Spoelstra’s ultimate ambition was to compete in the PBA.

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If his initial plan had pushed through, Miami Heat head coach and Team USA assistant coach Erik Spoelstra would have been a staple of the PBA in the mid-1990s.

“Growing up, initially my goal was to play in the PBA.” Spoelstra, whose mother hails from Laguna, told the media after he had finished a basketball clinic for 40 teenage players Wednesday morning in Taguig. “That was always a dream of mine. My family would send VHS tapes of PBA games. I just saw that, thinking how crazy the crowds were. I was like, ‘I want to do that.’”

After playing four years for the University of Portland, Spoelstra played in Germany for two years and had planned to head to Manila to potentially play in the PBA.

“That was always part of my plan,” Spoelstra said. “I ended up playing overseas for a couple of years and then eventually I was going to eventually come over here and try to play. Then I kind of got rerouted to Miami.

Another assistant on Steve Kerr’s Team USA staff, renowned shooting coach Chip Engelland of the Oklahoma City Thunder, did play in the PBA and speaks passionately about his experience to Spoelstra.

“Oh, he’s talked about it quite a bit,” Spoelstra said of Engelland’s PBA experience. “We’ve spent a lot of time the last month, and of course that came up. I was aware that he played over here, but then once we started talking about his experiences and everything, I told him ‘Man, I feel really jealous that you’ve had that experience of playing over here and living here for a couple of years.’

Engelland was part of the Northern Consolidated amateur national pool in the 1980s that won the William Jones Cup in 1985 and played two conferences in the PBA from 1984-85. One of the finest pure shooters to wear the Philippine team uniform, Engelland averaged 27.5 points per game in 76 PBA games with a single game high of 60 and a 3-point shooting percentage of 41%. He was also once Kerr’s shooting coach.

Spoelstra last visited the Philippines in 2012, and he said he “couldn’t believe it” when he found out that the 2023 FIBA World Cup would be held here and that he would be part of Team USA’s coaching staff.

“At first it was a ‘pinch myself’ moment to be asked to be part of the USAB program,” Spoelstra said. “It’s something that I dreamt about for a long time. They have some illustrious history, and we’ve all followed the history of the USA program for a long time. There’s been some historic moments and teams and you just never really think that you’re going to be a part of it. So it’s a dream come true.

“And then once we found out it was going to be in Manila, I couldn’t believe it. I knew it was gonna be somewhere in Asia, and when it was here, I was like, ‘Wow, this is gonna be really cool.’”

Team USA is fielding a young team, with none of the players having previously played at the senior level. As this is a new experience for the players, Spoelstra has made it a point to educate them on the level of passion Filipinos have for the game.

“The popularity is incredible. I’m excited for our program, to see the enthusiasm for basketball, for our team here in Manila,” Spoelstra said. “I’ve tried to explain it to everybody. Unless you actually come to Manila and really experience it, it’s tough to articulate that. We’ve only been here for 24 hours, and all the players now understand what I was talking about.

Team USA will be playing all its games at the Mall of Asia Arena, but Spoelstra said he will try to catch one of the Gilas Pilipinas games live at the Smart-Araneta Coliseum.

“It’s going to be exciting,” he said. “I’m going to try and catch a game. Coach Tim (Cone) and I connected. I hope to meet up with Coach Chot (Reyes) as well. But I haven’t seen a whole lot of them. But I’m looking forward to watching them play and watching them compete this next couple of weeks.”

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