The endless buzzing and whirling of motorbikes crowd sun-stricken streets where motorists take any and every opportunity to preserve the complexion of their skin. Under umbrellas of natural shade provided by towering trees, natives take up every inch in addition to being buried under extra layers of clothing despite already scorching temperatures.
Street food stalls and hole-in-the-wall restaurants are plentiful, even if the neighbor 10 meters down is serving the same iteration of that offering. Don’t forget about the accompanying rainfall that comes and goes like your friendly neighborhood stray cat.
For a Californian that grew up conditioned to the always-cool climate and ambience of the coastal state, Vietnam may be a place that can be unsettling for extended periods of time. For Justin Young, the country has become a second home.
Born in Monterey Park, California on March 9, 1993, the part-Taiwanese, part-Vietnamese American played his college ball at Chapman University, a mere hour or so drive away in nearby Orange, California.
Far enough to curse the commute between cities separated by traffic-jammed highways, yet close enough to be under the watchful eye of protective parents. However, choosing to be a professional athlete half way around the world tends to take things for a turn.
“At first, they seemed to be very wary of the idea of me skipping out on further education and go play professional ball,” Justin would say when asked about how his parents felt about him leaving.
“A year has gone by and it seems they have grown accustomed to it and they support it as long as I stay focused on what I do and not fool around while away from home.”
The expectations were high for Young prior to start of the 2016 VBA season; he did have his own preseason “Off the Court” hype video courtesy of the VBA after all. He was also the lone “Viet Kieu” player on a Ho Chi Minh City Wings squad in a league where teams are allowed up to two heritage players on their roster.
Along with the expectations bestowed on the American forward, there were also lessons to be learned and moments to be had with his favorite being game three in the semifinals, when the City Wings came back to beat the Hanoi Buffaloes, booking their tickets to the finals.
A combination of size, speed, and athleticism allowed Justin to complement import teammate Jaywuan Hill, en-route to a second place finish during the 2016 VBA season and Defensive Player of the Year honors. The announcement of the award following the final game of the season may not be surprising to many fans.
He’s a stat-sheet-filling-workhorse.
To Justin though, it was unexpected to say the least. “At first, I was shocked to be named DPOY. It was great for my confidence because I knew all the work I put in had paid off and it is working. I’m just grateful to be put in the spot I was last season and looking to build up on it this upcoming season,” Young remarks.
“At first, they seemed to be very wary of the idea of me skipping out on further education and go play professional ball.”
Pretty good for a player that prides himself on defense. “I like to be that leader on the court, that glue guy of the team and just do on the intangibles that are not seen in the box score.”
For most Viet Kieu players, the end of the VBA season also marked the end of a journey… at least until the next season. It offers an opportunity to reflect on the season prior and improve.
“It has given me the motivation to work even harder during the offseason,” Young would say about the disappointing finish in the finals.
With the start of the following VBA season being nearly a year away, it gives plenty of time for a player to work on his game, but for a player of Justin’s caliber, it also gives way for new opportunities.
Before departing back stateside, Young’s skillset was given further recognition through a personal invitation from current Hanoi Buffaloes head coach, Todd Purves, to join the team in an upcoming competition: the Thailand-based TBSL.
Accepting the invitation meant cutting his offseason short. Of course, Young jumped at the opportunity and would take his team oriented game to Vietnam’s capital city following a brief return back home.
With the 2016 VBA season ending in November and the start of the TBSL in early 2017, it would give plenty of time for Young to put in some additional training in between right? Well, it seems that when opportunities come, they come in bunches.
An inevitable return back to Asia came even sooner when Justin was given a chance to play in a biannual event called the Super Scheung Cup, a tournament hosted in Hong Kong that December.
The tournament featured nine Asian teams throughout the world including the team Young would ultimately play for: the Southern California Fukienese Association (SCFA), based out of Los Angeles.
“A friend of my parents’ plays a big part in this association and he invited me to play for his team. Our team consisted of six Asians and four non-Asians, due to the fact that tournament rules stated that we could only have two non-Asians on the court at the same time,” describes Justin.
“The tournament itself was awesome, professionally organized and had great competition. The 10 day trip to Hong Kong was nothing short of amazing. We got to travel around the city while we had our off days.”
With an “off season” as packed as a college campus’ library during finals week, the tournament may have given Young an even better opportunity to improve as opposed to committing numerous hours in the gym and weight room alone.
“I LIKE TO BE THAT LEADER ON THE COURT, THAT GLUE GUY OF THE TEAM AND JUST DO ON THE INTANGIBLES THAT ARE NOT SEEN IN THE BOX SCORE.”
“The five games we played in seven days was just as fun and a great experience. Playing other types of players from different countries was a new type of competition I have never experienced before and I enjoyed every bit of it,” reflects Young. “Then going 4-1 and winning the championship was just icing on the cake.”
Fresh off a championship run, coach Purves was ensured he’d be getting a player with international success at a high level, further justifying his sharp eye for basketball talent. While in Hanoi, Young enjoyed success as the starting forward for a Buffaloes team that finished third in the 2017 TBSL, though he says the competition was higher than from that seen in the VBA.
“The main difference is the competition level. TBSL allows two world imports and two ASEAN imports while the VBA only allows one world import and two heritage players. There are better teams and players in the TBSL making it more competitive.”
There is one advantage that the VBA has over the TBSL in Justin’s eyes though. “However, the fans in the VBA compared to the ones in TBSL are complete opposites. There are more fans watching the games during the VBA than the TBSL.” Put one on the board for the VBA.
With two different stints, on two different Vietnam-based teams, under two different coaches, Justin was asked to delve on the experiences between the two. When asked about the players he gelled with most, Young says, “The players I lived with throughout the season. So Jaywuan Hill for the City Wings and Matt (Van Pelt) and Ryan (Arnold) for the Buffaloes.”
He also shared insight about living in Vietnam’s two biggest cities. “Hanoi is much more traditional and has a more relaxing lifestyle. Ho Chi Minh is more lively and modernized. I would compare it to Sacramento and Los Angeles in California. Hanoi being the capital like Sacramento, much more calm lifestyle, and Ho Chi Minh being the biggest city like Los Angeles, more nightlife.”
Some of you may not be able to fathom it, but rest assured, being a Californian myself, I’d say it sounds about right.
As far as insight on what it’s like to play for coach Mika Turunen and Todd Purves, which I’m sure you’re all just dying to know, Young replied, “It was two very different coaches with very different game plans. Coach Mika had a very ‘into your face’ kind of coaching style, while coach Purves was on the other end of the spectrum, which was more calm and less confrontational.”
Young would continue by saying, “Both are very good coaches that have their own ways of getting their players to play at their best. Some players might think coach Mika’s way of coaching works better for them; some players might think coach Purves’ way works better for them. It really depends on the type of player you are.”
Within only a couple of months’ time, Justin’s ability to provide a spark on the court has also sparked abilities for him off the court. One of them happens to be face recognition amongst fans of the sport in Vietnam and asking for photos.
“AS A PROFESSIONAL BASKETBALL PLAYER, EVERYTHING ABOUT YOUR LIFE IS PUT UNDER A MICROSCOPE. YOU ARE A ROLE MODEL FOR MANY YOUNGER GENERATIONS OF KIDS WHO ASPIRE TO BECOME JUST LIKE YOU.”
“I’ve gotten that a couple of times while I was walking in a mall or out on the streets. At the moment, I was kind of shocked to have random people asking for photos. Looking back, I’m just humble to be a part of something like this.”
The other is through becoming a sponsored athlete under the Mizuno brand which Young attributes through a relationship he developed with the City Wings’ GM during his time playing for the team. As you might have guessed by now, Justin was once again caught off guard by the opportunity.
In regards to how things transpired, Justin offers, “He has many different connections with several different sports brands and I was fortunate enough for him to let me in on Mizuno. When he told me about potentially connecting me to a sponsor, I was totally shocked and ecstatic about it. This was another first for me so I went along with the process and feel very humble about this.”
Doing laundry isn’t the only way that Justin turns the tide. As a kid growing up in the United States watching the NBA, Young imparts his thoughts on younger generations about the perception of a professional athlete as portrayed by the media, and how it has changed throughout his journey as a professional basketball player in a more realistic scenario.
“As a professional basketball player, everything about your life is put under a microscope. You are a role model for many younger generations of kids who aspire to become just like you. So you really have to think twice of the choices you make every day, especially when going out with friends. The media makes it seem as if the life of a professional basketball player is the gold standard of the American dream, where life is easy and everything is given to you. It’s actually the total opposite. As a professional you have to be dedicated to your work and love what you do just like any other job. Jobs are not secure as every player is competing for a spot on the team. The competition everyday makes the job a lot more fun but also more stressful. The media typically reports on the bigger name athletes because that is what people want to see. These big name athletes already have it made for them with endorsements and huge contracts. It is the smaller name athletes that are trying to make a name for themselves that have a grind-it-out lifestyle. Those are the people that most of the public and the media pay least attention to.”
Throughout the entire process, the now seasoned forward has continued to remain humble. When time presents itself, Young thinks back to times in his life when he could’ve been without basketball.
It’s times like these when he gets a chance to slow things down and keep himself grounded. He reminds himself to not become too arrogant or cocky in what he does; to allow others to speak for him rather than doing all the talking himself.
In differentiating between what Justin Young the basketball pro and Justin Young the everyday guy has learned throughout their journey in Asia, and more specifically, in Vietnam, Young goes on to say, “I think I’ve grown to be more self-reliant. I’m more my own person learning to live on my own and making new friends wherever I go. Also making the connections with all the new people I meet because you’ll never know how it might help you in the future.”
“YOU HAVE TO BE DEDICATED TO YOUR WORK AND LOVE WHAT YOU DO JUST LIKE ANY OTHER JOB.”
Recollecting on the past year, Young wouldn’t change much if he had the chance to go back and do it all over again. As a professional rookie player, he was overwhelmed, yet thankful, for the amount of support from friends and family both in the United States and in Vietnam.
“It has been a wonderful experience playing in a country where my parents were originally from. I have taken nothing for granted while playing in Vietnam and I have tried to take in every moment while over there. It was great experiencing a very different culture and lifestyle from the US. People over there are so kind and outgoing, it makes acclimating to their culture so much easier. There is nothing bad to say while I was over there in Vietnam and I hope to continue this great experience next season,” Justin affirms.
It’s with no surprise that Justin was taken with the first overall pick by the Thang Long Warriors in the 2017 VBA Draft. A lot has changed in terms of his growth on and off the court in a relatively short time span.
With another stint playing professionally in Vietnam for his now third club, it seems there shouldn’t be much that can catch him off guard, but if he were to continue with his theme, we could probably predict there will be more shockers along the way.
As a parting message to his fans and supporters that have been awaiting his return, Justin would like to say, “I’m excited to be coming back to the VBA this year. I’m looking forward to all the new changes and players for this upcoming season. Can’t wait to be playing in front of the best fans in Southeast Asia.”
Surely you didn’t expect him to forget about that now did you?