With 5.6 seconds left on the clock in the fourth and final quarter a tense hush falls over the crowd at Tan Binh Stadium. Eyes peak through half closed lids while fists clench with nervous anticipation as Jahmar Thorpe steadies himself to shoot the first of two free-throws that will determine whether the Saigon Heat beat the Malaysia Dragons.
With the score 68-69 in the Dragon’s favour, Thorpe calmly sinks the first basket to level proceedings. The crowd erupts before falling mute again. They know that overtime, and possibly even defeat, beckons if he doesn’t make the next shot. Steely-eyed and composed, he bounces the ball twice, puffs out his cheeks, and makes the throw…
It’s good! Saigon Heat lead 70-69 and run down the remaining seconds to secure a thrilling victory. Pandemonium ensues as the decibel level goes off the chart. The noise is deafening and the atmosphere electric as players and coaches embrace each other with fans and cheerleaders rejoicing hysterically in what represents the Heat’s third consecutive win of the season.
“We’re just really proud to have this team represent not only Saigon, but Vietnam,” says 21-year-old Dinh Ngoc Duy, who’s made the long journey from Thu Duc with his friends to watch the game. His words aptly sum up the collective feeling inside the stadium.
On the Rebound
Until this year Vietnam had never had a professional basketball team represent the country internationally. Now in their debut season in the ASEAN Basketball League (ABL) — founded three years ago by AirAsia owner Tony Fernandes — the recent formation of the Saigon Heat has finally provided Vietnamese sports enthusiasts with something high profile other than football to demonstrate their patriotism.
And while football unquestionably rules the roost here, basketball’s popularity in Vietnam appears to be very much on the rise. According to a Tuoi Tre report, “unofficial statistics show that in Ho Chi Minh City alone more than 10,000 people play basketball on a regular basis”.
The article talks about the ‘revitalisation’ of the sport, which, following an initial surge during the late 1990s thanks to the popular Korean TV basketball drama, Last Jump, has resulted in the installation of 15 basketball hoops at Pho Tho Sports Centre and a Phu Nhuan-based counterpart offering “training classes for local students from primary to high school level”.
Similarly, Saigon Sports Academy (SSA), the multi-sports training school that founded the Heat, runs seasonal training camps at a number of the city’s international schools as well as at its own complex in An Phu for youngsters interested in taking up the sport.
Jason Rabedeux, installed as head coach of the Saigon Heat following an initial seven-game losing streak, and credited by many as one of the main reasons behind the team’s recent upturn, sees the development of Vietnamese basketball only increasing in the future.
“The word is starting to spread like wildfire, which is exciting because what that leads to is a grassroots movement of basketball in Vietnam,” he says. “The best basketball player in Vietnam right now is probably only 12 or 13-years-old, so we want to see the playgrounds full of kids enjoying the game, and young coaches wanting to learn how to teach it. That’s how basketball will grow in this country.”
But how exactly is basketball thriving in a country where numerous other sports have failed to capture the local interest? Echoing the thoughts of Dinh Ngoc Duy, current assistant coach to the Heat, Rob Newson, feels the set-up of the ABL, which pits teams from across Southeast Asia against each other in one league, as opposed to domestically in numerous mini leagues, has benefited the sport.
“The fact that we’re playing teams from Singapore, Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines is a real advantage because it automatically increases public interest,” Rob explains. “People want to watch the team representing Vietnam do well.”
He also points to the overseas success enjoyed by China’s Jeremy Lin who plays for the New York Knicks and recently retired Yao Ming who played for the Houston Rockets as examples.
The presence of cable sports network, ESPN Asia, and Vietnamese broadcaster HTV, at a number of Heat games has also boosted public awareness of the team in particular and the ABL in general. And such is the frenzied atmosphere constantly displayed at Tan Binh Stadium that ESPN Asia broadcasted back-to-back Saigon Heat home games; a first for any ABL team since television coverage of the games began.
Vietnamese Men Can’t Jump
But a closer examination of the Saigon Heat’s performances also reveals the growing pains a team inevitably faces in its inaugural season.
Their roster, which comprises five local players picked from across the country, two Americans imports and three other Asian players — as dictated by the ABL — doesn’t yet possess the overall strength required to compete at the very top.
Nowhere was this more apparent than when the Heat’s three-game unbeaten streak came to an abrupt halt following a 57-73 loss against the AirAsia Philippine Patriots.
An over reliance on American duo Jonathan Jones and Jahmar Thorpe, and Filipino import John Smith, who all played for the 40-minute duration, saw the Patriots utilise their stronger and more experienced squad by tactically substituting their players until they eventually overran the ever-tiring Heat.
Add the fact that, bar the addition of two American imports, the Patriot’s roster consists entirely of Filipino players who have grown up on basketball (it’s the number one sport of the Philippines), the uphill task that lies ahead for the Saigon Heat is obvious.
Thus, the Heat finds itself in a catch-22 situation. Such is the standard of the game that the addition of foreign players is unavoidable. They bring with them levels of experience, skill and discipline that the native players simply don’t possess yet. For every foreign player in the line-up, that’s a spot not going to a Vietnamese player.
This dilemma isn’t lost on the Heat’s coaching and playing staff. “It’s unfortunate that the Vietnamese guys can’t play that much right now,” concedes Rob. “But the experience they’re getting daily in practice and from the minutes in the games can only be a positive thing for them. We hope that as the years go on the foreigners’ involvement becomes more of a role as opposed to a necessity.”
Jason, who previously coached in the US, China, Japan and the Middle East, agrees and knows he has to rely on the foreigners to “bring leadership to the team” and, to a certain extent, he looks to them as “assistant coaches in terms of preparation and practice, on and off the court.”
At 33, Jones is regarded as one of the team’s senior players. “I’ve been playing professionally for 10 years in Hungary and Korea, so I’m trying to teach these guys how to practice harder and better every day, come to the games prepared and be ready to play.”
Rob reveals an eight-year plan is in place to develop a national team that can become competitive in this region. With the backing provided by SSA, the growing ‘fandomonium’ and increased television exposure, the goal seems tangible.
As to whether Vietnam will ever see its own Jeremy Lin competing in the NBA, Rob prefers not to look that far ahead just yet.
“That’s a long way off right now, but certainly reaching college level in the US is the first major goal,” he says. “If we can get an 18 or 19-year-old kid a scholarship that allows them to study and play ball in the US then we’re heading in the right direction and proving what can be achieved through playing basketball.”
For further information on Saigon Heat, and to purchase tickets to their home games in advance, visit www.saigonheat.com. Alternatively, go to the Tan Binh Stadium box office (18 Xuan Hong, Tan Binh) on game days