HO CHI MINH CITY, Vietnam: Thanks to Saigon Heat co-owner Connor Nguyen, the sport of basketball is gaining popularity in Vietnam. Just last year, Nguyen’s Saigon Sports Academy launched the first ever inter-collegiate basketball tournament in Vietnam, which was participated by over 60 schools all over the country. For a first-timer, having this many participants is clearly phenomenal. And to think that basketball only started to get noticed upon the formation of the Saigon Heat in 2011.
Vietnam, like most nations, is crazy about football. Basketball wasn’t even close. But today, Saigon Heat’s home games have become the most attended in the ASEAN Basketball League (ABL). Fortunately for the home crowd, parking at the Canadian International School Arena, the Heat’s new home court, isn’t a big problem as most residentsof the city use motorbikes. Man, I’ve never seen so many motorcycles on the road than in this city of Ho Chi Minh, which was formerly known as Saigon. Anyway, the Saigon Heat team brought new excitement to the people of Vietnam, especially that their country is represented in an international tournament that enjoys television coverage in Southeast Asia.
The Saigon Heat team is the first professional basketball team in Vietnam and was mostly composed of Vietnamese national players. But since the ABL allowed two foreign imports and three imports from the ASEAN region, the Saigon Heat also signed up Filipino ballers like Froilan Baguion, Mark Yee and Leo Avenido to boost their roster.
The Heat’s emergence also led to the discovery of foreign-bred Vietnamese like Tuan Tu Nguyen from Sweden and Vietnamese-American David Arnold, who played for the Northern Colorado Bears in college.
Nguyen’s assistant Thao “Taylor” Le also revealed that they would be launching a domestic professional league later this year, with at least six teams already committed to join. Without a doubt, the formation of a pro league in Vietnam will benefit not only the Saigon Heat team but also the National Team.
But that’s not all. Nguyen has also sought the help of National University Bulldogs coach Eric Altamirano in starting a grassroots development program for basketball in Vietnam. Through the Saigon Sports Academy, Nguyen plans to introduce a series of basketball camps for the youth, following the model of Altamirano’s National Basketball Training Center (NBTC). The NBTC has had tremendous success since 2007 in conducting hoops clinics nationwide, where several talents were uncovered. Among the NBTC participants were future stars like Kiefer Ravena, Jeron Teng, Kevin Alas, Baser Amer, Kevin Ferrer, Troy Rosario, Arth Dela Cruz and Terrence Romeo. So if the same program can be implemented in Vietnam, the future could be truly bright for Vietnamese basketball.
With the dedication and determination of Nguyen and his group, Vietnam could be a force to be reckoned with in Southeast Asia in the near future. And with the rapid growth of the sport in the country, basketball could soon be catching up with football in popularity. All this is happening in Vietnam even without NBA coverage on local TV. And Nguyen’s group is looking to bring the NBA TV coverage to Vietnam soon, which could even accelerate the sport’s popularity.
Vietnam, as a whole, is one of the fastest growing economies in the world despite being drenched in conflict for many years. The over 20-year Vietnam War that saw the country being divided between the communist North and imperial South brought massive destruction and death to the Vietnamese people. Two years after the United States withdrew its military troops from supporting the South, the North captured the city of Saigon and won the war. The country had been under communist rule since then. But in 1986, the government started embracing free-market reforms that encouraged private ownership of farms and establishments, economic deregulation and foreign investments. This slowly propelled a steady growth in Vietnam’s economy until today. Ho Chi Minh’s progress is clearly visible with its constantly changing landscape. The metro rail system will soon be available for its millions of commuters. And its international airport puts our very own to shame.
There’s a lot of excitement in Vietnam today and its people are slowly adapting to a new lifestyle. And loving a new sport in basketball.