Jakob Poeltl is out to inspire the youth, from his native Austria to his new community in San Antonio.
He had the gym at Charles Arnold Elementary School rocking on Friday afternoon, leading hundreds of screaming children in a pep rally for the Spurs What’cha Reading Program presented by Whataburger.
Coyote and the Spurs Hype Squad had no trouble at all working the kids into a frenzy before Poeltl entered the gym. Coyote displayed a mastery of child crowd control, harnessing the age-old technique of banging a beat out on a drum and having the kids clap it back to him before wordlessly asking them to zip it. The seven-foot-tall Poeltl shattered that temporary peace when he ducked through the door.
Whataburger selected fourth grader Jose Flores out of more than 30,000 students who participated in the program, reading extra books at home and logging the hours. Poeltl made him the star of the show, pulling him up to the front of the gym for a classic AT&T Center intermission pastime. Coyote made sure that the little one’s shots hit the bottom of the Whataburger buckets, and Poeltl needed a little help too.
“We just thought it was a good idea,” Jose Flores Sr. said about encouraging his son to participate in the program. “It wasn’t something that the school had, it was something extra, so I told him let’s just go ahead and try it out.”
Poeltl told the kids that he loved the Harry Potter books when he was growing up in Vienna, and his favorite subject in school, other than PE of course, was history. After the pep rally, he joined just Jose’s fourth-grade class in the library for a few rounds of vocabulary bingo. The kids loved it, and so did the educators.
“When they asked how many of you have been to a Spurs game, it was not a lot of the kids that raised their hands,” said assistant principal Dr. Nikki Demby. “For a player to actually come to the school and talk about reading, that was huge for them.”
“Our kids are excited about the Spurs to begin with,” said principal Belinda Hernandez, who rocked a throwback Avery Johnson jersey for the occasion. “To have someone that is enjoying reading and loves reading as well, that promotes reading for our kiddos.”
Poeltl answered questions from the class and the student reporters, mentioning that both of his parents played volleyball and they were the ones who inspired him to be an athlete. When asked what award he would like to win, he said that the obvious answer is Finals MVP, but he’d also like the Nobel Peace Prize. He said German is his favorite language, mostly because it’s what he grew up with.
Jakob Poeltl got grilled by reporters last Friday pic.twitter.com/J7fkFISL26
— Tom Petrini (@RealTomPetrini) November 13, 2018
Poeltl is the first and only Austrian to ever play in the NBA, and he wants to eventually drop the “only” part by inspiring the kids in his home country.
“It comes with a little bit of pressure, but also I’m just very proud to be the first one and represent my country in the NBA,” Poeltl said. “I want to DO something for Austrian basketball, I want to improve it.”
It made sense for Poeltl to play basketball because he was always much taller than everyone, but most of his countrymen aren’t at all interested in the sport. He hopes that by planting the Austrian flag in the NBA and funding basketball at the youth level, he can help change that.
“What I’m trying to do is get more kids involved in basketball,” Poeltl said, “get more people to put money into getting coaches for little kids that do want to play, so they’ll have a chance to play in the NBA one day maybe.”
Dozens of foreign players have made homes for themselves in San Antonio, and Poeltl is thrilled to be a part of the first NBA team that really made an effort to build an international culture.
“Today there’s a lot more international players than there were just a couple of years ago, and the Spurs kinda set the trend with that,” Poeltl said. “If I think back over the last 10, 15, 20 years, there’s been important international players playing for the Spurs that have huge roles here on this team, and it’s obviously great for me to come here and keep that tradition going.”
Another thing that makes San Antonio a welcoming home for Poeltl is the value they place on big men, especially ones who he has looked up to for a long time. When the Raptors drafted him, he said he was excited to battle on the block with guys like LaMarcus Aldridge and Pau Gasol, and lamented that he did not get an opportunity to play against Tim Duncan. Now, he’s getting an education of his own from the most elite team of post professors ever assembled.
“All three of them bring different stuff to the table,” Poeltl said. “There’s so much I can learn from them by playing against them, watching them, them giving me tips and tricks. They have so much experience, all of them together is pretty ridiculous.”
At just 23 years old, Poeltl is closer in age to the fourth graders than he is to Old Man Riverwalk. He revealed that Duncan has been playing a lot of 3 on 3 in the practice facility, and he often gets to face off against the legend.
“I get to play a little bit of 1 on 1 in the 3 on 3, head to head against him,” Poeltl said. “There’s so many little things that he does that I’m trying to pick up and copy in a game.”
Gasol and Aldridge have made it tough for Poeltl to crack the rotation in his first season in San Antonio, but they’re both actively helping him understand the plays and principles of his new team.
“With Pau and LA, it’s a lot about the Spurs way, the way we play basketball,” Poeltl said. “If I make little mistakes on court in practice or even in a game, they tell me about it.”
He’s still learning the Spurs way on the court, but Poeltl seems to have the role model stuff down pat. He high fived all of the kids, posed for a group photo with them and Whataguy, and gave everyone a signed picture.
“It just shows their involvement in the community, and Whataburger as well, they’re a big part of the community too,” said Jose Flores Sr. “I played with the Spurs Police Athletic League when I was coming to school here about 15 years ago, so the Spurs have always been involved with the community.”
Poeltl’s visit made a lasting impression on the students, as one of them declared it the best day ever.
“It makes my heart happy, it really does, to know that you have truly impacted their lives,” said Dr. Demby. “They will remember this day forever, it’s pretty amazing.”