Vietnam gains as overseas Vietnamese players go through the hoops

By Hanh Pham   December 12, 2018 | 04:59 pm PT
For budding basketball players in Vietnam, overseas Vietnamese players are more inspiring and motivating than other foreigners.

Young Vietnamese basketball players see in overseas Vietnamese a more realistic potential of the athletes they can become, so the latter inspire more confidence and commitment, experts say. And they have amazing stories to tell.

In 1980, a 15-year-old Vietnamese boy named Nhan swam two kilometers from the Da Nang coast to a ship heading to Hong Kong.

He fled the country without saying goodbye to his family, and found his way to starting a new life in California, United States.

Thirty-six years later, Nhan’s son, Horace Nguyen, decided to return to the very country his dad left behind, to start a new life of his own, pursuing his dream of playing professional basketball.

Horace is one of the first foreign players of Vietnamese descent to play basketball professionally in Vietnam, specifically in the annual tournament organized by the Vietnam Basketball Association (VBA).

Established in 2016, the VBA league has six teams: Da Nang Dragons, Ho Chi Minh City Wings, Sai Gon Heat, Ha Noi Buffaloes, Thang Long Warriors and Can Tho Catfish. The tournament is played from June to September every year

"The Da Nang Dragons lacked a point guard then. When I knew I was chosen, I could not believe the coincidence. My parents are from Da Nang," Horace told VnExpress, elaborately pronouncing the words "nguoi Da Nang" (Da Nang people) in the city’s typical dialect.

Horace Nguyễn (L), the leader of Da Nang Dragons, played in a match against Thang Long Warriors mùa giải VBA 2018. Photo courtesy of Da Nang Dragons

Horace Nguyễn (L), the leader of Da Nang Dragons, plays in a match against Thang Long Warriors in VBA 2018. Photo courtesy of Da Nang Dragons

Horace has nurtured his love for basketball since childhood. From middle school to college, he used to be the only Asian player in his team. "Asian American basketball players in the United States are always downplayed," said Horace. "It is assumed that we are less qualified than black and white players."

According to the U.S National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA), in the 2015-2016 school year, there were only 14 male Asian American athletes out of over 5,000 basketball players playing in division I, which equals 0.25 percent of the total athletes.

Before his graduation in May 2016, Horace, with his 178-centimeter height, realized he did not have much of chance to play professional basketball in the U.S. The average height of the U.S National Basketball Association (NBA) players is two meters.

The selection round of overseas players for VBA’s first season came at the right time. "I told myself I have to practice very hard for this opportunity, there is no way I would miss it," Horace recalled. Six weeks after graduating as a business administration major, Horace Nguyen left sunny California and flew half way around the world to Da Nang to pursue his passion for basketball.

New ball game

Over 30 relatives came to cheer Horace in his first game in Da Nang. None of them had ever seen a basketball match before.

Things have changed. Now all of them have taken to the sport, Horace said.

VBA allows each competing team to include one foreign player and two foreign players of Vietnamese descent – those who are born abroad but have Vietnamese grandparents or parents. 

These players have played a key role in improving the quality of the game in the country, as well as its reach among the Vietnamese people.

While his height is not impressive, Horace Nguyen makes speedy passes, accurate long shots, and is a great match analyser. He was the most successful three pointer, shots taken from outside the six-meter line from the basket, in the 2016 VBA season.

This season, Horace was among the three top players for three-point baskets, and the top five for most successful assists for baskets.

Players of Vietnamese descent have brought home skills they attained in countries with advanced basketball competency like the U.S or European countries, said coach Predrag Lukic, who helped the Thang Long Warriors claim the runners-up title this year.

The coach said European countries have established several tournaments for every age group, so children can also practice and compete in the sport.

In basketball, athletes always look at the best players and attempt to improve their skills. Vietnamese players are likely to forge closer connection with overseas players of Vietnamese descent than other foreigners. "They would think ‘he is not two meters tall like the African players, but plays very well. I can do it too,’" said Lukic.

"I grew up in Germany, started to play basketball at the age of 10, and at 15, I played two matches every day. Meanwhile, some Vietnamese players only played 10 days a year," he said.

Land of opportunity

Vincent Nguyen, a player with Hanoi Buffaloes, was professionally trained in Europe. Vincent has a Vietnamese father and a Dutch mother. The point guard played for the Netherlands’ national team in a tournament for Under-18 and Under-20 age groups.

However, after being benched constantly in the European professional leagues, Vincent thought Vietnam was the land of opportunity for him.

"I’ve got to play more often, and the more I play, the more I improve," Vincent told VnExpress

Vincent believes that basketball fans have high expectations of overseas Vietnamese players. The more players of Vietnamese descent play in VBA, the more competitive the tournament becomes and there are more participating teams. Thus, the tournament can attract more people.

If VBA only has domestic and foreign players, the big gap in skill levels and appearances could make the audience lose interest, he feels.

"Besides, we are also Vietnamese people, so the audience will feel closer to us."

Sheer entertainment

"I started to get interested in basketball two years ago," said Thu Huong, a student of Hanoi Open University, as she joined her friends to watch a match at the National Sports Festival. "I know about basketball mainly thanks to VBA."

Initially, the game did not garner much public attention. The national basketball tournament was held every year, but the number of participating teams gradually decreased, though there was no relegation rule. Poor promotion and insufficient funding were blamed.  

After the VBA was established in 2016, things changed.

"We can’t deny that VBA has attracted many people to knowing about and taking interest in basketball. They do a great job in media promotion and they know how to utilize social media," said Dinh Duc Manh, head of the basketball department at the General Department of Sports. 

Manh said the basketball association aims to make basketball a mainstream sport in Vietnam, second in popularity to football.

In 2011, when XLE Group formed the Sai Gon Heat basketball team to compete in the ASEAN Basketball League, they adopted a new business model from the U.S: sports entertainment. The business integrates entertainment elements into sports, targeting the general public, not just sport fans. The group also laid the foundations for the VBA.

"You want to invite your friends and family to watch a match, but they may not be fond of the sport like you," explained Connor Nguyen, founder of XLE Group and managing director of Saigon Heat. "We wanted to attract these people."

A VBA match today is non-stop exhilaration. The game speed is high. Players score very quickly. The sound of the ball hitting the floor is amplified inside the dome, blending with audience’s cheers, shouting of slogans, waving of flags and banners.

At half-time, the ring belongs to the cheerleaders who hype up the atmosphere with appealing dance performances in flashy outfits to catchy electronic music.

When the whistle signals the end of the match, the spectators flock down to the court and ask for autographs of favorite players. A basketball match is not simply a sports competition, but becomes a cultural experience then.

In the first season, the VBA attracted an average of 930 spectators a game. This increased to over 1,000 in the 2018 season, occupying 90 percent of the seats, said Le Ba Thanh Bac, VBA business strategy director.

In the two recent seasons, tickets for the final rounds were sold out within 24 hours. "For the finals, organizers had to prepare 100 to 200 additional seats to meet demand," said Bac.

The future 

Horace Nguyen (in black) and Chris Dierker (in white), another player of Vietnamese descent in a practice session with young players at Da Nang basketball development center. Photo courtesy of Da Nang Dragons

Horace Nguyen (in black) and Chris Dierker (in white), another player of Vietnamese descent in a practice session with young players at Da Nang basketball development center. Photo courtesy of Da Nang Dragons

On the evening of the football match between Vietnam and Cambodia in the AFF Cup, fans on the streets cheered every good move and goal scored by the home team. But inside the Hanoi Medical University gymnasium, all the sounds came from the orange ball, the quick steps of several 15-year-old players, and loud instructions from a Phillipines coach.

On the stand, some parents were waiting for their children. One of them was Hien, who travels two hours to take her son from Hai Phong City to Hanoi twice a week to practice basketball. The boy recently was selected for a junior basketball talent development program.

Asked if they wanted their kids to become professional basketball players, the mothers said, "That entirely depends on the kids."

Last month, a program to introduce basketball to 25,000 schools across the country was launched. This activity is a part a Vietnam Basketball Federation plan to develop school basketball.

Connor Nguyen believes that a key determinant of basketball’s success in Vietnam will be the investment in a young generation of players.

By the year 2030, the federation plans to approach more than 43,000 schools, to motivate more schools to choose basketball as an official subject and make basketball the most-played sport by students.

Two years ago, when he boarded the plane to Vietnam, Horace Nguyen was very excited because it was not the usual short vacation.

"When I was young, when I followed my parents to Vietnam, I only missed American fast food," said the captain of Da Nang Dragons, laughing at his recollection.

Vietnam has changed a lot with skyscrapers, western-style cafes and streets full of cars.

"And the change that I see most clearly is more children play basketball on the street.

"We are the first generation of Vietnamese who were born abroad. Each person has a different family background. But fate has driven us to meet at home, and play basketball like brothers."

Horace's voice resonated with certainty as he said: "And I want to retire as a Da Nang Dragons player."

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