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As Epidemic Subsides in Vietnam, Return of VBA Not an ‘If,’ but a 'When’

Rebooting professional basketball during a global pandemic is no slam dunk.

The Vietnam Basketball Association (VBA), which has seven teams scattered throughout the country, was, until this past weekend, on the verge of returning for a fifth season. Their soccer counterparts in the V-League are already back on the pitch, mirroring major leagues like the English Premier League, Bundesliga and others around the world. How and when the VBA makes its return are issues organizers are grappling with in order to salvage the 2020 season.

Unfortunately, that start date has been pushed back to the end of the year, though even that isn't a certainty.

“The time to organize is one of the issues that we have considered a lot. It can be seen that the 2020 season would start a bit later than previous seasons, but we are trying our best so that the VBA 2020 will be brought to the fans as soon as possible," said Tran Chu Sa, Chief Operating Officer (COO) of the VBA, adding that the league is currently discussing a variety of options for the return of hoops. “The medical work is strictly focused to ensure the safety of the whole league as well as the fans.”

The COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted life around the world, and sporting events are no exception. Tran acknowledged that financial difficulties are also a problem for the VBA, and they have had to cut a number of related events to minimize costs. Bringing in foreign players with travel restrictions in place is also problematic. 

“From the experiences of previous seasons, the VBA, as well as the teams, have focused on health issues in all matches,” Tran said. “Currently, all players competing in the 2020 season own personal health insurance provided by VBA. And we are sure that when we bring players from abroad to Vietnam, we will strictly implement the 14-day quarantine requirement of the government. In every match, we will apply measures recommended by the Ministry of Health like sanitizing the competition area, arranging antibacterial hand sanitizers and encouraging audiences to use masks.”

Even dreaming of having fans present at games is a testament to the proactive approach Vietnam took at the outset of the pandemic’s spread, while other countries have pushed back seasons for their professional leagues or are playing in empty venues. In the US, the National Basketball Association (NBA) is eyeing a summer return, with teams playing their games out of a hub in Florida. 

As for the actual product on the court, Tran pointed to the arrival of the expansion Nha Trang Dolphins as a new feature of the season, as well as increased showcasing of locally cultivated Vietnamese talent. 

“Our vision, ambitiously, is to be the most-loved sports league in Vietnam,” Tran said. “[We are] creating a strong system that supports the young players with potential to develop and attract the quality heritage players to come back [to the land of their ancestry] to play for the best-ever national team.”

All that being said, players and coaches have also had to get creative while preparing for a season with no set start date and hampered by limited opportunities to practice in adequate facilities. Vietnam’s reopening of gyms and schools while other countries continue to be ravaged by COVID-19 still meant an interruption for all forms of off-season preparation, with players like Tim Waale of the Saigon Heat conceding that getting acquainted with new teammates is a factor of pro sports in any country. 

“To build team chemistry, it takes time, but we have a great group of guys and have developed good chemistry thus far,” Waale said. “We not only practice together, but we hang out off the court as well. We’ve had the chance to play together in some recent friendly matches with positive results. I am confident with this team and excited for what’s ahead."

He continued: “When there is a long layoff in sports, it can often take time for teams to re-establish their rhythm. We try to neutralize this by creating game-like situations in our training and playing as many friendly matches as we can.”

Heat head coach Kevin Yurkus echoed these sentiments, with the obvious implication that the situation the world is immersed in at the moment goes beyond any adversity faced during a basketball game. He chose to focus on the positive aspects of the time away from the court.

“Certainly COVID-19 has impacted all of us, not only in Vietnam, but around the world,” he said. “As a team that essentially competes year-round (in the ASEAN Basketball League and VBA), this period has provided a true off-season for our team. We’ve made the adjustment to focus more on player-skill development and strength training.”

As Vietnam emerges from the disruptions brought on by COVID-19, fans are clamoring to return to some degree of normalcy. The eventual return of professional basketball may seem inconsequential to some, but it reflects the rewards brought about from the strict containment measures that Vietnam implemented early on.