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Vietnam shows interest in PBA

Vietnam Basketball Association (VBA) founding commissioner and former Letran cager Tonichi Pujante is paving the way for the PBA to establish a presence in the Southeast Asian country with the first step to air the games on local TV then eventually, host teams to play in Saigon. File photo

MANILA, Philippines – Vietnam Basketball Association (VBA) founding commissioner and former Letran cager Tonichi Pujante is paving the way for the PBA to establish a presence in the Southeast Asian country with the first step to air the games on local TV then eventually, host teams to play in Saigon.

Pujante said Nguyen Connor, the VBA CEO and a co-owner of the ABL team Saigon Heat, has expressed interest in bringing the PBA to Vietnam. “He wants to air the PBA games in Vietnam first but he’s interested in hosting the PBA, too,” said Pujante. “Vietnamese players have a high regard for Filipino basketball. Some of them even dream of playing in the PBA as Asian imports. I’m not so familiar with the Filipino community in Vietnam but I know they’re scattered all over.  Maybe, we could bring in a PBA team to play an exhibition game with a Vietnamese team. That could get the ball rolling.”

 Pujante, 55, was signed for the first VBA season. “I didn’t conduct coaching or playing clinics but I oversaw a one-week workshop for the local referees before the preseason games,” he said. “We played for four months, from August to November. So far, it’s only one conference in a season. There were no Filipino players in the league, just local Vietnamese, Viet Kieus or the equivalent to our Fil-foreign players and international imports.”

Among the VBA imports were Rudolphe Joly of Sheridan College, Darrell Miller of Fisk University, Jaywuan Hill of Southwest Baptist University, Trevor Berkeley of Drake University and Tavarion Nix of Midwestern State University. The teams were Hanoi, Saigon, Da Nang, Ho Chi Minh and Can Tho. The schedule included six preseason, 40 regular season and playoff games.

Pujante said the best Viet Kieus players were David Arnold of Colorado and Justin Young of Los Angeles and the best Vietnamese players were Le Ngoc Tu and Trieu Han Minh of Ho Chi Minh and twins Nguyen Phu Hoang and Nguyen Thanh Dat of Hanoi. “The fans are starting to get crazy over basketball and it’s fast catching up with soccer,” he said.  “We did a lot of traveling because of the home-and-away format. I stayed in District 2, a kilometer away from our office. My wife Tessa and our daughter Trish live in Manila but went to Vietnam for a visit and I’d like to thank them for their support.” His 22-year-old daughter is a UP statistics major.

Curiously, Pujante’s wife is Vietnamese who was adopted by a Filipino diplomat previously assigned in Saigon. “When I applied for the job as VBA commissioner, she didn’t want me to say that she is Vietnamese,” said Pujante. “It was only after I was hired that I told my employer about her. She doesn’t know her biological relatives.”

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Pujante said he was recommended by coach Vic Ycasiano to coach Eric Altamirano who endorsed his application for the job. “I had three Skype interviews because there were other applicants,” he said. “The job opening was posted on Spin.Ph. I brought along with me FIBA international referee Raffy Britanico as my technical supervisor and senior referees Don Arguelles and Jong Banayat. Unfortunately, Don had to cut his stint short because of personal reasons. So I took in Allan Maronilla as his replacement.”

Pujante graduated elementary and high school at La Salle Greenhills then took up marketing at Letran where he was captain of the NCAA Grand Slam championship team that included Samboy Lim, Romy Ang, Jerry Gonzales, Tino Pinat and Badong Ramos under coach Larry Albano in 1982-84. Pujante also played on the Letran national inter-collegiate champion squad with Itoy Esguerra, Ed Baldomero, Bong Aninon and Ed Ducut under coach Nemie Villegas in 1980.

Pujante turned to coaching in 1986 with the La Salle Greenhills high school varsity whose players included future PBA coach Binky Favis, Arnel Guste and Miles Roces. He went on to coach the UST senior varsity in 1988-89 with players Alfrancis Chua, Patrick Fran, Edmund Reyes, Jay Ramirez, Billy Reyes, Rene Cabaluna, Jingky Tengco and Digs Latoreno. Pujante tried his luck coaching in California for a few years then moved back to Manila where he rejoined La Salle Greenhills and later coached the Perpetual Help juniors with players including Gelo Alolino, Joseph Eriobu and Axel Inigo in 2005-13. As an assistant coach with the Perpetual Help seniors, Pujante recruited Scottie Thompson. 

Pujante has attended a Sports Medicine workshop in Woodland, California and clinics of Bobby Knight in Burlingame, California and Dean Smith in Lake Tahoe, Nevada. He said working as the La Salle Alumni League basketball commissioner for the last eight years prepared him for the VBA job. The players in the Alumni League include Joey Sta. Maria, Dwight Lago, Noli Locsin, Dino Aldeguer, Mon Jose, Noy Falcasantos, Franz Pumaren, Nico Salva, Paul Artadi, Eric Reyes, Chris Tan, Midas Marquez, Francis Zamora, Mark Leviste, Favis, Guste, Rafa Dinglasan and Kiefer Ravena.

“My closest friend is Dim, that’s what I call Samboy Lim,” he said. “I remember in 1984, we were trailing the entire game when I stole the ball from Collantes of San Sebastian with 44 seconds left and they were ahead by one. I dished off to Samboy for the go-ahead basket. That was for our eighth straight win and third straight NCAA championship. After our Letran days, our friendship nurtured through the years based on trust and respect. I’m still hoping and praying that he’ll fully recover.”

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