Now into their second season, we find out how Vietnam’s only pro basketball team is doing, and get a one-on-one with their newest American import…
The Saigon Heat was the ASEAN Basketball League’s (ABL) hottest team through the first month of the season. In a dramatic turnaround from last year’s 0 – 7 start to their inaugural campaign, the Heat jumped out to take sole possession of first place with a 92 – 89 nail biter over the San Miguel Beermen for their third straight victory and a 3 – 1 record on the season.
Spearheading the surging Heat is the frontcourt combination of Dior Lowhorn and David Palmer, who are first and second in the league in scoring, respectively. Lowhorn’s physical play in the post, combined with David’s size and red-hot 3-point shooting (18 of 30 for 60 per cent) keeps pressure on opposing defenses. Add their combined 24 rebounds per game to that and they become a matchup nightmare for teams.
In that game, the Heat went into the half down by four and dug a ten-point hole in the third quarter before picking things up. Led by David, Lowhorn, and guard Jai Reyes, who added 22 points, the Heat took the lead less than three minutes into the final frame. They stretched the advantage to as many as six during the fourth, but Beermen bigs Gabe Freeman and Brian Williams wouldn’t let the Heat deliver the knockout blow. They kept it close right until the end, when Reyes drained two key free throws to close out the scoring. Freeman’s last second three went long at the buzzer.
The Heat’s chemistry on the court, and success in the standings, is only part of the story. The crowd at Tan Binh Stadium has fully embraced the team and clearly gives them a boost with their raucous support. Whether clapping their bright red thunder sticks, stomping their feet, or just yelling at the tops of their lungs, the Heat faithful are like a sixth man on the court.
For Westerners, North Americans in particular, the sport of professional basketball elicits images of glitz, fame, fortune, and all that goes with being a professional athlete in a game that enjoys worldwide popularity. But while being a player for a team in the ASEAN Basketball League is vastly different than the NBA or a league in Europe, it’s no less special.
The Saigon Heat’s newest American import comes by way of China. David Palmer, who hails from Nashville, Tennessee, and played college hoops at the University of Iowa and Northern Kentucky University, is now in his third pro season. The 6’11/254lbs (2.10m/115kg) power forward/center, who scored 20 points and collected 12 rebounds in a win over Thailand on January 17th, came to Saigon after the Heat’s new head coach, Jason Rabedeaux — who coached David in China — inherited the team.
“Coach Jason felt I was a better fit for his system than another American they had on the squad, so he called my agent and I was intrigued at the idea of playing in the ASEAN league,” says David.
He acknowledges some striking differences between being a pro athlete in Saigon to his other stops in Europe and China, most notably the language barrier.
“We also don’t drive around in expensive cars; we take taxis everywhere we go,” he adds. While he has spent some time shopping and taking in the local sites and cuisine, most days are a regimen of practice and rest where players live in District 11.
David exhibits a reserved demeanor, but he lights up when he receives a pass in the low post as well as when he starts talking about the Heat’s fan base.
“The games speak for themselves,” he says. “The fans really love basketball and this is one of the loudest arenas I’ve ever played in. It has to be in the top two or three.” The Heat’s big man also joyfully explains that the fans seem to be picking up the game judging by the way they know when to cheer.
David seems to relish playing for the team’s owners, Henry and Connor Nguyen. “It’s great to work for them, because if they hire you it means they trust you. They stay out of the way and don’t meddle and just let us do our job. The word is getting out on the international circuit that the ABL is a great place to play. There’s excellent competition and the league is growing so fast.”
David regularly returns home in the offseason to be with family, but he doesn’t keep track of the NBA from afar, stating that he doesn’t follow any players or teams. “They don’t pay me so I don’t root for them,” quips David.
While the imports are here to earn a paycheck, he knows there is more to their job than scoring points and grabbing rebounds. The Heat are part of the Saigon Sports Academy and in addition to interacting with the fans and promoting the game in Southeast Asia, they’ll be running youth clinics to teach the game to the Vietnamese.
“We make great money, and with the cost of living here it’s a great situation. But it’s more than that. We are part of building something here,” says David.
Get in on the game, check out when their next match is at www.saigonheat.com.