March Madness, Saigon style

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The infectious play of the Saigon Heat has given Ho Chi Minh City basketball fever

Saigon Heat captain John Smith pressuring the Indonesia Warriors' Mario Wuysang at Tan Binh Sports Stadium on March 17. Photo: Nikki Bisenieks

"This stands for victory, peace and Vietnam," says head coach Jason Rabedeaux every time the Saigon Heat win, flashing the two-finger salute. Since taking over head coaching duties for Vietnam's first professional basketball team, the previously 0-7 Heat have taken four of six from their rivals in the ASEAN Basketball Association (ABL).

The turnaround has been something to behold, as the team has transformed to mirror the spirited intensity of their coach. They weren't that bad to begin with, but now, win or lose, the team's play justifies the overwhelming support and loyalty their fans bestowed upon them from the outset their inaugural season.

With every game a near sellout, even before the losing streak ended, the energy at Tan Binh Stadium has been absolutely electric"”to the point that if you didn't know better, you'd think the screaming Heat fans were paid actors, highly-skilled and seasoned artists trained to chant "˜D-FENCE' like their lives depend on it every single time the opposing team gains possession of the basketball. They bring wild homemade signs, spell out Saigon Heat on their chests and have an uncanny knack for sensing when their team needs them most, often cheering raucously after the Heat's opponent has just scored several straight unanswered baskets.

Team owner Connor Nguyen presides over a show complete with all the bells and whistles: professional cheerleaders (The Saigon Hot Girls); a zealously partisan emcee of sorts (an amazing character who goes by "˜Rap Soul'); and troupes slinging t-shirts into the crowd and reigning over other forms of basketball related silliness.

It's as if basketball has been Vietnam's most popular sport for decades.

"My parents had never seen a basketball game in their lives, but now they know the difference between personal and team fouls," said Huy Ngo, the Heat's PR director, who knew nothing about basketball himself as recently as last October, but who now sounds like a Vietnamese Dick Vitale.

The sport's kinetic characteristics fit present day Vietnam perfectly. The great John Wooden used to implore his players, "Be quick, but don't hurry." I can't think of a better description of how HCMC residents go about their daily lives"”frenetic, but not frantic. And though only one of the Heat's Vietnamese players, Trieu Han Minh, plays significant minutes, the Saigon fans are right to embrace the team as their own. The ABL is dominated by "American Imports," as they're known within the league's vernacular and the Heat are no different than their rivals based out of Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore and the Philippines. But a basketball team is only as good as its reserves, upon which the starting lineup depends to provide a challenge during practice, the only ground where improvement grows.

The basketball gods smile down upon hustle and unselfishness. And in this way Minh, though he hasn't scored that many points thus far, is as emblematic of the Heat's recent success as anyone. A "Vietnamese basketball legend," Minh sacrificed his athlete's ego in joining the Heat, becoming a bench player for the first time in his career. Expect him to have a breakout game before season's end.

The first time I saw the Heat play was the last game in their season-opening slide and though the visiting Bangkok Cobras physically overmatched them, you could see being undersized and undermanned weren't the only reasons the Heat had been losing. "They need more Cu Chi Tunnels!" exclaimed Warren, an expat from Los Angeles. Indeed, the Heat weren't doing everything in their power to win and failed to match the oomph the crowd did its best to provide under the circumstances, which saw nary a Heat player dive onto the hardwood for a single loose ball.

One week later, the team's personality had undergone a complete makeover. All the intangibles were there, the Heat's defensive intensity alone indicating the team was ready to hustle its way out of the hole. It was immediately evident that Rabedeaux"”an American basketball lifer with a Marine hairdo, pouring sweat as he stomped his big frame up and down the sidelines hollering instructions and encouragement constantly"”had helped the Heat find its Cu Chi spirit.

When the Heat's February 26 home encounter with the Slammers from Thailand was said and done, so was the team's losing streak, but all anyone could talk about was the crowd. "All we've done is lose, and every game more people show up. Our fans are incredible," said starting center Jonathan Jones.

The next time out the team won its first road game, highlighted by the spectacular debut of the Heat's latest American import, Jahmar Thorpe.

The team's American players have all endeared themselves to the Vietnamese fans with their skills, but none more so than team captain John Smith. Unlike Jones, who is 6'9 with long range shooting ability, or Thorpe, who can slash his way to the rim for earthshaking dunks, Smith is a pure scrapper. The starting point guard's game is predicated on brains and heart. He's not afraid to put his skinny body in harm's way, to take a charge or dive for a loose ball. His smothering of opposing guards spearheads the Heat's defense, which has become the team's hallmark. Lately, Smith has taken to wearing a Vietnamese flag t-shirt during warm-ups, which he ceremoniously tosses into the crowd just before tipoff. When I asked him how he felt about playing professional basketball in Vietnam, he took a deep breath and exhaled. "Blessed," he said, smiling broadly.

"I love it here," added the new resident of District 11.

Filipino imports Noy Javier and Robert Saenz join Jones, Smith and Thorpe in the starting lineup. Javier is a knockdown shooter with one of the prettiest three-point strokes in the ABL; Saenz is a hardnosed forward with a knack for grabbing crucial offensive rebounds. The Vietnamese players, especially Minh, Nguyen Tien Duong, Nguyen Sanh Tan and Pham Thanh Tung, no longer look just happy to be there, but ready to start making bigger contributions to the stat sheet.

The coaching staff is rounded out by assistants Rob Newson, a British basketball guru who has learned Vietnamese and Truong Tuyet, who represented Vietnam, playing on the National Women's basketball team. Women coaching men is rare in all sports and Tuyet's presence on the bench is refreshing.

So while in America, basketball fans consume themselves with the NCAA Tournament and look forward to the NBA playoffs and a chance to boo Lebron James and the Miami Heat, grizzled basketball junkies and newly-formed addicts posted up in Vietnam are rediscovering or experiencing for the first time, the essence of the game.

In their most recent game, the Heat snuck past the San Miguel Beermen 66-63 in Manila. Minh connected on a tough driving layup and hit a three and the team played great down the stretch, Coach Rab skillfully keeping his sparse lineup rested by utilizing a zone defense. But after the game, all he could talk about was getting back to Vietnam.

"We have the best fans in the world," he told the reporter from ESPN Star Sports.

And if there's anyone qualified to make such a statement, it's Coach Rab. After replacing the legendary Don Haskins at the University of Texas El Paso in 1999, Rab coached basketball in China, Japan and Bahrain before deciding to take his talents (as Lebron would say) to Vietnam.

The Heat are still in last place and need to win at least six of their remaining eight games to have any chance of making the ABL playoffs. I wouldn't count them out. And if they keep their coach and core players in place, look for the Heat to rise to the top of the ABL next season.

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