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Saigon Heat Overcome Early Butterflies, Outduel Knights in Season Debut

A tight game knotted 80-80, seemingly headed for overtime. The Saigon crowd is biting their nails as their two top scorers have just fouled out. And Vietnamese-American star Justin Young launches a final shot with the clock winding down.

Swish. The crowd roars, the clock runs out with the scoreboard reading 82-80. Basketball has returned to Saigon.

“I was telling myself if I got the open lane [to take the shot],” Young told Saigoneer with a throng of well-wishers surrounding him after the final buzzer. “In the first half we played sluggish, [but] after halftime we responded well.”

The lead-in for this story had no shortage of options. The seventh Saigon Heat season comes with plenty of intrigues thanks to a completely different lineup from the previous campaign wherein, outside of the coaching staff, everybody’s new. In response to the revamped ASEAN Basketball League (ABL) rules governing foreign and “local” players, notably, the Heat squad has no shortage of Vietnamese names, although many come with American passports.

Even the visiting CLS Knights from Indonesia figured in the storyline, with former Heat star Maxie Esho returning in an opposing uniform and dropping 29 points on his former team seemingly at will. But at the end of the day, fans were able to leave CIS Stadium in District 7 with big grins on their faces after a lackluster first half of play and some head-scratching over all the new faces.

New places for new faces

Fan confusion aside, this is what bench boss Kyle Julius envisioned when he signed a new deal with the team this past summer, stating as much on the sidelines of a team press conference earlier this month. Unable to come to terms with notable names like Vietnamese-American David Arnold and Vietnamese-Swedish marksman Stefan Nguyen, Julius combed the domestic Vietnam Basketball Association (VBA) for talent, plucking veterans Young, Sang Dinh, Khoa Tran and others to assemble his new roster.

Past incarnations of the club have generated mixed results. Fans from the early days will remember victories being few and far between, the Heat’s rustic old digs out in Tan Binh District, and foreigners occupying the floor until they fouled out as domestic players languished on the bench. Recently, four straight playoff appearances have kept the fans returning, although disquiet with every early postseason exit grows as expectations increase year to year.

Julius steered the club to a franchise-high 10 wins and the first non-losing regular season in club history. The intense Canadian recruited countryman Murphy Burnatowski during the offseason from Europe, as well as Americans Trevon Hughes and Kyle Barone. Hughes overcame a slow start in the season opener and caught fire as the Heat rallied in the fourth quarter after trailing throughout the game. That said, longtime fans probably had déjà vu all over again, with Burnatowski and Hughes relegated to the bench in crunch time, taking their combined 47 points with them. Ghosts of Heat teams past would often fade when their foreign stars left the floor as the local ballers were pressed into action out of necessity, coming cold off the bench and often going down in defeat.

Bigger and badder

This year’s edition looks different. Seeing the players march in during that fateful press conference two weeks back, this year’s group is much bigger than any previous incarnation of the Heat.

“By luck of the draw, we have some really good and impactful Vietnamese-Americans,” Julius said. “We’ve got a group of guys that are good and going to be good long-term. We’re really happy with where we’re at.”

Julius’ imprint is notable; every other season saw at least some representation from the previous year’s roster. A bow-to-stern clearing of the deck is uncommon in a league where players on ABL rosters often see time on the national team as well, such as Thailand’s Mono Vampires or the Westports Malaysia Dragons. The interplay between national teams, domestic leagues and the ABL make for a complicated web in terms of player movement. Let’s not even mention countries with more established domestic leagues, like in China or the Philippines, with which the ABL has to compete to get the top local talent.

All to say, it’s still early steps. For the last couple of seasons, Vietnamese fans could expect to see Thai- American Moses Morgan or Vietnamese-American Horace Nguyen out patrolling the floor. But winning makes people into believers pretty quickly. And the enthusiastic response after the victory wasn’t lost on some of the new arrivals.

“I really think [the first half] was just jitters,” Burnatowski said on the court after the last-gasp win. “The second half we got more organized.

“It was pretty wild. We can’t be mad when we won the game.”

If Sunday was any indication, fans had better buckle up for this upcoming season of hoops in Ho Chi Minh City.


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