“I’ve crossed off ‘beating the Philippines’ as a player off of my bucket list,” Coach Sopon says to me after the practice. “My mission now is to beat them as a coach.”
“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.
Coach Sopon, as a player, beat the Philippines once. During the second season of the ASEAN Basketball League (ABL), Sopon Pinitpatcharalert was a key player on the Chang Thai Slammers who won the title that season. It just so happened that they beat the Philippines Patriots, the Philippines representatives in the ABL, on their home court to secure the title. That win sparked a boom in popularity for Thailand basketball pushing the movement to the developments it has made to this day.
Therefore, Coach Sopon knows best how big a victory would be against the powerhouse of the ASEAN region.
With this upcoming tournament, he might have his best shot yet. Thailand has been scheduled to play their first game against the Philippines. While the obvious disadvantage is that they will have no idea whatsoever about how the Phillipines will play (aside from some Youtube clips of their players here and their), it works as an advantage because the Philippines know absolutely nothing about the Thai team.
Maybe that was why the mood of the practice session today was a bit intense. There was exactly one week left until that game against the Philippines and that is including the first day of travelling. If Coach Sopon wanted to iron something out to spring his target by surprise, I might have been now or never.
I arrived late to the practice today, because I too have a life outside of basketball (even though that seems hard to believe).
Practice had begun without me…because why the hell would they wait for me? The players had an intense focused look on their face as their practiced their defensive strategy. Practice had been moved back to 7PM today, but the player’s intensity seemed to have risen higher even without the heat.
Maybe it was Coach Sopon that was breathing fire at the back of their necks. Spend a practice session with Coach Sopon and you will immediately notice that he is will make his mind known when he is unhappy about something in a very loud manner. It’s quite different than how he is off the court, which is why people who see him coach for the first time might get surprised and worried. But the players understand that’s it’s all from his fiery nature and carefully pick out the message he intends to get across.
“That just how he is,” Konk says of his coach, both on the national team and high school team. As a relatively new player and a player who Coach Sopon is familiar with, Konk often becomes the target of Coach Sopon’s heated lessons. “But I’ve gotten used to it.”
The Head Coach was displaying here how important it was that the team picked up the tempo from here on till the end of the tournament. Now it was up to the team to do so.
That would be an important task for the team captain, “Tam” Suvichai Suvan.
Tam has been playing basketball since the 6th grade and moved out from Ratchaburi to Bangkok to play for Thewphaingarm High School. He has a playful attitude and a an infectious smile.
He is also the team captain of the Under-18 Thailand National Basketball Team. That there is quite an impressive line that many teenagers want put on their resume, but for today (and for the next couple of weeks) that title belongs to the pale scrawny kid with a slightly gap-toothed smile and a bald head.
“I lead the teams in warm ups I guess,” Tam answered me when I asked him about his responsibilities as a captain. That probably wasn’t the answer I was looking for, but then again, asking questions during their water breaks wasn’t probably the best moment to get good answers.
As I mentioned in a previous episode, Tam is does much more than that. Also as a vocal leader and entertainer, Tam does a nice job of balancing things out, whether he realizes it or not. When someone is slow to the court before practices, the coaches turn to Tam first.
“I think it might be because of the seniority,” Tam says when I ask him why he thinks he was made captain. “I’m one of the oldest guys here.”
Either that was a pretty humble or answer or the kid is oblivious about his leadership skills.
“It’s kind of hard to explain,” Bas says when I ask him why he thinks his team mate was named captain. “Bas” Atikom Supkhong is also a team mate of Tam on their high school team, so he should know better than anyone else. “He’s a leader on the court. When he says something, everyone listens.”
They might now know it now, but that’s going to be an important factor come game time. When the game is tense and the crowds are cheering noisily, you are going to need that voice that can break through all distractions to you conscience. One of those voices are the coaches for sure, but it would be great to have someone with that ability on the court. as well.
As I watch Tam bark out the defensive set during a scrimmage, I think that Coach Sopon might have that guy on his squad here.
International basketball competitions are complicated. You obviously want to field out all of the best individuals you can find, but you also want to have a piece of the future in their as well. This is especially in the case of countries that might not have as many opportunities to compete internationally as often as others.
Meet “Boom” Pongsakorn Jiamsawasd, the youngest player and the only player from Assumption College Bangrak in this U18 squad.
A relatively quiet kid, Boom doesn’t say much around practice except for some friendly jabs with “Boat” Nattaworn Banchathorn. That’s pretty much expected since the two are the closest in age and play similar positions.
Not that it means he doesn’t get along well with his seniors. The older guys at camp are always fooling around with their smallest brother and he plays along, but he seems to enjoy a small company.
“I get nervous around these older guys sometimes,” Boom admits. “But at the same time, I am excited as well.”
You couldn’t really tell that he is excited or nervous when he is on the court though. Boom stand out on the court to a certain level, and not only because he is the only player to wear adidas (the D.Lillard 2) on the team. He plays with a poise that is rare for someone his age and displays a high basketball IQ. His capability of making passes out of thin air is pretty impressive. It’s all not really surprising once you learn that he must have gotten a lot from his mother, Somtawin Jiamsawasd, who is a National Team player herself.
“I’ve been playing basketball since I was very, very, young.” Boom tells me and that would explain a lot about the way he plays.
Even with all the praise I could give him for his on-court senses, his body is still underdeveloped. He has decent enough handles to make his way towards the hoop, but still struggles to finish especially in traffic.
Boom could play a big role in this U18 squad. He already played quite well in the U16 competition already. But even if he doesn’t get his chance to shine this time, he’s still young and he’ll probably get another go at it again.
The practice went on in its intense matter throughout the night. The 5-on-5 scrimmages were focused on how the defense played more than how the offense ran. Coach Sopon wanted to make sure that he had this defensive set nailed firmly in the back of his teams head.
“Trap! Trap! Trap!” Coach Sopon would yell out. “Pressure! Pressure!”
As the team walked off the court for their last water break and to cool down, I approached Coach Sopon for our usual chat after practices. There would be no practice tomorrow because you obviously have to give these kids at least one day off.
“I feel like if we had more time,” Coach Sopon started in a frustrated but understanding tone. “We could beat any team in this tournament.”
This is still a team with many flaws. The bigs need to get stronger, a lot of their offense relies on shooting, they don’t have much bulk in the back court, etc.
But I still can’t help myself from believing in this team and what they might be able to accomplish.