This would be my fourth day attending the U18 National Team practice. It would also happen to be that this would be the fourth consecutive day that a player suffered an injury causing them to sit out a practice.
Maybe I was some kind of bad luck to this team.
“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.
If I was some sort of bad omen, no one had been able to prove that yet and I was having too much fun following this team…so screw you all, I’m here to stay.
In addition to the veteran on the injured list, “Bas” Atikhom Supkhong, Coach Sopon and Coach Thongchai had to deal with three other courtside spectators today.
“Boat” Nattaworn Banchatorn and “Tarn” Pongsathorn Tubtim both slightly tweaked their thighs in a small collision during yesterday’s scrimmages while “Konk” Kongphop Reungsutham had a case of food poisoning. Tarn would be the only one suited in practice gear, but he had an ice pack on his right leg throughout almost the entire session.
Still, everyone was once again present at the gym.
It was another 4PM practice slot, but I felt that there was more air flow in the gym today for whatever reason. It was still pretty hot (because this is Thailand and Thailand is never not hot), but it wasn’t as stuffy and humid as the past few days.
“Tor” Thanakrit Limjittakorn was once again among the first to arrive. This has pretty much has been expected at this point. I also finally got to ask him about his habit of wearing a second shirt.
“I sweat a lot,” Tor answers. “If I don’t wear this, by the time we even start practice, I’ll have a completely soaked jersey.”
The second group to enter the gym features one of the top players of this team, “Tae” Attaphong Leelapipatkul. Having followed the ASEAN Basketball League (ABL), Thailand Basketball League (TBL), and Basketball Thailand Super League (BTSL) throughout the past year, I’ve had a couple of run ins with Tae.
“What do you think this team’s strength is?”
My question was probably one of the most serious questions I had asked any kid since I started coming here, but Tae was one of the most experienced players in this team and he needed a hardball like this one.
“Our three-point shooting is really good,” Tae answers. “We have a lot of really good shooters.”
It’s kind of funny that he would mention that. Frankly speaking, three-point shooting has not been his individual strengths, yet that was the very first thing that comes to his mind. It’s hard to admit that one of the weak spots of your own game is where your team excels at.
It displays the characteristics of a distributor in the point guard of the team. He may not have the long-range stroke that his team mates possess, but he certainly does have the ability to find the open man. His relatively impressive height in combination with his basketball IQ and passing sense makes him a pretty good lead guard for the team.
So it doesn’t really come as a surprise that Tae has been a part of mostly all National Teams prior to this one which he qualifies for, whether it was the U16 or the U18 before this one. I ask him about his international experiences.
“There’s this Mendoza dude,” Tae mentions while talking about the Philippines National Team. “We played each other in the U16 tournament.”
Of course, “this Mendoza dude” is Jolo Mendoza. The Ateneo Blue Eagles commit has garnered praise from various sports outlets in the Philippines. Kiefer Ravena, the King Eagle himself, has gone to the lengths to say that he sees a little bit of himself in Mendoza and the kid might even be better. Tae raves for a moment about his scoring and slashing abilities, but doesn’t flinch at knowing that they would probably be pitted against each other once again in the very first game of the tournament.
While there is certainly respect for Mendoza’s game in Tae’s tone as he talks about him, there isn’t a sign of fear. If I’ve learned something, the lack of fear is not only because Tae can try to handle his own, but he knows he has team mates that will be ready to support him.
As the aforementioned Tor and Tae proceeded onto practice, I got to sit down and have quite a lengthy conversation with “Tarn” Pongsathorn Tubtim.
“Before going to Bangkok Christian College, I transferred from Debsirin. And before that I studied at Srivikorn.” Tarn says of his well-traveled journey. “I started playing basketball seriously at Srivikorn when I attended one of their practices and just asked to join in.”
From playing basketball during lunch breaks and after school with his friends, Tarn has come a long way to being a representative of the nation. This trip to Medan, Indonesia won’t be his first basketball related event outside of Thailand. He also had a recent flight to a 3-on-3 event in Qatar in which he described the experience as simply “hot”. Tarn will be one of the main offensive options for this U18 team. His decent height is fit to play the Small Forward position and he can used that length to drive towards the basket and finish.
“I like LeBron James,” says Tarn of his basketball role model. “I like his strength and I really like to drive towards the hoop like him.”
Though he might relate his style of play to that of King James, he seems to not share the NBA star’s craving for attention. I asked Tarn about his reactions knowing that not many people knew about this U18 squad and its upcoming competition.
“I don’t really care that much,” Tarn says. “I don’t play basketball so people would know who I am.”
The answer kind of took me by surprise. I didn’t really expect him to get mad and riled up that no one cared, but I was slightly expecting that he might ask me to help pass the word around. Instead, he brushed it off like a pro. Just doing work.
Even with those remarks, he still had some opinions about the social media backlash after the Final 12 roster was announced.
“I feel like this is the best team that we could assemble right now,” Tarn says. “Most of us have played with each other so many times. Some of have even been on travelling teams with each other. It helps that we knew a lot coming in about how each of us played.”
And these guys really did know each other a lot. I don’t know if it would have been different with a different set of 12 players (and maybe it wouldn’t) but these 12 seemed to have a nice flow of ball movement whenever they scrimmaged. No one was looking to play hero ball and even the flashiest, cockiest shooter (“Boat” Nattaworn Benchathorn) didn’t give off a feel as trigger happy. Things might look different when it comes game time, but it has been looking pretty good up to now.
Then I dropped the same question to Tarn as I had to Tae.
“What do you think this team’s strength is?”
He looked at me blankly for a moment.
“Unity,” he answered. “Everyone is cheering each other up and we really like playing with each other.”
This was my 4th day here and I had yet to really figure out why I had been coming every single day to watch these kids play. Sure, I enjoyed the nostalgic sense of being in a training camp in the first day. But what had made me come back for the second, third, and fourth days was that I really enjoyed watching these kids play with each other because they seemed to genuinely enjoy it.
Having followed the professional ranks of Thailand Basketball like the TBL and the ABL, I kind of gotten used to a more grown up version of basketball. But here, these are still just kids doing what they love to do. That’s something you rarely get to see.
“I still just want to be a kid sometimes, you know?” Tarn asks me when I casually discuss with him about his future. Going into his senior year in high school, it’s still up in the air where he’s looking go for college or things like that. And maybe it’s better to stay that way for now. “Life is much easier as a kid.”
It was quite fitting that Coach Sopon decided on practicing the “Zone” defense after my discussion about the teams “unity” with Tarn.
While a zone defense simply looks like the defending team standing in predetermined positions (like a 2-3 zone, 1-2-2 zone, etc.), it is much much more than that. For a zone defense to be efficient, the entire team must move together in unison. If one guy slip loose from where he should be, the entire defense could suffer.
Perfecting any sort of zone defense is hard to do, mainly because it involves so many players to do the right thing simultaneously. This U18 team was no exception. Some guys were still a bit too slow to get where they should be during a ball rotation. Some guys over helped.
But if the unison of the team is as good as the players and coaches has been telling me, it wouldn’t be too hard to imagine that they could wreak havoc with that type of defensive system.
“This team is really acting as one right now,” Coach Sopon tells me when I approach him after practice to talk about the team. “They’re having fun with each other right now.”
While the rest of the team was warming down, Bas and Boat were casually taking three-point shots in street clothes. While both were still nursing injuries, they still had the shooting touch.
Coach Sopon walks by them and challenges Bas to a shoot out. Loser does push ups. After Bas takes and makes a one-legged three-point shot from the right side, Coach Sopon attempts to mimic the same. And misses.
He hears the howl from the kids as he does his push ups mixed with laughter from everyone.
For a moment, you forget the fact that these are one of the best kids in the country at their age. They are just kids being kids, enjoying what they do.