With university basketball paused, Winnipeg student invited to play professionally — in Vietnam

Binh “Binny” Nguyen was devastated when his university basketball season was cancelled during Manitoba’s second wave of the pandemic in October.

But that feeling quickly turned to excitement when another opportunity came knocking.

Coaches from the Saigon Heat, a professional basketball team in Vietnam’s biggest city, asked if he’d be interested in flying out to play in this year’s season. 

Nguyen, 20, said he’d been in touch with the team already, but he had no idea things would move so quickly. Soon, he was flying out to start training to be a shooting guard on the team.

The psychology student at Winnipeg’s Canadian Mennonite University couldn’t believe his luck.

“It’s been my dream ever since I was a kid to play professional [basketball],” Nguyen told CBC’s Information Radio host Marjorie Dowhos from Saigon.

It was also a chance to reconnect with family in his hometown, where he lived until he moved to Winnipeg at age nine.

“I’ve just been really thankful for that,” Nguyen said. “Ever since I’ve been back, I’ve been going to those local food places, basically just to get a taste of how it was like when I went as a young kid.”

The sport has been a huge part of his life ever since he started playing when his family first arrived in Winnipeg’s inner city.

“Where I grew up, which was in the downtown area, there was a lot of bad things happening,” he said. “I guess I could say that basketball kept me out of trouble.”

Training during quarantine

When he landed in Vietnam at the end of February, Nguyen said it didn’t take long to find ways to stay busy during his mandatory two-week quarantine period. 

He was still in his second semester of university, which meant he had plenty of studying to do.

His coaches sent him a basketball and a jump rope so he could start training daily in his room — though that task took some creativity to pull off in such a small space.

“Even [using] the jump rope would not fit,” Nguyen said.

“I just did whatever I could. I used a chair, used whatever I could find in the room, [lifted] suitcases.”

By the time he finished quarantine in mid-March, Nguyen was ready to hit the court to train for this summer’s upcoming season. He said he got along quickly with his new teammates.

“I love the guys here. Even when I first met them, they were really welcoming,” he said, adding that they were a huge help in learning about the business side of professional basketball.

Nguyen says he’s excited to bring back what he learns playing professional basketball to his team at Winnipeg’s Canadian Mennonite University. (Submitted by Binh Nguyen)

“Because once you get to that stage, you’ve got to focus on two sides: getting better and the business [side]. You’ve got to learn both to prepare yourself for the future.”

Nguyen said he’s looking forward to “playing on the big stage” as basketball grows in popularity in Vietnam, and bringing back what he learns to his university team in Winnipeg.