It was once again a long commute to the Sports Authority of Thailand’s indoor sports complex. I had to take a bus to get on a sky train to switch to another sky train before finally hopping on a motorbike to the building.
“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.
There were two times on the motorbike ride where I almost crashed into a car, which led to a lot of shouting back and forth between both drivers and had me holding on for dear life in the backseat.
My journey to the gym has been long, tiring, and eventful but it wasn’t even half of the journey it has taken for some kids on this team.
I didn’t really get a good chance to introduce myself (or get introduced) to everyone on the team. One of the guys I should have known more about was obviously the second general on this team, Assistant Coach Thongchai Mookphan.
“I’ve been coaching basketball for about 14 years already,” Coach Thong says. “I started coaching at Thewphaingarm High School because that’s where I played.”
Aside from having taught younger versions of today’s Thai stars like Radetch Kruatiwa and Darongphan Apiromwilaichai, Coach Thong has also coached at Siam University and is a Physical Education teacher at Assumption College-Thonburi. Coach Thong certainly has the resume and the looks of someone who has gone through many battlefields.
But to him, coaching younger kids has always been something he’s enjoyed.
“Coaching kids is like teaching someone how to get a driver’s license,” Coach Thong draws up a metaphor like a wise sage would. “It’s about teaching the fundamentals. With professionals [and older players], they already have an idea of how to play.”
One of the toughest things about coaching younger kids, as told by Coach Thong, is that you have to monitor them very closely most of the time because they are so young. If you see something that they might not be doing right, you have to make a quick attempt to correct it.
And that’s certainly the way that both these coaches approach the process. Every time they saw something that they didn’t like from their team, they would make sure to let it be known.
I wrapped up my talk with Coach Thong after I saw that the team had finished warming up. As I walked over to seat myself in front of a giant fan to keep myself cool, I noticed Coach Sopon changing into gear.
“You playing today, Coach?”
“Yeah, we need some warm bodies in practice today.”
As I watched Coach Sopon run along in the layup lines with his team, I had counted only 10 kids in the bright yellow jerseys the team was wearing today. Of course, I had expected “Bas” Atikhom Supkhong to be sitting out this practice, but not seeing “Tam” Suvichai Suvarn was a slight surprise.
“Tam is one of our better playmakers,” Coach Thong mentioned as I ask why he was missing from practice today. He would later explain that Tam suffers some slight muscle injuries. Nothing serious, but enough to keep him from practice leading to the sight of Coach Sopon drilling jumper after jumper among these teenage kids.
Seeing Coach Sopon working out with the team like that made it seem like the gap between the players and the coaches seemed a bit smaller.
During an instance where the ever flashy “Boat” Nattaworn Banchathorn completed a crossover and hit a jumper in a one-on-one drill, he made his way to Coach Thong and reached his hand out for an enthusiastic high-five.
The coach, who was more than twice Boat’s age, obliged the high-five offer albeit awkwardly. The kids loved it.
But Boat wasn’t done, after receiving his high-five from the assistant coach, he inched closer to the head coach and reached out his hands again for another seal of approval. Coach Sopon played along and started moving his hand towards the handshake and once he saw that Boat had commited, he pulled back and ran his fingers through his own hair.
Classic fake-out handshake.
Everyone loved it and they had to take a brief moment to let the laughter die down before Coach Sopon directed the players to continue.
Despite both of the coaches being old enough to almost be their fathers, they found a way to relate and connect to these kids through basketball.
After a while, the coaches started pitting the team into “shirts” and “skins” once again. Because there were exactly 10 players, no one would be sitting on the sideline to wait their turn.
Until after the first game.
Coach Sopon emphasized with me since the first time I was here that he wanted to try out a small ball approach. That was probably related in part to the trend of the basketball world, as we’ve seen with the Golden State Warriors. However, I also felt it might have been because the speed and talent level of the perimeter players on this team suited a small ball approach.
So Coach Sopon substituted himself into the game for a center on the “skins” team.
A tall kid made his way to the sidelines and sat down.
Earlier, before scrimmaging, the teams were running through their plays. They had five on each side of the court while each coach overlooked their own side.
On Coach Sopon’s side, the Center position was occupied by a long and lanky kid. His physical stature was imposing, but he looked a bit lost every now and then during the plays. And he would always get an earful from Coach Sopon.
The tall kid wearing number “16” carefully listened, made adjustments and went at another go at the play.
The same number “16” was walking off the court as Coach Sopon substituted him out. I walked over to talk to him and that was when I realized how big he actually was. His muscles had yet to fully develop but his long lanky arms would certainly be of good use to defend the paint.
“I get homesick sometimes,” The kid says. His name is Kongphop Reungsuthum or “Kong” and is originally from Chiangmai, a province way up north of Thailand. “It’s only been about a year since I moved up and I’m starting to get used to being away from home.”
Kong, like most of the players here, are players who started playing basketball outside of Bangkok. All of them would eventually be drawn to transfer to the Big City to attend high school powerhouses where they could get a higher level of exposure and competition. Kong went to Yuparath School in Chiangmai before transferring to Assumption College-Thonburi one year ago.
“My father was a basketball player,” Kong says as he sweats away in the heat of the gym. His origin story is pretty common in the mold of ex-basketball player father pushing his son to extend his basketball legacy. “and I’ve been playing basketball since for 2 years.”
I had noticed that Kong was a bit raw. His movements were sometimes a bit robotic and lacked creativity. But to imagine that he had only started playing basketball no more than 2 years ago is impressive. When asked about his selection to the national team, he wore the same smile of pride and innocence that Bas displayed.
“I really look up to P’ Jack Lumparng,” Kong says. Lumparng is, of course, not Jack’s last name but is a province in the northern parts of Thailand as well. Konk says they play with and against each other during his days in Chaingmai. When I approach a kid, I try to ask them if they have a player they model their game after or who their idol is. Usually, I expect them to name an NBA player or at least a star on the National Team. The fact that Kong named a rather relatively lesser known player as someone he looks up to gave me an interesting perspective about how different each player grows up and is groomed. Yet, here they are in one place with one similar objective.
The shirt-skins game went on for a little longer before a player, number “17”, signaled to Coach Sopon (who was playing) that he needed to be subbed out.
As number “17” slightly limped of the court, Kong ran on to substitute.
“Are you okay?” I asked. In hindsight, that was a pretty stupid question as the kid was obviously not okay. But the question was more to check how serious it was.
The kid nodded and said that he was just getting sore a bit in his legs. Jdar Sonsem is another big man on the team. While he’s not as tall as Kong, he had a bit more tone and definition to his muscles. During earlier practices, the lefty displayed a nice looking jumpshot in addition to his hustle on both sides of the court.
It must be mentioned that all of the national team players have to stay at the Sports Authority of Thailand’s facilities during this period. With early morning conditioning practices, shoot arounds, and late team practices, it is more convenient that way.
“I’ve gotten used to it by now,” Jdar says when I ask him about being away from home for a long period. “I moved up to Bangkok to attend Assumption College-Thonburi since the 7th grade and I’ve only been back home for a couple of times since then.”
Home for Jdar is way down south of Thailand in the province of Yala. His features (dark skinned, curled hair) and his name sort of gave away the fact that he was a Southern kid, so I wasn’t really that much surprised when he told me. Jdar has been in Bangkok for about 5 years, studying and playing basketball for the national powerhouse school.
Even though he’s one of the younger kids on the team, he’s had several national duties experience already playing for the U16 squads in both the SEABA championship and Asia Championship last year. With his international exposure, it was fun to learn that Jdar’s idol is one who has had plenty of international experience as well.
“Olajuwon,” Jdar says sheepishly, as if he’s afraid he pronounced it wrong. “My idol is Hakeem Olajuwon.”
You don’t quite see it on the court yet (his footwork still has ways to go), but it’s refreshing to know that Jdar has that mindset projected on himself.
In the final scrimmage before the end of practice, Coach Sopon decided to step out. Jdar and Kong were placed on the same “skins” team this time. Kong would man the 5 position and Jdar would resume the 4, a position he needed to adjust to after playing mostly 5 in previous tournaments.
After a missed shot, both inside players advanced towards the ball and both got a hold of the rebound. There was a bit of a tussle at first before both realized that they were on the same team.
I don’t remember who got the ball in the end, both for that brief moment in the rebound, it was the basketball that drew these two players together. One from way up north in Chiangmai who cites a local player as his idol and the other from way down south in Yala who looks up to an NBA player.
Passion for basketball was what brought these two guys from two different sides of the country, not only to grab the rebound but for a chance to represent the nation.
It just goes to show you that wherever you are from or however old you are, you can be bound be a similar cause and a similar passion to cooperate in an attempt to succeed.
Practice wraps up and the team circles to officially end the practice. “Tae” Attaphong Leelapipatkul, number “21” starts off the team chant.
“A-C-T ON THR-”
An awkward silence looms from 6 of his team mates as Tae slowly figures out his mistakes. ACT are the initials for Assumption College-Thonburi and starting the chant that way might have been a bit awkward for the five who had hailed from Bangkok Christian College and Pongsakorn Jiamsawad who was from Assumption College-Bangrak.
Everyone laughs it off as Tae retries the battle cry:
“THAILAND ON THREE! ONE! TWO! THREE!”