“Don’t you play basketball?”
That’s the question that the little scrawny kid wearing the numbers “01” on his pink jersey asked me during the water break of practice.
“Basketball Diaries” is a series of write-ups about the U-18 Thailand National Basketball Team where I follow the team through its journey towards the U-18 SEABA Championship 2016.
Maybe he was mocking how fat I was.
Maybe he was mocking how I was the only guy in the gym who wasn’t in basketball gear.
Or maybe it was just a really innocent question. The kid was only 16 anyways.
I told him that I’m too old for that or at least that’s what the chronic pains in my knees tell me and we share a small laugh together. In my mind, I’m telling him that one day he’ll know my pain.
I’m also telling him that I wasn’t here to play basketball anyways. I’m here to watch you guys. Today is your time to shine.
Today was my first time attending the practice session of the Under-18 Thailand National Team. They had been practicing for about 2 weeks already, but had only recently cut the roster down to the final 12 four days ago (which you can read in detail here).
It was my first time heading to the Sports Authority of Thailand’s indoor sports complex, so I made sure to start my commute a bit early to avoid troubles of traffic and getting lost. It was only natural that I got there an hour earlier than the scheduled practice time of 7.00 PM.
The basketball court of the sports complex was being used as the venue for pick up runs at the moment, so I sat down and watched. The heat of the Bangkok summer had gathered up to a point where I sweating consistently even though I wasn’t even playing. I took a seat in front of the four large fans placed in the four corners of the court and waited.
The level of competition wasn’t bad, but this isn’t the action that I traveled for about 2 hours to watch. These were mostly older guys who came here for a good run after a day of work. I was here to watch the future of the nation. The U-18 squad.
Eventually, a trio of kids walked into the gym in bright pink jerseys with the words “THAILAND” screened onto their backs. Two of them settled in front on the fans and another, number “24”, took a ball and shot on the farside of the pick up court.
The party was about to get started.
I wasn’t the only one there today to cover the U-18 team. A local newspaper was also in attendance, so I kind of laid back and watched the pros do their jobs. Before practice started, the reporters asked the head coach, Sopon Pinijpatcharalert, for a quick photoshoot of the team and each of the players and coaches.
While the players were getting their snapshots, I got the time to talk with the general of this team. The Head Coach.
Coach Sopon himself had been one of the top players of Thailand not long ago. He was actually still playing in the professional league last year. But as his role on the court decreased, he’s been dedicating himself more to teaching the next generation.
Aside from being the head coach of the U-18 national team, Coach Sopon was also the coach of the U-16 squad that got 7th place in the U-16 FIBA Asia Championship last year. He’s also the coach of the Assumption College Thonburi high school, a flagship program under the umbrella of Thailand’s premier basketball club, Hitech.
“I try to coach the way I played,” Coach Sopon says. “which is to never force anything. I played along with the flow of the game and that’s the focus I put on the teams I coach.”
“I also try to model my teams to play like Gregg Popovich’s San Antonio Spurs,” answers Coach Sopon when I ask about his coaching models. “I like how they rotate and share the ball. Their game as a nice flow to it.”
I’m not going to be the one to doubt Coach Sopon, who had led the U-16 team over teams like Bahrain and Iraq in their last tournament, but coaching a group of players who haven’t hit the legal drinking age to play like the Spurs might seem a bit ambitious. And that’s not even mentioning the time he has had to prepare this team.
Practice started late March according to Coach Sopon, while the tournament is scheduled during 23-28 April. Then you add in the factor that the roster selection process took about one week. The final roster cut players has had a grand total of only 4 days together exclusively prior to this practice.
But that’s maybe why Coach Sopon had to select players that he already knew how to use in the system he had imagined.
“I’m not going to lie,” Coach Sopon says as he addresses the selected players. “they’re were some players who were more individually talented than some of the guys here that I had to cut. But during the tryouts, they didn’t show that they could work in my system.”
Ideally, I’m guess that if the National Team had more generous timeline, the coaching staff would be more comfortable selecting the most talented bunch of kids where they would have enough time to integrate each and everyone into the system.
So it was understandable that of the 12 selected players, 6 of them have played under Coach Sopon already whether it was the U-16 squad or at Assumption College Thonburi.
Practice started with some layup lines and dribbling drills. The usual sort of stuff.
It was somewhat of an awkward experience for me. I had been hanging around the professional teams of Thailand for some time, so it took me a while to adjust to the fact that these were all still teenagers.
There would be a blotched layup here and there or someone would get to fancy with his dribbling. Just the type of mistakes that you’d expect for an 18 year old during practice. Once I got adjusted to that, I really got to see what made each of these players special and what might have warranted them a call up to serve the country on the basketball court.
One that really stood out was the aforementioned kid who wore the number “01”. He was one of the smaller guys on the court, but he stood out from the very start of the practice until the end.
There was a certain “swag” in his step and in the way he handled the ball. His movements always seemed to command attention. He was not lightning quick, but quick enough to get by his defender from time to time.
More importantly, he had a deadly three point shot.
When the layup lines turned into shooting line, he seemed to become more lively and from the very moment he took his first shot, it was pretty clear why. The kid had a pure stroke and more often than not, his shots found the bottom of the net.
During one of the water breaks, I saw him finding a vacant seat in front of one of the huge corner fans and sat alone with two glasses filled with ice water.
“My nickname is Boat.” he answers once I asked if he was Nattaworn Benchathorn, the lead scorer of the U-16 squad. I never saw him play in that tournament, but I could imagine him lighting teams on fire from the perimeter after seeing what he can do.
Boat says he’s more of a shooter than a slasher, which is fair enough for someone who has a shot like he does. The 16-year-old picked up basketball 6 years ago in the 4th grade and recently transferred to powerhouse Bangkok Christian College for high school. He also admits being nervous the last time he played in Indonesia for the U-16 tournament.
But if you got to see him play, it’s hard to imagine him ever being nervous.
Out of the water break, the coaches split the team into two squads going by shirt and skins. Boat got to keep his “01” jersey on as he played for the “shirts” team.
And he started lighting the “skins” team on fire.
Whether it was a catch-and-shoot or off the dribble or on the break, Boat always found a way to get a clean look at the basket from downtown where he would take a high percentage shot. The kid was a bit too flashy at times, trying too many behind the back passes and no-looks, but his shooting was entertaining enough to be worth the commute.
Boat wasn’t the only shooter who stood out in practice today. On his team was a similar sized player who looked like they had the same skill set, but with slightly a bit more polish and less flash. The kid wearing “12”.
It was only proper than, that the two were pitted against each other during other scrimmages.
After a couple of possessions back and forth, where both Boat and “12” scored on three point shots, I took a quick peek at my phone. Once I looked up again, “12” was sprawling on the floor holding on to his ankle.
The good news was that he was screaming in agony, he was just merely holding on it, as if to check if it was still there. The bad news was that once he got up, he needed help from his team mates to get him over to the ice bucket where he would cool his ankle for the rest of the session.
Fortunately, a sports physicist who was playing pick up before had stuck around and he diagnosed the injury as a minor ankle sprain. Give it proper treatment, and the kid could be up and running within 3 days.
I walked over to talk to the kid as he sat with one foot in the ice bucket watching his friends play on.
Atikom Supkhong or “Bas” (because, of course, there is a guy named Bas on the basketball team) was a kid out of the Chantaburi provice who had transferred to storied Thewphaingarm for high school. It wasn’t a surprise that he quickly named sharpshooting “JO” Ratdech Kruatiwa, who is a Thewphaingarm alum, as his basketball idol.
When I asked if this was his first time getting called up to any sort of national squad, he sheepishly said “yes” with a slight smile on his face. From his entire expression, you could feel like he was gleaming with pride from getting the opportunity to represent his nation for the first time.
Seeing that look on his face and his joy of being on this team only made me feel more relieved that his ankle injury would be nothing serious.
After some grueling drills of the offensive and defensive sets that Coach Sopon and Assistant Coach Thong wanted to apply, the team were seated to go through everything they had covered once again.
The kids listened carefully as Coach Thong went through the details. It would be common throughout the practice session that Coach Thong would be the more vocal of both coaches, but Coach Sopon would come in to deliver the message he needed to send out in a couple of swift sentences.
Though I never played in such a high level, the atmosphere sort of reminded me of my own time back in high school. I had gone through somewhat of a similar practice routine joking among team mates. There was one time I was in the same situation as Bas, seated up on a chair with one frozen foot. And almost every time, I would be getting the same sort of pep talk and practice review as the U-18 kids were getting now.
That’s why I’m writing this diary. Other than being an informant update on the U-18 National Team, I love the fact that this opportunity to follow this team has made me reach back into my memories and relive the moments where my passion for the sport started catching fire. I only hope that it can have some sort of effect on you readers as well.
Coach Sopon wraps up the review and leaves the team to warm down.
“We’re still not where I want them to be,” Coach Sopon tells me of their progress so far while the kids warm down. “I’m not worried about them offensively, but more about how they will stop other teams from scoring.”
The team gathers once again at the sidelines and Coach Sopon goes through tomorrow’s schedule (yes, there will be a morning schedule. Once he finishes, the same number “24” who was the first on the court for today’s practice shouts
“THAILAND ON THREE!”
and the rest of the team follows in unison
“ONE! TWO! THREE! THAILAND!”
I gathered my stuff and made my way back home, but couldn’t resist another smile as I saw Pete (number “19”) carry Bas and his injured ankle on his back as the team made their way to dinner.
I’m going to have fun getting to know this team.