How Basketball Helped a GTA Native Endure Isolation in Vietnam

In an unfamiliar world, basketball was Will Tran’s safe haven.

In an unfamiliar world, basketball was Will Tran’s safe haven.

will tran

by Ben Okazawa
September 27, 2022

It’s been a few weeks since he touched down in Vietnam, and Will Tran has long since become accustomed to eating dinner with his team in the Tan Son Nhat hotel restaurant. Three times a day, he eats at the long, cloth-covered tables lined with silver buffet platters so clean you can see your distorted reflection in them. The room has off-white walls decorated sparsely with non-descript paintings and stock images of local scenery in Ho Chi Minh City, the bustling metropolis where Tran has been living since being selected first overall in the 2021 Vietnamese Basketball Association (VBA) Draft in late April. 

He’s still getting used to his temporary home in a foreign country, with no family or friends to lean on. It’s nerve-wracking for his other teammates too. Still, there’s a cultural expectation for Tran that the other foreign players aren’t held to—being the son of Vietnamese-Canadian immigrants, he certainly looks at home. He also bears the second-most common family name in the country

During the short time Tran spent in the city before he was confined to the hotel grounds, a handful of people approached him speaking Vietnamese. They were taken aback when he couldn’t articulate a return, an unsettling response for Tran. But it’s not just the language that’s new. The weather, the culture, and the intricate system of motorbike taxis were all unfamiliar to Tran, whose connection with Vietnam was primarily nourished in the kitchen. Pho, com ga nuong (barbecued chicken on a bed of rice), and cha goo tom thit (spring rolls with sweet and sour fish sauce) were staples in the Tran household, but that’s pretty much where his ties with the country end. He spoke some Cantonese, his parents’ native language, but was never taught Vietnamese. 

One night in May 2021, the owner of Tran’s new team, the Can Tho Catfish, will be joining them for dinner. The COVID-19 pandemic is currently wreaking havoc and worsening by the day in Vietnam. Outbreaks are starting in factories and spreading rapidly across the country, where vaccines are scarce and hospitals are quickly becoming overcrowded. Knowing this, Tran fears the worst for his first summer playing professional basketball—he thinks the season will be cancelled. 

The owner breaks down the plan for the 2021 VBA season: there will be no fans allowed at the games; all the teams will play their games in one location for the entirety of the season; players aren’t allowed to leave the hotel campus for any reason. 

It’s a lot of bad news, but more than anything at this moment, Tran feels relief. He’s less than a month removed from travelling across the world and, in doing so, leaving everything and everyone he knows behind. Right now, Tran takes solace in the fact that, at the very least, he still has basketball. 

After the initial wave of gratitude wears off, he does feel some regret. He thinks back to the messages from fans expressing their excitement to watch him play—no longer a possibility. The following month of his life is written in stone: wake up, eat at the hotel restaurant. Practice, eat at the same restaurant. Work out, eat at—you guessed it—the same restaurant. Then, go to sleep and do it all again the next day. From May to late July when Tran’s inaugural professional season finally tipped off, this was his whole life.

That comfortability he felt as he settled into routine at the hotel quickly becomes a shackle. He’s living out his dream as a professional basketball player in his parents’ homeland with the whole country at his fingertips, yet he isn’t quite able to reach out and grab it. So the only thing left for Tran to focus on now is basketball.

In 1980, Tran’s father arrived in Canada for the first time, intent on providing a better life for his future family. 

So when Tran picked up basketball, his father was happy to let his son pursue the sport. “It’s always been his dream to play basketball,” he says of his son. “I didn’t have that kind of opportunity when I was younger.” 

Tran grew up in Newmarket, Ont., where he led his elementary school team to an undefeated record and city championship in the sixth grade. Then, he joined the elite Vaughan Panthers rep team, and his dad started making the half-hour commute to Vaughan to take Tran to practices three times a week. It was there that he felt his basketball journey take off. As a result, Tran entered high school as one of the premier basketball players in his age group. 

Tony Zhou, the founder of a men’s league basketball team called Toben, heard about Tran from one of his former high school teachers. Tran blew him away, and Zhou asked him to join the team immediately. Often competing with older, more prominent players at Toben, Tran started to excel at Vaughan Secondary School, where his university-level offers piled up and left him with a decision to make.

Former Nipissing University men’s basketball head coach, Chris Cheng, recalls scouting some Vaughan players and being captivated by someone he wasn’t there to watch at all. “[Tran’s] shooting ability at his size was intriguing,” he says. “We kept tabs on him … so when it was his recruiting year, our connection was already established.”

Cheng says he had “huge plans” for Tran going into his first year, but when Tran suffered a season-ending meniscus injury in practice, the pair was robbed of the chance to see them through. 

Always the competitor, sitting on the sidelines was tough for Tran, but ultimately, he believes that while the injury took something from him physically, it strengthened him mentally. 

“Basketball is not something [I] should take for granted,” he says he realized. “I’ve made sure every time after [the injury]…to give it my all every time I step on the floor.”

In the 2019-20 season, Tran finally showed off his strengths at the university level, establishing himself as one of the best deep threats in the province as he shot 38.9 percent from behind the arc. 

Right when he was starting to heat up, the pandemic struck in Canada and university sports were shut down for what turned out to be more than a year. Nevertheless, Tran stayed ready for action, and when the VBA came calling, he entered his name in the 2021 draft. 

The draft happened over Zoom, as so many things did at that time. Even though it took place around 3 a.m. in Toronto, Tran was too excited to be tired. Zhou also stayed up that night, watching the live stream on Facebook. “I was telling people every single day that [Tran] made it,” he recalls. “Being able to see his growth from Grade 9 to the pro level is an honour.”

The rest of the day was a whirlwind. Tran’s flight to Vietnam was just hours removed from the draft. When he touched down in Ho Chi Minh City—a sprawling labyrinth of buildings once navigated by his parents, commonly known as Saigon—Tran didn’t know much about the city or Vietnam. He had heard lots about his parents’ struggles on their journey to Canada and their fight to give him a better life, but they hadn’t told him much about their lives in Vietnam. However, his dad did provide him with advice on the right ways to interact with people, how to navigate the intricacies of society, and how to stay safe. “He was not familiar with the society, the culture,” says the senior Tran. “I gave him some tips on what to look out for and how to talk to people.”

But with the players becoming locked down in the Tan Son Nhat Hotel soon after his arrival, Tran didn’t get much of a chance to implement his dad’s wisdom. 

Sometime following the dinner where he and his teammates learned about the modified season, the VBA moved their players to a new hotel in a city called Nha Trang. Basketball became Tran’s whole world at that hotel. The only people he was allowed to see were his teammates and coaches. And, since he saw them at meal times, workouts and practices, he often liked to take his free time alone in his room.

The alone time helped Tran find a new love for the sport. “I think [being isolated] gave me more motivation to play, because that’s all we had to do,” he said. “After the games, after practice, that was difficult … the basketball part wasn’t hard.” 

It certainly didn’t seem difficult for Tran, who exploded for a 22-point, 10-rebound performance in his VBA debut. He didn’t slow down much after his hot start, averaging 16.8 points and 7.0 rebounds on the season. But after a minor knee injury sidelined Tran in mid-August, a short-handed Can Tho Catfish team lost to the Saigon Heat in the quarterfinals of the VBA playoffs, ending his first season as a professional basketball player. 

It was a bittersweet summer for Tran. While he achieved his dream of playing professional basketball, it didn’t have the glamour that he expected. There was no fan presence, no discovering a new city. There was only basketball. 

Despite his ambivalence, Tran remained determined to return to the VBA in 2022—as long as the VBA still existed. With COVID-19 still infecting tens of thousands of people a day in Vietnam at the end of 2021, the 2022 season was in jeopardy. He was in the dark, with no communication with his teammates, coaches, or the league. But throughout it all, Tran kept his body and mind ready to compete. His next opportunity to play could’ve come representing Vietnam at the Southeast Asian (SEA) Games in Vietnam’s capital, Hanoi, this July. It could’ve happened in a potential VBA season this summer. He was even open to playing professionally in Canada.

It didn’t much matter to Tran where he competed. After all, he proved to himself time and time again at the hotel in Nha Trang—whose name he doesn’t care to remember—that he can play basketball in any environment. So, when his future was uncertain, the season up in the air, Tran leaned on his love for the sport. He knew that the rest would fall into place as long as he played basketball. 

Tran’s faith paid off. He returned to the VBA in April 2022, where the Can Tho Catfish competed in a 3×3 tournament before the season’s official start when he joined the reigning champion Saigon Heat.

During a matchup with the Ho Chi Minh City Wings on April 30, Tran crosses the ball through his legs twice and steps back, dropping his defender to his knees before draining a three-pointer. At this moment, he turns to the cheering crowd, his arm still raised in a shooting motion to salute the fans. 

In May 2021, he learned his first season playing professional basketball would be locked in a hotel without an audience or a life outside the hotel grounds. Now, as he takes a second to bask underneath the bright lights illuminating the half court, the buildings of Da Nang jutting out of the night sky in the background, Tran looks right at home.

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