Feeling the Heat in Saigon: A Heat Team 9877 Miles Away from Miami
Unlike their American incarnation, the Heat are coming off a poor season (8-13). They play in the ASEAN League, a confederation of six teams, in six different countries (one team per country) spread throughout Southeast Asia. The countries are Vietnam, Malaysia, Singapore, the Philippines, Thailand and Indonesia.
Each team is allowed two foreign players (or else it would be the NDBL East) and three players from the other parts of Southeast Asia, while the rest are locals. This gives it an almost World Cup feel where players are representing their country every game.
Today's game was a matchup of the Heat and the San Miguel Beermen of the Philippines.
The Tan Binh Stadium won't be confused with American Airlines Arena anytime soon.
At the entrance, fans are treated to a free sample of Sapporo beer.
I thought of donning the fake glasses/nose/mustache combo and returning for more free samples, but then I realized Sapporo beers cost only 25,000 Vietnamese Dong (don't snicker, that's what their money is called), the equivalent of $1.25 in America. It isn't the Cleveland Indians' famed "10-cent beer night" of 1974, but it isn't far from that.
Despite its employees' enthusiasm, the concessions stand is less than par, serving only chips and other dry goods. Fortunately for fans, you can bring in your own food.
The stadium has the look and feel of a small college arena. As a fan, I appreciate the windows allowing in natural sun light, but I wouldn't like to be shooting a corner three into the glare.
The prices aren't bad: Courtside seats are $25 (Jim Jones voice: "Baaaalllliinnn"), the lower levels are $7.50, and the bleachers are $2.50. You could have bought out the whole joint for the cost of two mid-level tickets to a Knicks game.
The quality of play was like the ticket prices: low. Watching what appeared to be a glorified intramurals game, it was impossible to not sit back and think, "Man, if I worked a little harder on my game in high school, I probably could have got a nice paid vacation (copywrite Aaron Ross) in Southeast Asia."
The fans didn't seem to notice the slew of missed jumpers and turnovers. They cheered hard and banged their thundersticks as the Heat would go on to score six first-quarter points.
American fast food is a bit of an obsession in Asia, but I was truly disheartened to see Subway's presence at the game. One of the most iconic food items in Vietnam is their banh mi, a sandwich that can be purchased on almost any street corner (including right outside the stadium).
A banh mi begins with a fresh loaf of french bread (a leftover relic from their colonization at the hands of the French). Mayonnaise and pate are then added along with your choice of meat. The meats range from roasted pork to banana leaf wrapped bologna to beef, and even some form of head cheese.
It might seem sketchy because none of this stuff is refrigerated, but remember that all this food is all pretty much local and cooked that day. I don't know if Subway's meats were ever alive. Seeing a huge fast food sandwich mogul infringing on the Mom and Pop banh mi makers of Saigon brought a tear to my eye.
The Heat's coach, Jason Rabedeaux, reminds me of a certain Scottish bad guy from Austin Powers. Sitting so close, I noticed that when he sent a player into the game, he would grab them by the arm or back and shove them into the game. It wasn't on Mike Rice's level, but I wouldn't appreciate it if I were one of the players.
As you can see, the Beermen were walking all over the Heat.
The main reason for this one-sidedness was the play of the Beermen's Justin Williams. If you blinked, you may have missed his NBA career, but he was clearly the big fish in the small pond that is ASEAN basketball. He was blocking shots all over the place and cleaning the glass.
Here you can see the hazards associated with trying to get in Justin Williams' way.
At halftime, fans were treated to innovative shooting games. There was one where a fan was at each foul line, tethered to each other by a bungee cord. There was another where fans attempted to shoot while wearing three-person sandals.
Outside, I saw a crispy new Heat jersey and I knew I had to get it. The price tag was 1.6 million Dong ($80 American).
This meant I had to hit the ATM across the street from the stadium. It feels pretty cool to hit the ATM and take out two million of any kind of currency.
The problem was that the street was an unrelenting stream of mopeds. Why mopeds? Vietnam imposes a 200-percent tax on cars, so unless you are the Vietnamese Mitt Romney, your ride is a moped.
Crossing the street was like the last level of Frogger, but some children simply lifted up their hand and started wading into traffic. Like Nino Brown being ambushed at a wedding, I used them as a shield to make my way to safety.
Off the court, Saigon (technically Ho Chi Minh City since the Communist takeover) is an amazing city, and I'll proudly rep them in any summer time pickup games.
Back on the floor, Justin Williams and the Beermen were still thrashing the Heat. The game would be a blowout as the Heat fell 55-80.
As someone who roots for teams whose name ends in "ets," I feel this guy's pain. The Heat are only in their second year of existence, and the early returns have not been good. Throughout that, fans' thundersticks rumbled regardless of the situation on the floor. They had the unsubstantiated hope that Eagles fans possessed in Silver Linings Playbook, and it was a beautiful thing to see.
America may have lost its grip on South Vietnam in 1975, but the fascination with this very American (technically it was created by a Canadian but whatever) sport is tightening its grip on Asia.
Technology has made it possible for the whole world to see the NBA's best play, and it's pretty hard not to want to emulate them. The Vietnamese may not be that good at basketball now (as evidenced by the Heat), but younger generations will start earlier and basketball will be a bigger part of their lives.
There aren't a ton of other sports options in Vietnam (a form of badminton where you use your foot as the racket is the only other sport I really saw people playing), and I'm glad I got to experience the ground floor of this new phenomenon.
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