To the uninitiated, the American sport of basketball must seem a glamorous game-all
alley-oops and attitude. But to the purist, basketball is an Everyman's endeavor,
and one that still inspires underdogs and up-and-comers and requires just a ball,
a hard work, and a dream.
So, earlier this year, when an undersized but disciplined Japanese national team
knocked off reigning World Champion Argentina in the 2006 FIBA World Championships
in Tokyo, a precedent was brought back to Phnom Penh by Cambodia's new national team
coach Austin Koledoye.
"Basketball is a global sport now-look at China-ten years ago there wasn't anything
like the impact it has today," said Koledoye, a 39-year-old Nigerian who was
named head coach by the Ministry of Education, Youth and Sports in March. "We're
now playing the first structured basketball in Cambodian history."
Enter Air Khmer: Koledoye is fielding a 16-man roster with no players over 2 meters
tall and none who can dunk. The Kingdom was affiliated into basketball's world body,
the Geneva-based Federation Internationale de Basketball, in 1958. Today, Cambodia
is ranked 83 in the world, FIBA's lowest tier shared by all countries with zero international
The national team lost its most recent international competition 137-34 to the Philippines,
and until two months ago held its six weekly practices on the outdoor courts alongside
Olympic Stadium-weather permitting.
"The last time we went to the SEA Games it was a disaster, that's not going
to repeat itself," said Koledoye. "We know we have no size, but we'll develop
speed, fundamentals, accuracy and defense."
Koledoye grew up following the Hall of Fame career of former NBA star Akeem "The
Dream" Olajuwon. He played professionally for the State-run Raiders Basketball
Club of Akure through the late-1980s and became a licensed International Basketball
Federation referee in 2005.
Koledoye, who earned a Masters degree in Education from the College of New Jersey,
has been a teacher in Phnom Penh since 1998.
"I see my players: I must face reality. We have a team that is fast so we'll
put the ball on the floor and have a fast-break offense. We'll run zone defense and
a full court press," he said.
Koledaye reports to Cambodian Basketball Federation president Mam Sophana. Uniforms
and shoes have been obtained, as has access to the indoor court at Olympic Stadium.
The team has scheduled a training tour of Vietnam, and Koledaye is planning a trip
to the US to seek experienced players with Cambodian citizenship.
He's landed one blue chip already. According to Koledaye, Cambodian-American Soap
Toun, co-captain of the NCAA Division II Stonehill Skyhawks, has agreed to play for
the national team. Toun is a two-time All-State selection and the leading 3-point
shooter in Rhode Island basketball history.
Assistant coach Lor Syngharith is cautious of excessive optimism. He was a national
team player during the Sangkum Reastr Niyum era, trained as a coach in Russia from
1987 to 1992 and became national coach in 1995. He laments the lack of training facilities,
funding and equipment.
"In other countries they've stopped using training facilities like ours. But
the new coach isn't making excuses about this. He's thinking only about training
hard to reach our goal," Syngharith told the Post.
"I think his way of training is good, but I'm afraid that the trainees can't
stand his strict rules."
According to Koledaye, a weight training program, increased nutrition and financial
sponsorships will improve the national team.
"My reputation rests on this. We're not just going to participate, we'll try
to win-it'll be tough," he said. "I tell them the NBA won't help: watch
college basketball. They're beginning to understand."