After another first-round playoff exit in the 2018-19 ASEAN Basketball League (ABL) season, the Saigon Heat have brought on a proven veteran in the region to replace previous head coach Kyle Julius for the upcoming campaign.

The 49-year-old Kevin Yurkus, who most recently served as a Saigon Heat commentator in ABL 9 and Director of Vietnam’s national basketball teams, comes to the Heat with several years of coaching experience and success in and around South East Asia under his belt.

Yurkus has had coaching stops in the United States, Thailand, and perhaps most successfully, in Vietnam, where he won a Vietnam Basketball Association (VBA) championship and two Coach of the Year awards with the Can Tho Catfish. Earlier in the year, he joined the Bangkok Storm, a new Thai basketball club rumored in having its eyes set on participating in ABL 10 before announcing as the Heat’s new head coach.

Not long after his appointment, coach Yurkus talked to ASEAN Sports about the situation, what went through his mind regarding his new position, and plans to adjust to new life with the Saigon Heat.

A/S: How did you and the Saigon Heat end up together, with your previous position at the Bangkok Storm?

Coach Yurkus: When I left (Vietnam) for the Bangkok Storm, I sat down with Vietnam Basketball leadership and we collectively agreed it was a good opportunity, so I left with the blessing of our leadership.

Even while in Bangkok, I still remained close to basketball in Vietnam. I continued my position as Director of basketball for the Vietnam national teams and made frequent return visits to Vietnam. When the position opened with the Saigon Heat, I was fortunately in a good position, and things worked out to bring me back to Vietnam.

I have a great relationship with the ownership of the Storm and they understand and respect my connection to Vietnam. When I discussed coming back to Vietnam, it was well received.

A/S: You achieved a lot in the VBA, TBL and TBSL before commentating ABL games last season. What are the main differences that you think you will have to adapt to? 

Coach Yurkus: The ABL is a high level league with many great teams and players. There are no easy games in the ABL.

As far as adapting, I feel like I have a good understanding of the league, but I also know that it’s critical to have the Saigon Heat ready and prepared for every game. It’s equally important to keep the team focused on the details of the game and limit the mistakes. When playing at this level, mental errors and mistakes are often the difference between winning and losing.

Coach Kevin Yurkus led the Cantho Catfish to two straight VBA Finals and won one.

A/S: Clearly, you don’t know for sure what Saigon Heat roster you will be working with for ABL 10 at this point, but have you and management set big goals for the team for the season ahead?

Coach Yurkus: We have a lot of work ahead of this offseason to put together the best roster possible. Fortunately, we have a deep pool of local talent including Viet Kieu (foreign players of Vietnamese descent) and they give us a great chance to compete at this level. The goal for any team is to win a championship and although it is a big challenge to win in the ABL, we set our goals on winning championships and it’s the only mentality to have in my opinion.

A/S: The Heat have never played a full ABL season with the same world import players for different reasons and last season, teams who kept the same imports for the whole duration got better results (Formosa Dreamers, Singapore Slingers, San Miguel Alab Pilipnas). Are there any particular characteristics you will be looking for, both from a personality and basketball perspective, when choosing the three import players for the upcoming season?

Coach Yurkus: The selection of imports can make or break a season, so it’s very important to bring in the right players.

What I look for first and foremost is to bring in high character players who buy in to the basketball culture of Vietnam and the system that we are trying to implement for the Saigon Heat. We must have good guys who are willing to work hard, connect with our local players and appreciate our incredible fans. From a basketball perspective, we are obviously looking for players who fit our style of play. We want guys who are versatile, fast, athletic, who can defend, shoot threes, and make plays.

A/S: In the last couple seasons, the Heat always played better at home as opposed to on the road. The away game struggles are nothing new to you, but as the head coach, how do you usually prepare the players mentally for these games? 

Coach Yurkus: For playing on the road, I think the mindset is to embrace the new environment. Being on the road is a great way for a team to come together. At home, players have a tendency to settle into their different routines, but on the road, everybody is on the same schedule. We try and use this as a way to make the team stronger.

The Saigon Heat won only four out of 15 away games last season (Photo: ABL)

A/S: You have had many battles against Mono Vampire Basketball Club before in Thai leagues. Are you excited to play them again on a different stage? And what are some other teams that you also rate highly and will be looking forward to coach against the most in the ABL? 

Coach Yurkus: I’ve coached many games at Stadium 29 and it will be exciting to go back this time as an ABL opponent. I have great respect for what Mono has built in Thailand and in the ABL. I have no doubt that our matches will be both highly contested and entertaining. They have a very strong line-up (with Anthony Tucker and Ryan Watkins newly added) and will likely be one of the top teams next season.

The ABL is a great league top to bottom and as I mentioned previously, there are no easy wins in this league, so I rank every opponent high. As for coaching against a certain team, I’m excited to face each opponent for different reasons.

A/S: What are your thoughts on Saigon Heat fans who have been the main factor for CIS Arena being one of most difficult venues to win in for visiting squads?

Coach Yurkus: I haven’t visited every ABL venue just yet, but my colleagues throughout the league tell me that CIS is the best home atmosphere in the ABL and of course no fans are more passionate and supportive than Saigon Heat fans. I’m very excited to be a part of this passion for the next ABL season.

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