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Hoop dreams: national team looks to lure US stars

Hoop dreams: national team looks to lure US stars

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."


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