predominant language in Zamboanga is Chavacano, a kind of Spanish Creole, so Spoelstra and his assistants ended up developing a crude hoops sign language and relying on jump-stop-pivot drills and defensive slides to occupy the throng of players.

“The kids picked things up just by watching,” Spoelstra said. “We would demonstrate and they would just mimic it right away with such athleticism and coordination. It was incredible.” After the workout the players sat down for a question-and-answer session. “We were like, ‘Come on, they don’t speak English. What are they gonna ask?'” Spoelstra said. Then, with help from a Chavacano interpreter, the kids started rattling off questions about Dwyane Wade’s contract situation heading into the 2009-10 season and answering trivia questions about Bill Russell’s career. “That blew us away,” Fizdale said. “When you realize that these kids have nothing and they live in these circumstances and they still know Dwyane Wade’s scoring average over the last three years? That’s how we could tell what a big deal hoops was.”

Here’s Spoelstra, toward the end of August’s trip to Manila, during a clinic he conducted for Filipino coaches: “We have a player on our team — very successful guy. You can probably guess who he is. He has been with us since his rookie year. He’s a very physical player.”

He was, of course, describing Dwyane Wade, but due to the ongoing NBA lockout he was forbidden (along with all other league employees) from making any public utterances of the players’ names. The purpose of the workshop was for Spoelstra to transfer his world-class expertise to a few hundred local coaches, who represented teams from the elementary school through professional levels. That goal, however, was sidetracked every time Spoelstra tried to talk around a player’s name because hundreds of Filipino coaches would murmur it aloud and then break out in laughter. This was not the only lockout-related inconvenience Spoelstra encountered. Earlier in the week he attended a PBA playoff game, but instead of sitting in the courtside seats any team would have happily provided him, lockout regulations required him to buy tickets. Since he visited during the semifinals, however, the floor seats were sold out and Spoelstra watched from a lower mezzanine area of the Araneta Coliseum.

Tim Cone, an American who was raised in the Philippines and has been a PBA coach since 1989, was impressed at the level of detail in Spoelstra’s teaching. As hoops-mad as the country is, Philippine youth coaches often rely more on drill-sergeant motivational speeches than X’s and O’s or basketball fundamentals. (Then again, so do most American high school coaches.) But Spoelstra gave meticulous instructions to the players demonstrating pick-and-roll scenarios for the coaches — how the screener should angle his body to keep the defender from going under the screen; how the ball handler should throw only lobs or bounce passes to his rolling teammate; how the screener should roll to an open space on the floor rather than plowing blindly toward the rim (and help defenders). But Cone said the real value of Spoelstra’s clinic wasn’t in helping the coaches brush up on fundamentals: “Just being able to get close to a guy of that level is an inspiration. I remember when I went to Laker practices, I came back and felt so eager to coach and come up with new things. Those guys are all going to go back to their teams and be at a whole new level.”

Cone said Spoelstra is unlike any other NBA coach he has met. “The thing that amazes me is the amount of personal time he gives to everybody. I’m absolutely a nobody to talk to, and he really listens to what I say. I don’t think of him as being Erik Spoelstra, head coach of the Miami Heat. I actually feel like he’s a friend — like I can pick up the phone and say, ‘Hey, Erik! How ya doin’? Let’s go out!’ and he would do it. Obviously, he wouldn’t, but he makes you feel that way.”

The Spoelstra charm was on display throughout his week in Manila, and not just among his fellow basketball coaches. During one mall appearance, Spoelstra volunteered to hold a female fan’s digital camera out so he could squish into a self-shot with her — his longer arms could give the photo a better angle. At his hotel’s brunch buffet Spoelstra temporarily put off filling his plate with sushi to take pictures with a waiter, who passed the coach’s plate to a busboy so it wouldn’t mar the shot. Then the busboy wanted to get in the frame, so he passed the plate to a chef for another snapshot. Next, the chef passed the plate to a hostess so he, too, could get a photograph. Before long, Spoelstra was standing with about six hotel employees, his smiling face and plain, yellow polo shirt in the middle of a burst of purple and turquoise restaurant uniforms and chef’s toques. Once everyone’s photo request had been indulged, Spoelstra’s plate made its way back to him.

It was a side of Spoelstra NBA fans rarely get to see. Around the league and within the Heat organization, he’s known as a workaholic — the seemingly ego-less, forever self-effacing, painstakingly professional head coach who survived Season 1 of the LeBron James-Dwyane Wade-Chris Bosh era, presumably by bunkering down in the Heat video room. Earlier this year, in the definitive account of Spoelstra’s career, Wade told Kevin Arnovitz: “He’s like Batman. He goes into his cave. Nobody sees him.” Fizdale has seen the difference between Miami Spoelstra and Manila Spoelstra: “It’s like a weight is lifted off of him. In Manila, he loves going out.4 He loves meeting people, and here [in Miami] he don’t wanna go anywhere. In Manila, people don’t ever want him to get fired.”

But there’s more to the way Spoelstra transforms when he visits the Philippines. It’s not simply a weeklong escape from the news cycle. The coach truly seems at home in the country, even if he has spent only three weeks there over the past 37 years. Aspects of Philippine life that other American visitors might find disturbing seem to fascinate Spoelstra. Where many foreigners look at Manila’s poverty and see nothing but despair, Spoelstra was moved by the ingenious ways Filipinos found to bring joy (and basketball) into the most difficult living situations. This is not to sugarcoat the country’s problems, but to recognize that the poor still lead dignified lives despite circumstances that might break someone raised among American middle-class comforts.

On one bus ride from his hotel to a Mall of Asia appearance, Spoelstra peppered me with questions. He seemed almost hungry to understand what it was like to live in Manila, to experience the city’s chaotic side that his hosts wouldn’t dare show him. How did you get around while you lived there? Trains and jeepneys, mostly. How do you know where the jeepney stops, and how do you get off of it? It stops wherever you flag it down, and you get off by shouting “Para!” or plinking your finger on the roof. How did people respond to seeing a 6-3 white guy wandering around their neighborhood? Often by inviting me into a basketball game. What was it like to play street games? Free-flowing and fun, until one team reaches “warning,” the point before game point; after that, the ratio of bruises to made baskets soars. What did you play for? Everything from five-peso coins to the right to have the losers crawl between my legs to plastic baggies filled with ice water. You drank unfiltered water? Yes, and never had any problems, although I did lose sleep over a couple of memorably murky glasses. So you didn’t get sick? Well, I did have hookworm for about a month, but that doesn’t come from drinking water. What was it like? Unless you’re into scat, you don’t wanna know.

One look at Manila’s helter-skelter traffic — thousands of cars moving together with a strikingly effective disregard for the rules of the road — is usually enough to make a Westerner decide never to drive in the Philippines. Spoelstra, however, seemed delighted by the country’s daredevil motorists. While riding to clinics in the NBA bus, he would break off in midconversation to comment on action in the street. “Look at this guy,” he said with an awed lilt when a pedicab driver cut across four lanes of approaching cars to pick up a fare. When the group’s bus driver, Niño, passed a gridlocked row of about 70 cars, then edged into line inches before the highway split off in another direction, Spoelstra shouted “Power move!” then started a slow clap and “Ni-ño! Ni-ño!” chant to honor the maneuver.

Spoelstra’s interactions with fans, media, and coaches in Manila smack of qualities so classically Filipino that they’re included in just about every Culture Shock! and Lonely Planet guide to the country — utang na loob and pakikisama. The former means “debt of gratitude,” and Spoelstra shows it by returning to the country year after year to share his love and knowledge of basketball. The latter means “fellowship” but is a little more complicated; it’s the art of getting along with people. From the way Spoelstra makes everyone from multititled basketball coaches to the chef at the hotel omelette station feel comfortable around him, the coach seems to have mastered pakikisama. If questions remained about how Spoelstra’s character reflected his heritage, this answered them.

Another way to excel at pakikisama is to submit to ritual acts of lighthearted humiliation. This is especially true of visitors and powerful people who might conceivably demur when asked to do something like sing Air Supply at a karaoke party. Former U.S. Ambassador to the Philippines Kristie Kenney, for example, endeared herself to the country in 2007 by performing the “Papaya dance” on national television.5 Gestures like this send a powerful message: Yes, I could refuse to be silly, but I won’t because I don’t think I’m better than anyone else. Spoelstra’s moment came on the day of the coaching clinic. First, he allowed Chris Watts, a fitness guru who looked like a cross between Richard Simmons and a Fraggle, to hijack 20 minutes of the coaching clinic with a stretching demo that included the cheerful instruction, “Start with a heel in the bum!” Later, Spoelstra participated in a fitness challenge for local television, a ho-hum affair in the dead hours of the afternoon that required him to lead Fizdale and the other NBA visitors through a timed obstacle course against groups of mildly bored Filipino celebrities. It’s almost impossible to imagine another NBA coach — let’s say George Karl — dribbling through cones and doing defensive slides as part of some fairly lame PR event. Yet Spoelstra did it without hesitation, and his presence had an obvious effect on the other participants, who saw his enthusiasm and immediately perked up. After all, if the coach of the Miami Heat didn’t think he was too good for the event, how could anyone else presume to be above it? That would be bad pakikisama.

Each time Spoelstra has come back to the Philippines, the highlight of his return has been a trip to his uncle’s home in Los Baños, Laguna. This year the family gathering was especially sweet because Spoelstra brought his sister, Monica, who hadn’t been to the country in 37 years. Tony Celino — the family calls him “Uncle Tony” — had a career in the Philippine government, working as a regional director for the National Food Authority. He moved with his family to Wisconsin in the early 1990s, then retired to the Philippines with his wife shortly before Spoelstra’s first homecoming in 2009. Each year, Uncle Tony hosts a reception to welcome Spoelstra.

At previous parties, the whole neighborhood seemed to show up to greet the coach, but this year’s gathering was limited to friends and family. Of course, the head count still clocked in somewhere between 50 and 100 guests, and Uncle Tony laid out a feast. Servers in white uniforms dished out lechon — roast suckling pig — from trays on red-tableclothed tables. Coolers of San Miguel beer were continually refilled. Two separate tarpaulins had been printed with welcome messages for the occasion. Around the corner, near the bathrooms and Uncle Tony’s pool and natural hot-spring Jacuzzi, was a similar banner from one of Spoelstra’s previous visits. This one read COACH SPO FOR PRESIDENT. Spoelstra’s relatives at the party all wore custom shirts that contained a well-meaning if slightly awkward acrostic tribute to the guest of honor:

Of You!

Spoelstra changed into a T-shirt of similar vintage that read “AKO PO SI COACH SPO” — I’m Coach Spo. For entertainment, Uncle Tony hired a local DJ to play an assortment of slow jams from a portable sound system. Every 30 minutes or so a 12-year-old boy named Renz would stand on the steps in front of the house and serenade the crowd. He sang in a gorgeous, powerful soprano, but his choice of songs — Celine Dion-inspired renditions of “All By Myself” and “The Power of Love” — led to the exchange of a few awkward glances between the Heat assistants and NBA staff. His tender cooing of the line “making love was just for fun” caused a small riot.

But a Filipino crowd is hardly ever deterred in its love of ballads. As the night wore on, the DJ cranked through “Careless Whisper,” “You Are Not Alone,” and ever more Air Supply. A rare change of pace came after a speech from Spoelstra, who talked about what it meant for him to bring Monica back to the Philippines and get reacquainted with family members they haven’t seen in more than 30 years. After some heartfelt applause, the opening bars of the Space Jam theme song throbbed through the sticky, tropical air. Spoelstra wandered from group to group with his hat turned backwards, greeting cousins, signing shirts, and posing for pictures, hardly ever stopping except for when he pulled out a cell phone to record his aunt and uncle slow-dancing to the Aerosmith song from Armageddon.

At some point in the evening, one of the cousins unveiled a six-liter water bottle that had been refilled with lambanog, a local coconut wine that had probably been brewed in someone’s backyard. Spoelstra and the other guests marveled at the tub of rust-colored hooch and took turns posing with it. When it was passed to Spoelstra, the coach held the jug above his head with two hands, much like he might have held the Larry O’Brien trophy if the Heat had won the Finals. Earlier that night he promised to bring the trophy to the Philippines in the not-too-distant future. For now, he could hold only the lambanog, but that, too, marked a kind of achievement. Over the past three years, Spoelstra has revisited his Philippine roots, and through basketball he has managed to forge a lifelong bond with the country. Thanks to that, if Spoelstra ever does bring the NBA championship trophy to the Philippines, when he hoists it in Uncle Tony’s backyard it will be an honor that he truly shares with his people.

Rafe Bartholomew is an editor at Grantland and author of Pacific Rims: Beermen Ballin’ in Flip-Flops and the Philippines’ Unlikely Love Affair with Basketball. On Twitter, he is @rafeboogs.

Previously from Rafe Bartholomew:
Kobe Takes Manila; NBA Not Invited
M/F/K with A Tribe Called Quest
The YouTube Highlights NBA Draft
A review of Classic Cavs: The Fifty Greatest Wins in Cleveland Cavaliers History

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