2016 was a big year for hoops fans in Vietnam with the first season of its professional basketball league, the VBA (Vietnam Basketball Association) being held. Fans and non-fans alike witnessed a competitive tournament, which gathered the best ballers from within the nation, as well as talented overseas Vietnamese-origin and foreign athletes.
The season ended with the underdog Danang Dragons’ thrilling championship victory over the mighty Saigon Heat and Ho Chi Minh City Wings. For the majority of teams in the league, along with their fans, the excitement that was established from the inaugural season would now be coming to a halt, as the ensuing inaugural offseason approached.
However, it was not the end for the Saigon Heat as they would have an opportunity to extinguish the sour taste of defeat, attempting to fry bigger fish in the ABL (ASEAN Basketball League). To the delight of many fans… and even writers alike, the Heat would not be the lone team to showcase basketball from Vietnam following the VBA season.
A new powerhouse heralding from the North, the Hanoi Buffaloes, have leap-frogged their way into becoming Vietnam’s second team to participate in competition abroad with their inclusion into the TBSL (Thailand Basketball Super League).
Though the two teams are separated by thousands of kilometers and reside in different regions within Vietnam, distance and locale aren’t the only things that set these two teams apart.
What do you call a team that has lost seven games in a row, but is still being fully supported as indicative by their sold-out home crowd? The Saigon Heat.
Let’s go back in time a little bit; back to 2012. The Heat were still struggling to get their first win after a bitterly disappointing seven-game losing streak in their first-ever ABL season. Their superstar and former NBA player, Julius Hodge had just been released from the team due to “difficulties fitting in because of the differences in the environment and the challenges that come with playing professional basketball in this region,” stated by Heat general manager, Connor Nguyen.
It seemed like everything was against the Heat at the time, except one thing: the fans. “Let’s go, Sai–gon let’s go!”, “De-fense, Sai–gon Heat!”. More than 2,500 Heat supporters at Tan Binh Stadium rooted for the home team to get their first win against the defending champions, the Chang Thailand Slammers.
It was a tough game for the Vietnamese representative. The Heat’s starting center, Jonathan Jones, and starting point guard, John Smith, did everything they could to score baskets. On the defensive end, local player, Nguyen Tien Duong, played his heart out while he was on the court, fighting for loose balls and making hustle plays to force turnovers against the opponent.
It was a clutch three-pointer in the fourth quarter from Filipino sharpshooter Noy Javier that helped the Heat defeat the Thai team, 60-55 for their first win of the season.
Flash-forward five years later and Heat fans at CIS Arena in Ho Chi Minh City played witness to another exceptional performance from a Filipino heritage import player, leading the home team to its first win of the season over Taiwanese team, the Kaohsiung Truth following four consecutive losses.
His name is Joshua Munzon. The 21-year-old rookie and future PBA (Philippine Basketball Association) prospect has proved his capability to play on both ends of the court, scoring a career-high of 34 points in that match while averaging 4.2 steals per game for the season.
Although I’d like to end on a high note because people like happy endings, there’s more to this tale than what was aforementioned. If we compare the Heat’s roster this season, to their first season five years ago, the team still faces a glaring issue: they have very little depth.
Along with Munzon, Heat starters like Sweden-born Vietnamese Nguyen Tuan Tu, Vietnamese-American, David “Viet” Arnold, as well as world imports, Lenny Daniel and Haminn Quaintance have to play heavy minutes every game. They are often being out-scored, blowing leads in the fourth quarter to their opponents due to exhaustion and fatigue at that point.
The Heat were unable to sign top-notch local players due to some terms and conditions not being met. Quality starting players can help the team win games, but they also need to bring in more depth to the roster by way of quality Vietnam-native players as well in order to win a championship.
For the remainder of the season, the return of 2X ABL World Import MVP Christien Charles and (possibly) the additional help of Horace Nguyen (Nguyen Tam Phuc), when he successfully naturalizes as a Vietnamese citizen, can turn the Heat back into a playoff team again.
While the Saigon Heat are struggling a bit at the beginning of the new ABL season, its brother-team from the North, the Hanoi Buffaloes, have shown no signs of fear in their first attempt at playing in an international tournament away from their rambunctious home crowd at Bach Khoa Arena, especially since the organization itself has been in existence for under a year.
The capital team is off to a great start in the Thailand Basketball Super League (TBSL), winning their last three games while suffering only one lost during the season opener against the Nakorn Phantom Madgoat.
World import, Lance Perique, is leading the team in scoring with 19 PPG, followed by former Gilas Pilipinas center, Marcus Douthit, with 15.5 PPG. The difference in approach here between the Heat and the Buffaloes is that the Buffaloes’ bench has helped them secure the top spot in their respective league. The bench players are contributing 13.8 PPG for the Hanoi team.
Though many can argue that the level of competition in the TBSL may not be as high as that in the ABL, there are other correlations to the team’s success as we take a closer look inside the Buffaloes’ squad.
The team is loaded with the best local players in the Northern region.
Nguyen Thanh Dat, famously known by his nickname “Dat Doc”, or one half of the “flash brothers”, is arguably one of the top three best three-point shooters in Vietnam right now. Don’t let his size fool you, he is a scoring machine on the basketball court. He has range, he has quickness, and he has a stone-cold assassin attitude that allows him to hit clutch shots whenever needed.
Another local player that stands out on the team is the youngster Dinh Tien Cong. If you watch how this player played in the VBA, it’s hard to believe he’s only 20 years of age. The former Air Force-Air Defense player was a scoring threat to any team, possessing the ability to either take outside shots or drive to the basket.
Last but not least, another huge local asset that also happens to be a former Air Force-Air Defense player is Nguyen Tien Duong. Remember the guy I mentioned earlier who played his heart out to defend the basket in the Heat -Thailand Slammers match five years ago?
Well, that was Duong, and that is his style of basketball: very physical and aggressive. He is not a one-trick pony though. Duong can also contribute on the offensive end as he was the best 3-point shooter on his former team, Air Force-Air Defense.
With such depth on their squad being made up of local Vietnamese players, the Buffaloes seem destined to be the team that puts Vietnam on the basketball map.