top of page
  • Writer's pictureJoe Connor

Mr. Sports Travel Finds Former College Hoopers Thriving In Asia and Oceania

What are the chances this sports travel basketball columnist from San Diego would find a pair of former San Digo Aztecs thriving a world away? And be able to interview multiple former NCAA Division I men’s hoopsters, plus ex-college coaches, with a common thread: most have led their overseas teams to championships.    

 

You see, more than 20 years ago, I read a hoops book that would impact my future sports travel goals as a writer and fanatic: Big Game, Small World: A Basketball Adventure by Alexander Wolff. In it, the former long time Sports Illustrated writer chronicled his journey across 10 American states, plus 16 different countries on five continents.

 

Having completed my goal of enjoying a game at every NCAA Division I college basketball venue in Mar. 2022, the quest since then has been to take in hoops tilts across the six inhabited continents by 2026.

 

Early last year, I made the pilgrimage to Latin America, enjoying basketball in 11 different countries over five months.     

 

Yet my biggest adventure was my most recent. From last August through this January, I traveled across both continental Asia and Oceania. 


I cherished professional or international league games in Australia, New Zealand, the Philippines, Vietnam, Indonesia, and Singapore, including the 2023 FIBA World Cup and FIBA International Cup.


Furthermore, I absorbed the pinnacle of continental basketball championships that are held every four years in Asia and Oceania. In October 2023, I attended basketball matches at the Asian Games in China, including the women’s gold medal game in which China defeated Japan before more than 18,000 in Hangzhou. A month later, I watched hoops fixtures at the Pacific Games in the Solomon Islands, including both men’s and women’s finals at a sweltering, overcrowded gym in the capital of Honiara (Fiji won the men’s; Tahiti, the women’s).           

 

Finally, I  enjoyed amateur basketball in the countries or territories of Bhutan, Tahiti, and Vanuatu. And I couldn’t resist joining the locals in competitive pickup games in the Philippines, Hong Kong, Kiribati, Marshall Islands, and Nauru!

 

I did just enough research to map out my trip but not too much to take away the beauty of spontaneity. For example, professional international basketball is like the NBA and its G League system, with a top league and a minor or “second” league (many have additional lower-level circuits). Beyond this, I discovered that is where the similarities end.   

 

So, with a valuable assist from interviews with several former US college hoops players and coaches, I present to you now my takeaways and other favorite moments from my most recent excursion:

 

Most competitive professional league: National Basketball League (NBL) in Australia (with one team based in New Zealand), the top league down under.    

 

I enjoyed mostly men’s NBL professional games, from Christchurch, New Zealand to the Australia cities of Sydney, Adelaide, Canberra, Perth, Melbourne, and Glenorchy, a suburb of Hobart, Tasmania, an island territory.     

 

And while the EuroLeague is regarded as the top professional circuit after the NBA, to hear two former Aztecs tell it, there’s a reason why more and more Australians are playing in the US college ranks and on the radar of US college coaches. New Zealand Breakers power forward Zylan Cheatham who also played at Arizona State before brief stints in the NBA and NBA G-League said on a good night any NBL can compete with any team in any league anywhere in the world.            

 

“In my opinion, it’s (NBL) a league that’s slept on,” he explained, “Being an American, I did not know what to expect…the level of competition (here) is really good basketball.”

 

Fellow former Aztec Trey Kell III who played in EuroLeague in Italy also has high praise for the NBL. Kell won a championship during the COVID year in Poland. Kell has also played in Canada, Hong Kong, and Bosnia. Each of the 10 NBL teams play just a 28-game regular season, so getting on a short losing skid can ruin a season.      

      

On the night I saw Kell play, his Adelaide 36ers team were in the cellar as they hosted Melbourne United, which at the time was top dog. Yet Adelaide was victorious.

 

“We are at the bottom (of the standings) and United is at the top and we go home with the win – that is something you don’t really see in EuroLeague. Every team is so strong in terms of talent that the gap (between top and bottom teams in NBL) isn’t as big as some of the leagues in Europe.”                                 

 

Best Game Day Atmosphere in the NBL: My favorite was Adelaide. With only two exceptions, all the NBL matches I saw were sold out.


A city in South Australia, Adelaide set a single game attendance record on the night they beat Melbourne United, with more than 9,500 on hand. 


“The  atmosphere tonight was incredible. It was one of the best I’ve played in for sure,” commented Kell. “(Besides here), I think Tassie has the best atmosphere though.”

On New Year’s Day 2024, I watched the Breakers down host Tasmania at a sold out 5,000 seat crib. For the NBL season opener, I was one of 10,000+ on hand in Melbourne. One of 12,000+ in the seats for games in Perth and Sydney.  

   

An NBL contest mirrors an NBA atmosphere but with the public address announcer way more engaged in the experience. For instance, announcer chants over the PA system of “De Fense!” “De Fense!” are consistent throughout the contest.      

 

Best professional League Game Day Atmosphere – Asia Edition! In homage to the late comedic genius Robin Williams, Good Morning, Vi – et – Nam!

 

Th Vietnam Basketball Association (VBA) has only been around since 2016. It’s the most competitive league in the country and watching a VBA game is the closest I’ve experienced in all my international trips so far that has a similar game day atmosphere and vibe to enjoying a men’s college hoops game at one of the top D-I blue bloods or mid-majors. Teams play a short 18 game season.

    

Watching multiple sold out games from Hanoi to Saigon (also known as Ho Chi Minh), the Vietnamese fans are off the charts in terms of their passion for the game. There is a raucous team band. Cheerleaders. Dancers. Fans often stand (rarely sit) like college students’ courtside. And the gyms? Cracker boxes, with fans right on top of the action.    

 

But don’t just take my word for it. Matthew Van Pelt, who played at Spring Arbor College and coached at Great Lakes Christian College, has quite a unique perspective. Because he’s coached in Australia, Thailand, and Vietnam, but prior to coaching, played in those countries too, plus Malaysia, Cambodia, Indonesia, and Hong Kong.                    

 

“(When I first got here), it did blow me away,” Van Pelt said. “Atmosphere wise, I think it’s the best (in Asia).”

 

In 2023, as head coach, Van Pelt led the Saigon Heat to their third consecutive title under his leadership.


Chris Daleo coached against Van Pelt in 2023.   

 

Dalo, who skippered at multiple NAIA schools and assisted at Kentucky Wesleyan, came to Vietnam after leading a team in Thailand to a title. He’s been a head coach in Asia over five years, including in Indonesia.


Said Daleo: “By far this is the best atmosphere. It’s basketball crazy (here).”


Guard Kentrell Barkley (East Carolina) has played in Australia, Singapore, Taiwan, and Vietnam – and he agrees with Van Pelt and Daleo, too. During the COVID year, Barkley led his Taiwan team to a championship. He did the same for the Heat, winning Player of the Year and Finals MVP honors in 2023.

 

Vietnam Professional Basketball Fan Craziness and Rivalries: Now at 35, ageless wonder David Seagers (Fordham) spent five years in Indonesia, including winning MVP honors one season. 

  

Quipped Seagers of the Vietnamese: “The fans in Indonesia are great, but they’re not running on the court after every game. This is a little different.”


Wait, say what?


“It happens all the time,” chuckled big man John Fields, a 13-year pro who played his college ball at East Carolina before transferring UNC Wilmington and finally to Tennessee. 

   

In 2023, Fields suited up for Hanoi’s Warriors in 2023. On the night, I attended they upset the Heat at home. And the fans stormed the court.


Added Fields: “It’s a big rivalry between the north (Saigon) and the south (Hanoi).”

Fields is married to Ionna McKenzie Fields (Texas Tech), herself a pro basketball player currently in Turkey. He has played in more than 10 countries and says his proudest moment was winning a championship in Portugal, also during the COVID year. He was named 2023 “Center of the Year” in the VBA.

 

Craziest Basketball Country on My Trip: Vietnam and Australia rocked but the most passionate fans are in Philippines. Despite losing all its games in the 2023 FIBA World Cup (and being ranked last of all competitors entering the tournament), this is the nations’ sport. It’s why it hosted most of the World Cup games across three, modern NBA size arenas in the capital Manila (Indonesia and Japan were also early round hosts).


I was one of 38,115 for the Philippines World Cup opener against the Dominican Republic – a World Cup record for single game attendance. 38,115! Walking around parks in the capital Manila – its basketball, basketball, basketball being played. I played pickup ball at The Fort Bonifacio Tenement, a court known for its ever-changing murals. During my visit, the court was painted in the colors of the FIBA World Cup and almost all players donned jerseys of hoopsters, from MJ to Kobe to King James and more.     

 

On deck starting in March: a journey to enjoy hoops in Europe and Africa.   

 

Four continents down, with two to go! 

 

To learn more about Joe Connor, also known as Mr. Sports Travel, visit his website: www.mrsportstravel.com or follow him on social media:

 

ความคิดเห็น


bottom of page