For those who may not know me, allow me to introduce myself. My name is Vincent (Quang-Vinh) Nguyen. I am 24 years old and a professional basketball player for the Saigon Heat in the ASEAN Basketball League (ABL) and the Ho Chi Minh City Wings in the Vietnam Basketball Association (VBA). I was born and raised in the Netherlands to a Dutch mother and Vietnamese father.

Growing up, I didn’t pay much attention to my heritage, though, I was occasionally reminded of it through racial slurs directed at me every once in awhile. By the time my mother brought me into the world, my parents had already been together for roughly 10 years and from early on, I wasn’t exactly exposed to the Vietnamese language.

Aside from moments when I would catch my dad on the phone or when he would have his Vietnamese friends over, the language was seldom ever used as my parents opted to communicate with one another in Dutch. And in those times when my father did speak in Vietnamese, I was never fully able to grasp what he was saying, nor why he was yelling all the time.

(Photo Source: Vincent Nguyen / Facebook)

As I grew older, I became more curious of my background, and in 2017, was presented with the perfect opportunity to experience Vietnamese culture first hand while also being able to play basketball after I was drafted by the Hanoi Buffaloes of the VBA. With an open mind, my borderline white-washed-self traveled to Vietnam for the first time that same year.

Since then, a lot of things have happened for me personally and in my basketball career. As a competitor, you want to be able to compete at the highest level possible, and for me, after three seasons in the VBA, I was finally given the chance to play for the Saigon Heat in the ABL.

The following is a recollection of my journey as a rookie through the 2019-20 ABL season.

After the end of the 2019 VBA season and getting to spend some time with my friends and family back in the Netherlands, I made my way back to Vietnam mid-November, about three weeks prior to the start of training camp. Knowing that I was going to be playing for a new team, in a new league, I wanted to display my best attributes, especially given how crucial first impressions can be in new environments.

“It’s often the local players who can impact a game and be the difference between winning or losing”

At the same time that I returned, the Vietnamese Men’s National Basketball Team was preparing for the 2019 Southeast Asian Games (SEA Games). I volunteered to be a practice player to help get myself back into shape and ready for the upcoming ABL season, with an added benefit being that the core group of locals and coaching staff for the Heat were going to represent Vietnam in Manila.

After the national team ended the tournament with two historic bronze medals for Vietnam, we were ready to finally start training camp. Due to the SEA Games, we didn’t play our first game until a month and a half after the league officially tipped off. I still remember livestreaming the first game of the season two days after I had landed and getting very excited to play in front of our home fans.

(Photo Source: Saigon Heat / Facebook)

Despite having played three seasons professionally in the VBA, transitioning to a much more competitive league is no easy task. For starters, every team is allowed up to three world imports alongside its local players, with the brunt of the workload defaulting to them, but with that being said, opposing import players tend to cancel each other out on the court.

It’s often the local players who can impact a game and be the difference between winning or losing, and the team made it clear that we would be aiming for a deep playoff run. Personally, I wanted to contribute as much as possible.

To achieve those goals, I knew preparation would be key.

With January 3rd circled on the calendar for our season opener, it meant we had three weeks to build a well-functioning team out of our mix of local and import players. Prior to the start of a new season, one of the early goals is to try and build chemistry and form a strategy that will attempt to highlight the strengths of the team while masking the weaknesses.

“Saying a player is not good enough is just a cop out”

Like any other [sports] team, it’s not going to be perfect right away. The process of getting to know one another’s tendencies may take a while, and that’s where the practice hours come into play; this generally explains why teams tend to play their best basketball towards the end of a season.

As we started to get to know each other better, I felt that as a team, we began to show glimpses of high-level basketball. After a few friendly games in Indonesia, it was safe to say that everyone was pumped for the start of the regular season.

Since this was going to be my first rodeo in the ABL, I imagined there were going to be a lot of new experiences for me. We were going to be traveling to countries I had never stepped foot in; competing against players I had never seen before.

Nevertheless, I still felt like I knew what to expect in a general sense. After all, I had been playing basketball for the better part of life, but little did I know, I was going to be in for a wild ride.

(Photo Source: Saigon Heat / Facebook)

The start of the season was rocky to say the least, enough so that the team opted to substitute one of our imports. Now, before I continue on, I want to remind everyone that a player change can happen for a number of reasons: a player could be playing out of position, be a wrong fit strategically, have the wrong expectations, or have disciplinary problems. Those are just a few possibilities in a haystack of potential issues.

Saying a player is not good enough is just a cop out. We had players who have played and performed at a high level. They can hoop.

But the team’s first player change led to another, then another, then another, and another… you get the idea. In total, we had played and/or practiced with 10 different world imports in such a short span.

The longest stretch that we played with the same roster amounted to just three games.

“Somewhere in the back of my mind, I thought this whole situation would eventually blow over just as quick as it arose”

Now I want you to imagine that you’re putting together a puzzle. You’re making some progress but soon discover that one of the pieces you have in hand doesn’t fit, so you get some new puzzle pieces and start over, only to find that these new pieces don’t fit neither. Finding the right piece is difficult among a seemingly endless lot, and without it, the puzzle can’t be completed.

For myself, another piece of the overall composition, I had to figure out how I was going to fit into a continuously changing puzzle. I’m the type of person who thrives in environments with structure, so needless to say, this ongoing process was very challenging for me, and at times, it left me frustrated or even angry. Now with that out of the way, I still felt that we had pretty good chemistry for a team with a losing record, and that we could still compete with any given team on any given night.

(Photo Source: Saigon Heat / Facebook)

Aside from our personnel troubles, the Corona virus was starting to take a grip on Asia. We were actually on a two-game road trip in China when concerns about the virus spreading really started to take off.

At first, we really didn’t notice much of a difference on a day-to-day basis. It just seemed like there were more people wearing facemasks and carrying hand sanitizer. Airport security did get a bit tighter and became more stringent, with less people travelling, but everyone on the team were enjoying the half-empty planes with full rows of seats all to themselves.

Somewhere in the back of my mind, I thought this whole situation would eventually blow over just as quick as it arose, however, when the China-based teams were unable to travel anymore, games started to be postponed. Initially, as a team, we thought this break could serve as a perfect opportunity for us to regroup and get in much needed practice time.

I thought we finally had strung together a roster that was ready for a run in the second half of the season.

“For the games we did play, I wish we could’ve performed better for everyone that supported the Saigon Heat”

To its credit, the ABL kept trying to find ways to finish out the season, so we kept practicing in hopes of having the chance to turn our season around, but like the rest of the world, everything came to an abrupt stop. It was just no longer safe to continue playing, and so to this day, we will never know how far we could’ve gone with our puzzle.

For the games we did play, I wish we could’ve performed better for everyone that supported the Saigon Heat. Having said that, the times we’re living in now and the issues we’re dealing with are bigger than basketball. I just hope everyone is healthy and being responsible, so that we can all enjoy hoops again sometime soon.

Until next time, stay safe out there.