Long before Vietnam’s basketball community came to admire his play on the court as a member of the Saigon Heat in the ABL, and even long before being crowned the first VBA champions during the climax of the 2016 inaugural season, second-year Danang Dragons guard Horace Nguyen had already caught the eye of another Vietnamese fan, even if he isn’t completely aware of it.
And it didn’t require the more than 7500 miles of travel from California to Vietnam for it to happen either.
“I enjoyed competing against Horace Nguyen [the most]. We had a similar role this year for our respected teams and he actually lives 15 minutes away from me in California. He doesn’t know this, but I’ve always looked up to him because he was always one step ahead of me,” says Ho Chi Minh City Wings guard, Henry Nguyen.
When you think about it, you can almost see a resemblance between the two. Sure, Henry prefers to go with a fade over Horace’s more minimalistic number-two buzz cut, but this doesn’t have anything to do with how the two go about styling their hair, or in Horace’s case, lack of it.
“Coming out of high school, I wanted to play in college, but not many Asians, let alone, Vietnamese players were good enough to play, but Horace was one of the few, so I was chasing to get to where he was at, and I eventually got there. He was chosen to play in the first VBA season, so again, I was trying to get to where he was.”
Many of you may not know, but Henry Nguyen had also tried out prior to the start of the 2016 VBA season in hopes of achieving what he, and many others like him, believed to be just another tall-tale of playing basketball professionally. He credits an acquaintance of his on the first time he ever even heard anything about the VBA. A coach had told him Vietnam would be starting a domestic league.
“I didn’t want to live with any regret, so as soon as I had the chance to play basketball as a professional career, I knew I had to go for it.”
He asked Henry if he was interested.
But for a young Vietnamese-American that grew up watching NBA Western conference showdowns between the Suns’ Steve Nash and the Lakers’ Kobe Bryant, two players he claims are his all-time favorites, the idea of possibly becoming a pro himself took some time to sink in.
“Once I saw a Facebook post about the tryout, I knew I had to give it a shot.”
Things didn’t go exactly as planned during that first tryout in 2016. The last time Henry had played true organized basketball was when he was a member of the 2014-2015 Orange Coast College Pirates basketball program, a local community college just a short commute away from his native Garden Grove, California.
After finishing his bachelors at CSULB in Spring of 2017, a one-year-wiser Henry decided to give it another try. There was no greater opportunity to go pro after graduating. No better opportunity to once again, get to where Horace was at.
“I was still in love with the game and the opportunity presented itself at a perfect time in my life. I didn’t want to live with any regret, so as soon as I had the chance to play basketball as a professional career, I knew I had to go for it. Whether I did well or poor, this is something I wanted to tell my kids when I get old. That I never gave up. I chased my dream and took a risk to do what I love.”
The second-time proved to be a charm as his name was thrown into a pool of potential draftees for the VBA’s first heritage draft. Just like any player in his position, the 23-year old was ecstatic to hear of the news, but knew he should tone down any expectations, just to lessen the blow of any letdowns come draft day. Still, he knew he had gotten one step closer towards his chase.
The golden ticket that had eluded him in his first attempt.
So what exactly does one do on draft night? Well, in Henry’s case, a trip to the gym for a workout session was the perfect remedy to relieve the anxiety and nervousness flowing through him. Plus, it was a time-killer he could use as a scapegoat for missing out on the 2017 draft festivities taking place halfway around the world in Ho Chi Minh City that could have been easily accessed with just a few taps of his fingertips.
“By the time I was finished [working out], my phone was blowing up with congratulation texts from all of my friends. At that moment, I was proud and excited, but I came back to Earth pretty fast because I knew I still had plenty of work to do until I could become the player I want to be.”
For family and friends, the news that he had been drafted third overall had just about the same effect: shocked, happy, and excited. Even to his parents, whose reactions he finds funny, since they “never really paid attention” to his basketball career, but once he turned pro, their eyes couldn’t be pried off their son’s games over YouTube. Like any supportive parents, they were too busy cheering him on.
Across the Pacific, his arrival now gave a chance for the family he has in Vietnam to see him play in person. He says it was “awesome” to be able to play in front of them, along with having their support at most home games.
He considers those who may not be blood-related to be his greatest advocates though.
“My friends back home have been my biggest fans since day one. Since high school, college, and now, here, in Vietnam. They’ve seen me struggle and succeed. They have my back no matter what.”
The transition to life in a whole new country wasn’t seamless. He considers himself “too Americanized.” Outside of his family, the rookie didn’t know anybody and recalls not really having a set practice schedule made his first week the toughest. Although he is Vietnamese, there still existed a language barrier, especially when locals spoke quickly, giving him trouble with keeping up and understanding. His solution?
“I just stayed quiet.”
Feelings of being homesick crept up and caught him during that first week while he was adjusting from life in the United States. It wasn’t until roughly his second week in Vietnam where the anxiety finally started to waver. Two-a-days that City Wings head coach Ricky Magallanes installed for the team gave Henry the much needed relief of getting his mind off troubling things. To focus just on basketball and bond with his new teammates.
“I think sometimes it just takes someone to tell you that they believe in you to change your attitude and perception, so that really resonated with me.”
Coming into a new season, where every team has a clean slate at their disposal, the City Wings’ only heritage import player was highly optimistic at the direction his team would be headed. Why wouldn’t he be?
In a preseason matchup against Vietnam’s national team, a team ridden with the country’s best local players and headlined by some of the top Viet Kieu from the VBA, the City Wings nearly pulled out a win in a game that just about everyone thought would result in a landslide, favoring the red and yellow.
“With a combination of veterans, young players, and having played well together in the preseason, I expected our team to create some buzz and compete in the playoffs. Unfortunately, suspensions, injuries, and lack of experience hurt our team’s chances of winning and we were not able to accomplish our goals.”
By the stroke of the scheduling gods, the 2017 season-opener was a road game that pitted his team against the Danang Dragons. Henry’s first real crack at the VBA.
His first crack at Horace.
The outcome of the game ultimately went in the favor of the visitors, but for a rookie, it would serve as a reminder that playing as a professional, even if it was in Vietnam, would be no easy joyride like those 15-minute fifth grade recess cakewalks against the fourth-graders. As bad as his one-point-in-36-minutes performance was that day, and as bad as he may have felt, there was reassuring confidence from his coaches, Ricky and Hao.
Advice from day one that would help him along the up and down trials of a vigorous season.
“After that game, coach Ricky and Hao were really positive towards me. They just told me that they believed in me, and to just be myself and play my game. I think sometimes it just takes someone to tell you that they believe in you to change your attitude and perception, so that really resonated with me.”
It would set a precedent for the crucial relationship required between the City Wings’ strategic mastermind, Ricky Magallanes, and the player he selected with the third overall pick. A player who was chosen to captain troops clad in purple, white, and yellow, acting as an extension of the field officers who would send him and his squad onto glossy wooden battlegrounds that squeak with every sweat inducing advance.
“I think we have a good working relationship together. He gives his players and coaching staff a lot of empowerment, so whenever I see things, I am able to open up to him, and we are able to discuss it together whether I’m right or wrong. I learned from Coach Ricky that the mind fails before the body. There were some times during games when I let my frustrations get the best of me and in order to get past those hard times, I must get mentally stronger before I can physically help our team.”
Aside from having to provide a leading example for guidance seeking teammates as a first-year player, a role typically reserved for floor generals, the cool-calm-and-collected Henry doesn’t limit himself to the encompassing barriers of a prototypical point guard. Instead, he prides himself on versatility, even if it means putting himself into disadvantageous instances for the benefit of the team.
That’s just what a leader does.
Don’t label him as a guard. That’d be selling his overall skillset short. He’s willing to do anything for the spoils that come from winning, especially if the orders are coming from higher ranking officials sitting at the top of the pecking order.
“The part of my game I take most pride in is being a versatile basketball player. I don’t like it when people ask me if I’m a ‘point guard’ or ‘shooting guard’ because I believe it takes away from the skills I have at the other positions. I just play any role the coach wants me to as long as we win. Before the VBA draft, they labeled me at small forward because at the tryout, I showed ‘wing’ skills. So I take pride in being a versatile player. A player who is willing to play any role as long as we win.”
Winning is the main priority.
“The feeling [of winning] is addicting and indescribable. Everything feels better. Food tastes better. Taking pictures with fans is more fun.”
According to Henry, it’s what brings meaning to all of the exhaustive efforts before, during, and after games. It also creates for much more memorable times. He would do away with averaging 25 a game in losses if it meant averaging substantially less in victories.
What more motivation does an athlete who wishes to be synonymous with success need?
“If you win, everyone remembers you forever, and I want to be a guy people remember for years to come. I think what motivates me to succeed is just the desire to be the absolute best I can be, and to be the best, you have to win.”
Adjusting to the game in Vietnam wouldn’t be easy. Not only does the VBA offer a wide range of skilled and talented players, but the deficiency in over-powering athleticism and one-on-one play he was used to seeing in the United States was replaced with “more of an international style of basketball,” where instead, the locals rely on “a lot of passing and teamwork.”
In particular, there was one player that gave him the most trouble. He wasn’t a local or a world import, so I know what you’re probably thinking… but no, it wasn’t Horace.
“The most difficult cover for me would have to be Vincent Nguyen [of the Hanoi Buffaloes]. He’s a very polished point guard with a great pace to his game and he doesn’t turn the ball over much. His pace and ability to read [the defense] and make the right pass makes him very hard to guard, especially with all the screens and misdirection that the Buffaloes throw at you. Vincent would speed up, slow down, put you to sleep, pass the ball. Then he would get a flare screen that automatically goes straight into the pick-and-roll, and from there, he’s able to pick apart the defense. He’s the engine to their offense, so if you can slow him down, you slow down the Buffaloes offense and we went 0-3 against them this year, so I’m still trying to figure it out.”
You’d think the players would be the only thing Henry would have to worry about, but he also offers some insight that fans and spectators could probably relate better to.
“Most of the gyms don’t have AC like in the States, so during practices, it’s a bit harder to breathe until you get used to it, and after practice, it looks like you just jumped into a pool because of all the sweat.”
Through a season that was mostly marred by downs and unforeseen shortcomings, including suspensions to starting center Bilal Richardson and veteran vocal leader Trung Ngo Tuan, the five wins that the City Wings were able to attain over the season served as the most vivid memories.
“The feeling [of winning] is addicting and indescribable. Everything feels better. Food tastes better. Taking pictures with fans is more fun.”
“It just puts you in a great overall mood.”
He knows he has a lot of work cut out for him in the offseason and has already broken it down into four parts: health, strength, basketball skill, and mental toughness.
During the last month of the season, playing 40 minutes a night while travelling back and forth between games took a toll on his body. During those final three weeks, the heritage guard felt the physical effects in his legs which prohibited his ability to push off the floor the way he wanted. He plans to work extensively on building strength, flexibility, and endurance into his legs and hips once he fully respires.
PHOTO CREDIT: HO CHI MINH CITY WINGS / FACEBOOK
As for his skill and technical abilities on the floor, Henry hopes to become more deceptive with his game, noting that elevating his shiftiness in changing speeds will keep defenses off balance since he learned that teams pick up on tendencies at about the half-way mark of the season. The unpredictability will provide him with another hand to play in a marathon season. He also mentions working on the timing of his passes and stresses getting to the free-throw line after drawing contact.
“I didn’t take any free throws my last five games in the VBA so it still bothers me today.”
Lastly, developing a killer instinct is something he feels can change the outcomes of close games the next time around. There were games in 2017 that came down to the wire where the City Wings could have won had the team stepped up to close in the final minutes.
“Having a season where we didn’t make the playoffs is demoralizing, but our fans are great and have picked my teammates and myself up, giving us motivation to come back better next year.”
Throughout the 5-month long journey, Henry also reflects on what Vietnam has been able to give him for his services on the floor. He’s grown to be more independent and to be mindful of the things that only he can control.
To find solutions to problems.
“As many already know, the traffic in Saigon is terrible, so a car ride to practice in the morning takes about 45 minutes to an hour. I’ve learned to control my attitude when stuck in traffic. Same thing goes on the basketball court. I can’t control the referee’s whistle or decisions. All I can control is my attitude and my effort in helping my team win.”
In regards to the Vietnamese basketball community and the direction that it’s headed, he admits that basketball resources aren’t completely there yet, but it’s evident that the love for the sport is growing. Something he’s excited to be a part of.
With the diversity among the coaches, Viet Kieu players, and world imports, he acknowledges that the VBA is doing a great job in exposing their experiences and knowledge to a passionate, hardworking local community that will, in the long term, be beneficial in enhancing the future of Vietnamese basketball.
Initially, Henry thought he’d be “lonely.” That living in Vietnam would be tough since his Vietnamese is “still a work in progress.” His perception has since changed. Everyone that he’s encountered has been friendly and patient.
“No one really judges me here. They have been really helpful.”
There’s no better example of that than the fans.
“They’ve been amazing in their support, not only in the VBA teams, but also to myself. They accepted me from the first moment I arrived here and have been positive in their support, whether I was having a bad or good game. Having a season where we didn’t make the playoffs is demoralizing, but our fans are great and have picked my teammates and myself up, giving us motivation to come back better next year.”
His first excursion into Vietnam as a professional basketball player is drawing to a close and the trip back to the United States will alleviate the things he missed most while in the Southeast Asian country. Most notably, his parents, friends, girlfriend, and of course, the food, which in this case, is just about every California kid’s most cherished joint, In n Out.
However, this proverbial end is just the starting point for future goals.
When asked if he would be returning for another run at the VBA next season and future goals, the not-a-rookie-anymore Henry Nguyen replied vehemently.
“Yes, I will be back.”
“I want to come back next year in the best shape, and be more aggressive on both ends of the floor. I want to be recognized as one of the best heritage players, and to help my team make a run to the finals to win it all.”