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How ‘heritage players’ are helping Vietnam build a basketball culture

Why We Wrote This

Few things capture ‘history’ like the difference between one generation and the next. Years ago, these athletes’ parents fled Vietnam. But for their basketball-loving sons, it offers the chance to live out a dream. 

Isabelle Taft
Horace Nguyen and fellow Vietnamese-American player Chris Dierker guide young players through a dribbling drill at the Basketball Development Centre in Da Nang, Vietnam.

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Basketball fans love Horace Nguyen, who plays for the Da Nang Dragons. But then again, they might cheer for his opponents, too. Big-business basketball is new to Vietnam, and many fans’ preferences haven’t solidified into fierce rivalries. “Even if you’re at a home game and the other team scores they’ll cheer,” Horace says. “You can see the love and joy while they’re watching. It’s super-intense, it’s nerve-wracking.” So-called heritage players like Horace are key to the quest to expand professional basketball in Vietnam, which is next door to the National Basketball Association’s second-biggest market, China. Horace’s father fled Vietnam after the war, as did many of his teammates’ families. But to their basketball-loving sons and grandsons who grew up abroad, and have now gone pro in Vietnam, the country meant opportunity, more than bittersweet memories. Even their basketball league’s existence underscores Vietnam’s dramatic changes over a single generation, from war-torn and isolated to booming and internationalized. “When I’m putting on my jersey and playing for my team, it’s also playing for the city and my family,” Horace says.

One day in 1980, a teenager named Nelson Nguyen left home in Da Nang, Vietnam.

He got onto a barge with hundreds of others fleeing their war-torn country, and disembarked at a Hong Kong refugee camp after three days at sea. It took two more months before he could send his parents a telegram to tell them he was alive. From Hong Kong he went to Washington, D.C., and then to southern California, where he raised a son who loved basketball.

Horace Nguyen grew up watching Kobe Bryant lead the Los Angeles Lakers to five championships. Nelson set up a hoop at home and cheered as his son played for the local rec league and travel teams, then his high school and university. As graduation approached in the spring of 2016, Horace doubted he would make a professional team – but he didn’t want to give up on his dream.

Then he heard that the Vietnam Basketball Association, the country’s first major pro league, was holding tryouts in Los Angeles ahead of its inaugural season. A few months later, Horace was flying to join the Da Nang Dragons, in a coastal city not wholly unlike L.A.: miles of palm tree-lined beaches, bright tropical sunshine, and an increasing number of sleek high-rises.

“When I came over to join the VBA, on both my mom and dad’s side [of the family] it was their first time watching basketball,” Horace said. “And now they’re in love.”

Basketball is becoming big business in Vietnam – and an experiment in building a sports culture essentially from scratch. Key to its sales pitch are so-called heritage players like Horace: a dozen VBA athletes who grew up outside Vietnam, mostly in the United States, and have at least one Vietnamese parent or grandparent. Many are children of refugees. Today, they’re often star players in a league whose existence underscores Vietnam’s transformation in a single generation, from war-torn and isolated to booming and internationalized.

Horace, who at 5'10" led the VBA in three-point field goals in 2016 and 2017, has become a familiar face of the Da Nang Dragons. (For part of the year, he plays for the Saigon Heat in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Basketball League, as well.) A fluent Vietnamese speaker, he helps local players connect with American teammates and coaches, and spends spare time with his grandparents and aunts. In Facebook posts, he writes that he’s playing “for the hometown.”

“When I’m putting on my jersey and playing for my team, it’s also playing for the city and my family,” he says.

Playing to prove

“Let’s go Warriors, let’s go!” chants a crowd wearing the Thang Long Warriors’ signature red. The Dragons have flown to Hanoi to play the Warriors, the capital city’s second team, and the gymnasium is packed. Dancers perform between quarters, and fans grasp for t-shirts hurled into the stands. When the game ends with a victory for the Warriors, 93-79, balloons rain down to the tune of DJ Khaled’s “All I Do is Win,” and fans flood the court for pictures and autographs.

All of this – a sports event as flashy entertainment from beginning to end – arrived in Vietnam with the Saigon Heat in 2011. Previous national basketball tournaments drew few spectators, and Vietnam’s soccer crowds, while often huge and energetic, are generally focused on the field.

A sports-entertainment company, the XLE Group, established the team to compete in the ASEAN Basketball League, founded in 2009, and to help lay the groundwork for the VBA. XLE Group founder Connor Nguyen, who was born in Vietnam and grew up in Kansas, says the company viewed fast-developing Vietnam as increasingly likely to embrace new entertainment trends. 

Isabelle Taft
Players in the Da Nang Dragons, a Vietnamese professional basketball team, practice shooting at the end of a workout.

“We had to attract a lot of people to come to the game and learn basketball along the way,” says Connor. Rather than recruit talent with no ties to Vietnam, they searched for heritage players, hoping potential fans would identify with them.  

Da Nang Dragons assistant coach and interpreter Nguyen Khoa Cap, who grew up playing basketball in the Mekong Delta, the rice bowl of Vietnam, says many people think of the game as a “royal sport” that requires expensive equipment to succeed. Some assume Vietnamese players were too short to be good. But the heritage players’ dynamic playing style proves that isn’t true, says Mr. Cap, who, like many Vietnamese, prefers to be referred to by his given name.

In Hanoi, as the Dragons vs. Warriors game begins, Nguyen Anh Quan’s 9-year-old son is among the young players escorting the pros onto the court. When Mr. Quan was growing up, basketball wasn’t popular, he says, but now kids learn it at school – and he and many other parents encourage them to practice, hoping it will help their children get taller.

Rules of the road

Heritage players feel cultural differences on the court and off. Because fans’ preferences haven’t yet solidified into rivalries, for example, they tend to cheer for both teams, creating what Horace calls the best atmosphere he’s ever played in.

“The fans will literally cheer about everything. Even if you’re at a home game and the other team scores they’ll cheer, or like on a dead ball where the ref called a foul already and the guy scores,” Horace says. “You can see the love and joy while they’re watching. It’s super intense, it’s nerve-wracking.”

Traffic and road rules were a shock to many foreign players: to the uninitiated, crossing the street safely amid Vietnam’s swarms of motorbikes can appear as miraculous as parting the Red Sea – and Dragons player Chris Dierker, a Michigander whose mother was born in Da Nang, crashed the first time he tried to drive one. The VBA plays other cultural differences for light-hearted laughs, inviting foreign players to eat traditional foods in a series of YouTube videos called Just Try It. They enjoy noodle dishes and sticky rice with banana, but pinch their noses as they sniff durian, reputed to be the world's smelliest fruit, and leap from their chairs when presented with a bowl of wriggling coconut larvae.

In many ways, however, life in Vietnam is similar to life in the US. When Horace was a kid, he spent family trips to Vietnam mourning the absence of McDonald’s. But the Golden Arches opened in Ho Chi Minh City in 2014. Zach Allmon, a so-called import player for the Dragons (each team is allowed one athlete with no Vietnamese heritage), says he gets questions from home about culture shock. His response? “Man, I’m sitting in Starbucks, listening to Taylor Swift on the radio, a Range Rover is driving by. I’m in southern California.”

For some parents of heritage players, however, painful family memories shadowed their sons’ decisions to come here.

Warriors guard Ryan Le’s parents were among the roughly 2 million refugees who left in the two decades after the fall of Saigon (today, Ho Chi Minh City). They spent several years in a refugee camp in Thailand, where they met, before getting paired with a Canadian sponsor. Before Mr. Le moved to Ho Chi Minh City, he’d never been to their home country. His parents weren’t happy with the idea, but to their son, Vietnam meant opportunity, not turmoil.

“I wasn’t thinking about their history at all,” he says. “I was more focused on trying to become a professional athlete.”

When Horace told his parents he wanted to try out for the VBA, they asked if he was sure. The war, he says, “was a scar to them.” Now, though, they’re glad.

“They always joke around, especially my dad,” Horace says. “‘I fled the country for the betterment of my life and my kids’ lives and now you want to go back to Vietnam to play basketball.’ ”

Inspiring the next

On a summer Saturday, Horace is at Da Nang’s Basketball Development Center, teaching 40 kids to dribble around cones he’s set up on the floor. Though the Center is independent of the VBA, the Dragons frequently help out – one of many ways the league is turning its popularity into more players.

The XLE Group aims to introduce basketball programming to 25,000 Vietnamese schools through a partnership with the National Basketball Association, says Connor. The NBA’s second-biggest market is next door, in China, and it aims to replicate that success in Southeast Asia. Jim Wong, who oversees youth programming in Asia, says the NBA hopes to reach up to 10 million Vietnamese kids in the next decade. But since the American league is still relatively little-watched here, Nguyen and Wong agree role models will most likely come from the VBA.

After the kids’ clinic, it’s time for team practice in an unairconditioned military gym a few kilometers away. “Be healthy to build and defend the fatherland,” a banner exhorts – referencing the call by Ho Chi Minh, founding father of Vietnam’s ruling Communist Party.

As the Dragons work out, three teenagers wander in through an open door. They play for their school’s basketball team, visit every new court in Da Nang, and come to the gym almost every day to watch the Dragons practice. Pham Quoc Thai, 15, wears an orange Da Nang Dragons backpack and stands with his hands on his hips as he surveys the court.

“They are professionals,” Thai says. “It’s like we’re watching the NBA.” He praises Horace’s three-pointers and team leadership before heading outside. The soccer stadium next door is full of people cheering for a match, but Thai and his friends head for the basketball court.

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