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In Saigon, a Movie Studio Becomes the New Home for Vietnam's Basketball 'Bubble'

A tight game heading towards halftime in Ho Chi Minh City. The crowd bashing thundersticks to egg on the competitors. And then a chant breaks out: “Let’s go Hanoi.”

Huh? Hanoi? This is Saigon, dude. Especially considering the Hanoi Buffaloes were battling…the Da Nang Dragons?

Welcome to the new normal, with the Vietnam Basketball Association (VBA) staging games out of a converted soundstage in District 12. All the usual trappings are there, including merch tables and snacks on the way in, but the format, with all seven VBA teams playing out of one venue means that each team has “home games” depending on the day.

A limited number of fans are allowed into games in the "bubble."

The game we attended in mid-November was an afternoon match-up, which Hanoi happened to be “hosting.” This meant chants for Hanoi, the presence of their buffalo mascot, and halftime entertainment featuring their cheerleading team. All games have been streamed online throughout the condensed season.

“We’re playing three months later [than our normal start],” said VBA board member Connor Nguyen of the league’s fifth season. “We put it into a movie studio to improve the broadcasting.”

Obviously, with capacity set at a few hundred people, manufacturing an authentic in-game experience requires unusual measures like pumping in crowd noise. But Nguyen says the feedback on how the games look and sound when streamed online has been overwhelmingly positive.

A Da Nang player dunks the ball.

“The games look great,” he said. “There’s a game every day, and each team gets two or three games a week…[because] they’re not having to travel.”

The level of play isn’t bad either, with both the Dragons and Buffaloes in the hunt for a playoff spot. This game was more of a defensive struggle in the first half, with Da Nang clinging to a 36-34 lead at halftime. And despite it being a Hanoi “home game,” the crowd seemed to be supporting the Dragons loudly and proudly.

“I think the VBA did a great job making it as realistic as possible,” said American Darrell Miller, seated courtside after a knee injury sidelined him while playing for Da Nang earlier in the tournament. “It’s a short season, so you’ve got less time to get things going.”

Home Games-On the Road

For the players coming in from other cities, Miller said the adjustment was mostly the day-to-day living arrangements, with each team sorting its own accommodations, ranging from hotels to university dorms. With the VBA arena hidden away in District 12 in the city’s north end (finding the place was a bit tricky), the only travel teams need to undertake is still within the city limits.

“Usually you live in your apartment, but now you are in a hotel for the whole season,” Miller said.

Game action.

The Saigon Heat has teams in both the VBA and the ASEAN Basketball League (ABL), which had already gotten underway when the COVID-19 pandemic forced games to be postponed, and then eventually cancelled altogether. Vietnam’s response to the pandemic has been praised globally, which has given the Heat some interesting opportunities regarding its clout within the region.

There’s No Place Like Saigon

The ABL is now looking at making Saigon the home base for a tournament similar to the VBA’s with a March start date, giving the teams traveling from throughout the region time to quarantine and be able to play a full slate of games, which would be streamed online. That tournament could also include some VBA teams, who wouldn’t have to deal with the same travel restrictions, to provide enough competition.

Ensuing tournaments are expected to be held throughout 2021, with Singapore and other markets getting the opportunity to host each bracket. With worldwide restrictions on travel still up in the air, leagues are looking to be proactive to produce content, even if it’s outside their conventional methods. The pandemic has managed to dictate the terms of delivering professional sports, though at least it hasn’t managed to stop them from being staged.

Da Nang's mascot on the court during a game break.

“If we’re still facing two-week quarantines, [a normal ABL season] wouldn’t work,” Nguyen admitted, as the league is set up in markets in multiple countries.

As for the Dragons and Buffaloes, Da Nang’s Tyrell Williams and Richard Nguyen were too potent for Hanoi to contain, with Williams dropping 33 points and snatching an astounding 25 rebounds in a 79-72 victory. Nguyen had 27 points, while Mike Bell contributed 24 points for Hanoi in a losing effort.

Like a regular VBA game, fans then descended on the floor to pose for photos with players, mascots and cheerleaders. The Saigon Heat were in a nearby locker room getting ready for a match-up with the expansion Nha Trang Dolphins, who have yet to play a single game in their home city.

Cheerleading teams are present even in the bubble.

While that may seem unusual, nothing about this year has been ordinary, and pro basketball is no exception. Michael Jordan once said, “I'd like to be settled into somewhat of a normal life. Somewhat. I know it's never going to be completely normal.”

I wonder if MJ had 2020 on his mind when he said it.

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