Growing hoops in Southeast Asia
by rick olivares
As much as I love covering the national team, this particular Seaba competition, I am following with keen interest the foreign squads. Look, they can sell it how they want it but this was a wash even before tip-off. No one is beating the Philippines. It’s a bit overkill fielding Andray Blatche but I get it.
Time was in Asian basketball, it was only South Korea, Japan, and China who were our biggest headaches. Now, you can throw in the West Asian or Middle Eastern sides – Jordan, Lebanon, Iran, and Qatar to name a few. Am not surprised about that given basketball is massively popular over there. In fact, even in countries like Syria, basketball is big.
In Southeast Asia, like in most parts of the world, football is king. The only place where it isn’t tops is in the Philippines. Conversely, the ascent of Philippine football has been a fascinating story given the blowouts of yesteryear to the huge competitive inroads made in the last seven-plus years.
Our Southeast Asian neighbors are on the same foot now when it comes to basketball.
Talking to many of the coaches the day before the Seaba tip-off, they spoke of the many challenges presented to them. What challenges are these?
For some countries like Singapore and Vietnam, they are missing players because they are currently serving in their nation’s military. In some parts of the world, it is compulsory. During the 2013 FIBA Asia Championships in Manila, I wrote about a Hong Kong side that featured all business professionals – firemen, university professors, businessmen, and students all playing for their national team!
It is only recently where some countries have put up their full-fledged professional league. Vietnam just concluded their first pro season!
“In Thailand, football is number one,” said national coach Tim Lewis (who hails from England). “Volleyball is hugely popular as their number two sport. And well, basketball… I am not sure if we are even number three. But it’s getting there. The growth is there.”
Other challenges include the stringer laws that allow for only two players of mixed heritage to suit up. All the foreign consultants working with these various pro leagues have bat for the inclusion of more players of mixed heritage. Said Tim Lewis of Thailand, “Having Thais kids who grew and playing the game in the United States competing in Thailand will improve the quality of play.”
Vietnam coach Donte Hill concurred, “While there is growth in Vietnam, there is still a lack of skilled players. You want to bring in others who will inspire the locals.”
In fact, Vietnam’s most popular and famous player is center Nguyen Van Hung… who made a name for himself in another sport! Taekwondo! He has won a cart-load of gold and silver medals from the SEA Games, Asian Games, and other tournaments. Plus, he’s a two-time Olympian. “I love basketball,” explained Van Hung of his love for the game in spite of finding success elsewhere. “And I am a big Michael Jordan fan.”
According to assistant coach Phan Van Ganh, “We are also hoping that Van Hung inspires other Vietnamese to play the game.”
We spoke with current Phoenix Fuel Masters head coach Ariel Vanguardia who spent six years coaching in Malaysia with the Westports Dragons who competed domestically and internationally in the Asean Basketball League.
“There is new interest and awareness of the game in their respective countries,” observed Vanguardia. “Many now have professional leagues and that is a sure sign of growth, interest, and participation. In my opinion, it will take at least 10 years before they can mount a serious challenge to the Philippines. The game is steadily improving. We’re so far apart that compared to our pros malayo talaga sila. Since they have their own professional leagues, it’s getting better. In Thailand, they have mixed-Thais now playing. In Malaysia, they have a long-term plan. Indonesia have taken steps with their program and also have a naturalized player. Singapore was hoping that Slingers center Kyle Jeffers could be naturalized but it didn’t happen. That kind of upset their plans. Lalo na apekto yung team kasi may military service sila so minsan kulang.”
“However, as a coach, it makes me happy to see that these countries are moving in the right direction. It’s getting there lalo na sa ABL. Lahat ng bansa sa region nag improve
Dati walang NBA sa Malaysia. Sa cable meron na. Dati once a week ngayon five times a week.”
Of the current Malaysia side competing in the Seaba Men’s Championships, Vanguardia coached three players with the Dragons – shooting guard Alvin Ang and power forwards Chin Zhi Shin and Chan Kek Thai.
“It’s good seeing them,” said Vanguardia who sat behind Malaysia’s bench during their match against Indonesia during the second day of the tourney. “Of course, I am proud that they are in the national team. I hope they win… wag lang against us.”