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Cambodian hoop dreams

Cambodian hoop dreams

With a fresh input of funds and resources, Cambodia’s national basketball team still search for international competitions to see how they stand in the region

1.90-metre Cambodian national basketball team player Phal Sophors (centre, orange shirt) has relocated to Phnom Penh from his home province of Prey Veng to play as a professional basketball player.

For the first time in years, the Cambodian Basketball Federation (CBF) is making a concerted push for the men’s national basketball team to be competitive. Now they just need to find a competition to play in.

In the past year, the federation has scoured Cambodia for young talent and funded a recruiting trip across the world to the US. However, with the cancellation of the basketball tournament in December’s SEA Games in Laos, future international matches have yet to be arranged.

When Laos was named the host nation for the 2009 SEA Games last year, organisers quickly noted the lack of gymnasiums capable of hosting an international basketball tournament. Participating countries, along with sponsor country China, were unable to find a way to make the tournament happen.

“At our second council meeting, we decided that we couldn’t have basketball. We don’t have the facilities,” said Somphou Phongsa, the head of the administration and service committee for the SEA Games in Laos.

Austin Koledoye, head coach of the Cambodian national team for over two years, expressed his frustration over the situation. “We don’t have the money to travel to other countries, and we don’t really have the facilities to host the wealthier countries,” he said. “What are we supposed to do?”

In December 2008, Mak Chanphirun, captain of the 1998 Sisowath High School basketball squad and a current staff member at the National Assembly, was named the new secretary general of the CBF. Since then, the funding and resources that Koledoye has been longing for in his last four years as coach are finally beginning to emerge.

In February, the government paid for Koledoye’s trip to the US, where he met with a dozen Cambodian-Americans, some playing at Division II universities. “I was looking for players with height,” he stated. “We needed an enforcer, someone to go against teams like the Philippines.”

But all the coach found were guards, three of which tentatively agreed to make the monthlong excursion to Southeast Asia in order to train for and participate in the December SEA Games on the government’s tab.

Scouting homegrown talent
The CBA also searched for young talent at home, and found a 17-year-old wide-shouldered Khmer teenager from Prey Veng named Phal Sophors, who moved to Phnom Penh to train in May.

It wasn’t his basketball skills that drew the attention of Mak Chanphirun and Koledoye, who spotted him playing at the annual National High School Basketball tournament in Battambang. It was his 1.9-metre stature.

“He could hardly dribble on the first day, but he’s getting a lot better. Playing basketball is the only thing he is here for,” said Koledoye.

A year ago, Phal Sophors was living with his parents and eight siblings, spending his days studying and working in his family’s rice fields. “I played basketball at school and with my friends, but not every day,” he admitted. Now, only two years after first picking up a basketball, he is living in Cambodia’s most populous city, sleeping in a small room in Olympic Stadium and practising for three hours a day with the country’s best ballers.

National team starting point guard Meas Rith Ravuth (right) dribbles the ball during a practice session inside Olympic Stadium Saturday.

Still a teenager, Phal Sophors’ physical supremacy is obvious as soon as practice begins. No one on the team steps in front of his moves to the basket, and if they did, it’s unlikely that they would stop him from getting there.

His skills are underdeveloped compared with most of the players on the team, some of whom have been playing for 10 years, but he is the tallest player on the team – with centimeters to spare – and his aggression and hustle are relentless.

Like other athletes on Cambodia’s national sports teams, Phal Sophors receives a monthly salary of 250,000 riels (US$60) from the Ministry of Education, Youth and Sport, of which he sends half home to his parents. The ministry also provides athletes with three meals a day at the Borei Khmer Hotel. A larger monthly stipend was previously disbursed, but athletes were complaining of a lack of energy, so the officials decided to cut down on cash and guarantee a hearty diet of meat, rice and soup.

The long road to success
Despite improved resources and future promise, the national basketball team, made up mostly of university students, still has a way to go towards being a legitimate international competitor. Koledoye admits that they are years, perhaps decades, away from competing with the Philippines, who are the dominant basketball team in the region. “We have to start from the ground up, but on the ground there is nothing,” the coach remarked. “The players have no one to challenge them to get better.”

To fill the void, some of the city’s better players who have not made national team selection will come to Olympic Stadium to join the scrimmage during the second half of the daily 5:30pm-7:30pm practice.

The practice venue, which is made available at no cost by the ministry, is hardly ideal in itself. The chequered hardwood floor is falling apart; many of the wooden squares are rotting or filled in with cement. There are scores of lighting fixtures on the ceiling, but only a dozen are turned on for practice, casting a dim yellow light on the floor.

The team has permission to use the court anytime it is available, but being one of the few indoor sports venues in the city, it is often in use by volleyball leagues, the Futsal federation or martial arts tournaments, leaving the national team with nowhere to go. A recent practice was cancelled after thunderstorms caused half of the players, who mostly travel by motorbike, to miss the session.

The national coach admits that there is no shortage of obstacles, but he is thrilled with the government’s recent interest in basketball and the effort of his players. “These guys are busting their butts out there. They just need competition,” he said.

With a series of coaching clinics from October 14-16, Koledoye and Mak Chanphirun hope to bring basketball fundamentals to Cambodia’s youth through knowledgeable coaches. “We are trying to make a difference in basketball in Cambodia,” asserted the CBA official. Perhaps by the next time they have a competitive game, all this hard work will pay off.

Photos by Nick Sells (www.nicksellsphotography.com)


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