|The Return of the Alpine Striders. Or was it the Empire Strikes Back? Which was weird because this was the same weekend as the Star Wars Convention in LA (saw a couple die-hards at the airport reading Vader magazines, etc.). Either way, a Jedi master by the name of John Lane helped the Hawaii Chosen Few spoil what would have been a triumphant return of Coach Tony Wong and the legendary Alpine Striders program, at the 32nd Annual LA Tigers Tournament this past Memorial Day Weekend. The team representing "SF Dream League" finished in a humbling 6th Place, although the brackets were somewhat haywire.|
Alright, so with Alpine the story goes like this. They were missing a point guard heading into this tournament, so they ask the last legendary player to come out of the Alpine program, Benny Hoang, to come back one more time and play with them. Benny most recently was seen playing with the Pac Coast Barons, which are now known as the NorCal Hoopaholics.
Benny tells them that if he comes back, Coach Wong should come back too, and the rest is history. I later asked Coach Wong if he was back for good, or at least for nearby tournaments such as the LVI (Las Vegas Invitational) in September. He said he was not sure. It will be another last-minute decision if so. Something tells me he'll be there because of the way Alpine played here.
Who we brought
Before I talk about Alpine and Hawaii (and the Tigers), let's get our rag-tag squad out of the way. I must admit that when I say "rag-tag", it is in retrospect. To be quite honest, on paper I thought we had a good shot at the championship going into this, with our MVP-caliber Sunny Margate anchoring the post, two dynamic 19 year-olds in Ryan Cruz and Nick Wong and the reliable point man Barry Lee, with shotblocker Mark Scates at the 5...
pg Barry Lee
sg Nick Wong
sf Ryan Cruz
pf Sunny Margate
c Mark Scates
- - -
sg Joel Sales
sg Torrent Lee
One thing I overlooked is that the Tiger tourney has been around for 32 years. That means the teams that play in it are seasoned. I can't believe I underestimated that fact, but the original roster I was bringing could certainly hold its own. The new one as a result of Ryan Mateo's injury and his buddy 6'4" Bert Wong obviously not wanting to go unless Mateo went, turned out could not quite hold its own, although everything does point back to that pivotal first game in Japanese-format tournaments.
I must say, I really liked the tourney hotel the Pacific Palms Resort. My assistant coach and 2-guard off the bench Torrent Lee has been to a few too many Indian casinos and he says it doesn't stack up, but I had no real qualms. Still, it is indeed quite expensive to send a team down to LA these days. But oh well, what can you do? As we realized in playing at the Tigers, these are tournaments worth coming to, if you can barely afford it.
How we played
Here are the results for our team...
Game 1: Alpine's patience, and DLBA's lack thereof, decides game late
Game 2: Depleted Tigers Off-White fall valiantly to DLBA
5th Place: Oh what do you do about Odou?
As I mentioned above, I thought the brackets were a little haywire, but that's what you would expect at one-and-done (at least "done" for the championship) Japanese format tournaments. I think we were given the utmost respect and thus given a first-round bye. Alpine and PacRim had to play a first-round game just to move ahead in the brackets.
But guess what, in retrospect I think the extra play-in game helped Alpine and hurt us. The bye was not a good fit for us because our team hadn't really played together much. And given that, in my humble opinion, a lot of these marginal top-level teams really are stuck in top-level purgatory when they might fare better in the 2nd divsion, maybe we could have had our first game against one of those teams, as a tune-up? I'm sure I've just offended all the teams I have branded as stuck in AA purgatory.
I think next year, I would rather bring a team, ask to play that play-in game (and you get one extra game for your money!), and risk losing that first game to go embarrassingly into the Losers Bracket, where the only thing that can be won is the "Consolation". This is because it really doesn't matter where you lose, you just can't lose. So if we had a bye the first game then lost, as we did this year, then we're stuck playing for 5th Place or "Consolation" anyways.
And this only comes after two straight Japanese tournaments where we lost the first game and it felt like we just didn't come prepared. I know the answer to that is, "Come prepared", but when you have been to as many tournaments like this, as Mike Krzyzewski has at Duke and the NCAA Tournament, you get used to it. But here's the difference: there's a huge reason why the NCAAs need to stay as a 64-team one-and-done (TV ratings) and there's nothing Coach K can do about that except prepare to console his boys each and every year, but in Asian ball, what's the reason? If Dream League has been able to hold tournaments not confined to the Consolation format, then obviously it can be done. As I keep saying over and over again, I'm in stark disagreement with the format of Japanese tournaments, but that's a whole other story. And who am I to challenge that? Hey, let's remember one thing. This is Dream League's website. This is the forum where I can express my concern. Am I going to demand changes? Of course not. I protest peacefully as is my First Amendment right.
That championship game between Alpine and Hawaii (overtime!)
I'd be remiss not to say anything about that championship game. Well, I got some of it on video and will upload and present here shortly. Basically, Alpine kept the game close, as you would predict.
Under the tutelage of Coach Wong, the Alpine guys hustled like mad after every long rebound, sticking out their butts and boxing out like they used to teach you back in the day. Despite the notable size difference, aside from the 6'5" Leandro Maruoka the Hawaii team has very wide-bodied guys (what do they eat out there?), Alpine still got a whole ton of rebounds.
Alpine was down by about 9 throughout most of the game. Credit Lane with enforcing that and the other Hawaii guys for knocking down open jumpers. Oh yeah, Lane was hitting his quirky three-pointer too. They just kept knocking them down. Maruoka wasn't even really a factor, except the occasional forget-about-it post play down low or the thunderous dunk he had with an open lane.
Still, Alpine kept it close. Everytime they fell by 9, Jonathan Chu would hit a three to bring it back to within two possessions -- and you know 6 points equals 2 possessions for Alpine!
I have a terrible memory, but the things that do stick out in my mind were a fast break by Alpine's Hoang where he hesitated, but not really, from passing the ball to his 2-on-1 teammate until the last possible moment when he knew his teammate would make the shot despite having Maruoka back defending. Guess what, the guy made the shot and-one. What a huge, ultra-high IQ assist by Hoang.
Then there's Lane taking himself out due to fatigue and his backcourt mate committing a couple turnovers with Hoang baiting him at halfcourt into a steal. Just incredible what Benny does on both offense and defense.
Well, not to be outdone, Lane and his guys had some clutch layups in the waning moments. I mean these are tough drives past the Alpine perimeter (very difficult to do), then reach the paint and somehow getting the shot off and it banking home. Wow, some of those were incredible layups.
But of course, Alpine comes back with a trey from Chu or something like that to send it into overtime.
And of course, there's the Alpine magic. They are down by three and fail to get the ball to Benny or Chu with the shotclock winding down. Instead, Jeff Lim has to launch a hopeless three that ends up an airball. This with 3.7 seconds left.
A timeout is called and Hawaii takes it out from underneath their own basket. Like pulling a rabbit out of his hat, Benny draws a charge on the ensuing play to get the ball inbounds! This occurs without the ball leaving the guy's hands, therefore no time has come off the clock. Alpine gets the ball back out of bounds because you don't shoot 1-and-1 on an offensive foul.
Coach Wong calls a timeout, but disappointingly, they once again can't get the ball to Benny, who in my mind absolutely has to take that last shot, even more so than Chu. Give credit to Hawaii. I mean, they must have something to do with that. So someone on Alpine, I think it was Lim again, has to shoot a desperation trey and it doesn't come close.
Hawaii wins it in overtime.
More cool stuff
So after the game our team exchanges pleasantries with both teams. Sunny asks if Lane, who once played for his hometown Chaminade, knows a current player there, James Francisco. We would later find out the following week at the Filipino Showtime tourney just how good Francisco is. Anyways, Lane doesn't know him, but that's only because Lane played a generation ago when Ball State went crazy at the Maui Invitational and forced Chaminade into an elimination game versus UCLA. We figured out that was the year Arizona had Jason Terry. You know what, Chaminade is the place to play for non-blue-chip recruits if not for the Maui Invitational only. I also learned that Sunny seems to know everybody.
Even way after the buzzer, we find Coach Wong talking to all of his Alpine players in the parking lot next to the team minivan. Even Benny stays to hear what Coach has to say. And guess what, Coach is still coaching. I mean, he's not yelling and screaming and getting his players to listen like that like during the game, but he is discussing the finer points of the game with his men and they are still engaged.
I'm sure my boys had the same discussion with Torrent during the drive home.
I bet if Torrent, Coach Wong, and myself ever had dinner together, we'd end up closing the place down with all the stuff we'd talk about, all the stuff we've seen.
These are the things that make Asian basketball special (Japanese/Chinese, Filipino, IndoPak). You just don't see this at any other level below college. Honestly, I don't see it happening with any other recreational league. Maybe the Hispanic tournament that Tommy Nunez runs in Arizona each year. Maybe some police leagues in NYC where the guys learn each other's first names merely by playing sports against each other, since their precincts or firehouses are so spread apart, but it's few and far between.
Something we can be proud of. Homegrown in the USA here by Asians. Just like I said in the interview with the SF Chronicle (scroll down to last paragraph).
1. Hawaii Chosen Few -- There's nothing more I can say about John Lane. The man has handles, can shoot the rock even though it's an ugly release, can convert in traffic, and does not lose the ball, even against the best as we saw with Alpine's Hoang. Lane was the hands-down MVP of the tourney, even if they had lost to Alpine (well, mostly because of Alpine's team system). He made all of his players better. The 6'5" 250 lb Maruoka was a force inside, but was maybe not as consistent as they'd like. Against PacRim he was like a buffed Tim Duncan. Against Alpine, he was not as effective. In fact, Lane said he felt the team did not play that great, which is saying a lot considering they won the championship against a quality field.
2. Alpine Striders -- What a difference Coach Wong makes. He can turn an OK-playing team that my other team beat soundly only 3-4 weeks ago into a championship-caliber system. Of course, they need Benny there to run the show and get the ball to the right person at the right time. Benny's not the same as before and certainly doesn't have the same stamina as his younger self, but he still has flashes. He won't make as many NBA threes, but he'll still make them when they're needed most. Chu is steady as a rock shooting that ball. He has a quick release and a nice arc on every shot. Does the kid ever get tired? Jeff Lim, brother Hayat Lim, and shooter Vi Ly are all solid players, but when they are playing under Coach Wong and Benny, they just do everything better. So the question is, are the Alpine Striders back? I think it's going to be a last-minute decision by Wong and Hoang again. So the real issue is this: I wouldn't want to face Alpine in the first game, period.
3. Tigers Blue -- This squad has won 6 straight California Japanese titles and it's going to be more than that unless there's a fluke. I mean, the NorCal Japanese league isn't quite at full strength right now, but that's another story. The Tigers Blue are pretty much here to stay as long as they have at least 3 of their original legendary 5. In this tournament, it was Albert Chen at the 1 or 2, Justin Dang who keeps getting better at the 3, Derek Mitchell anchoring the post, and the deceptive Tae Lee at the shooting 4-5. Let's not forget the contributions of Abe Morabbi, who had a huge factor in the Tigers 2-point win against us in Sacramento. Now, it's worth mentioning that the 2 players not included in this list are the Tigers' 2 best players: Khi-Minh Jung who is literally the "KMJ" or Korean Michael Jordan of Asian ball and Nic Echevestre who moved to New York and is not coincidentally tearing it up in the Big Apple. I should know. These guys got the best of the Dream League All-Stars back at LVI 2005. So I keep saying this, but it's true: Coach Chester Tadakawa is always dealing with a short stack of cards, but somehow you're always gonna find his team contending. So while I cannot officially rank this team yet/again amongst the Elite until they win a quality tourney, be afraid if KMJ or Nic is a trump card at any particular tourney.
4. PacRim -- It's hard to figure out PacRim because at any given weekend, sponsor Don Raymundo can enter his A team or his B squad. Traditionally, he's not had all the pieces he wants at the Tigers, so you say they're a B squad, yet that is a bit of a misnomer. These guys can play. They didn't have all their pieces during the game against Hawaii. It would've been nice to see point guard Mario Thompson match up against Lane. Big man Jay Arizabal is solid and strong down low, but against the Elite bigs like Maruoka of Hawaii, I think he may need a little more experience. I really like small forward Chris Luansing. He's versatile and reminds me of our own Dan Matsumura here in the Bay.
5. Tigers Red -- Sean Odou is the real deal. He's the Dirk Nowitzki of Asian ball, too tall to defend outside. And his numbers are strikingly consistent and Dirk-like: basically chalk up 20 and maybe 7-8 rebounds. He looks young too, so he might be here to stay. Michael Hamner is a workhorse down low and a perfect complement to Odou. Then you've got Erich Chung who just keeps hitting the open three. This 3-pronged attack makes the Tigers Red quite dangerous. However, they are missing a few parts in terms of role players. They probably need another decent rebounder and shooter, although Tejas Gala seems to fit the bill at the power forward. I think they just need a few more tournaments under their belt, maybe another star player who is willing to sacrifice for the team and join this team from somewhere, and you got a legitimate perennial contender. But the one litmus test may be to knock off the Tigers Blue on at least a 50/50 basis within Japanese League. They almost did this, as Chester told me they lost in double OT by 2 points to eventual 6-time champion Blue in the regular season, then lost by about 8 in the championship.
Tigers Off-White, LA Dragon's Den -- These are two teams quite different from each other in that the Tigers Off-White are highly experienced, but kind of reaching the summit in terms of age, while LA Dragon's Den is younger, but a few pieces away. Dragon's Den is actually our Kevin Sagong's former team, but Sagong no longer plays consistently with them since he's up at Davis and the Bay now. LA Dragon's has upside, but they seem to be caught in that Japanese AA purgatory, where they are just off the pace of the stronger teams, but too strong to move down to the next division.
Jets Vipers, Sacramento Barons, Lago Seco's Boys, Tigers Hoop Squad -- Tigers Hoop Squad has been around for years, but they are either getting old or the new blood is transitioning in and not quite there yet. Our inaugural Dream League All-Star squad beat Tigers Hoop Squad at LVI in our first LVI bid back in 2003 and this squad is not as strong as that one was. The Jets Vipers seem to be caught in A+/AA Japanese tournament purgatory as well. I've written about the Sac Barons at the Barons tourney recap and I don't mean to be cruel, but I just don't think they belong in AA. That's my objective conclusion. And the Lago Seco's Boys, they're brand new it seems like and they have a long, long way to go.
East Bay Cardinals -- For the 2nd straight year in a row, they won the A+ division of the Tigers tournament. It was a crime that they were not moved up this year, although they probably would've beaten the team I brought! With two former AA-level MVP-caliber guys in Gusner and Sagong, as well as everyone's favorite utility man Ross Lim, as well as energizer bunny scorer Huy Nguyen, this team could potentially have 4 bonafide AA-level players who have succeeded at that level (with the Dream League All-Stars, I must brag!). There's no question they will move up next year, which presents a problem for me in that my new guy to replace Lim, Sagong, is going to be with Lim against us! That is the convolution of the Asian baller scene up here in the Bay. Let's not forget Gusner and Lim's signing onto the NorCal Hoopaholics of Sac Barons tourney fame. I guess those Hoopaholics won't be making an appearance at Tigers so long as San Francisco Duke continues to sponsor a team in the Chinese Nationals during the same weekend. There are so many different tournaments, sometimes the squads that become established are remixes of other squads. I'm just happy that the Bay will always be represented well at either of these tourneys. I'll be sure to point out the common threads to you when I can.
I don't know who was voted on the tourney all-star team, but I'm pretty sure Lane got MVP. Here's my pick for First-Team all-tourney...
pg Mario Thompson, PacRim
pg/sg John Lane, Hawaii Chosen Few
pg/sg Benny Hoang, Alpine Striders
sf Sean Odou, Tigers Red
c Leandro Maruoka, Hawaii Chosen Few
That's right folks, I'd have three point guards in my top five. Come to think of it, wow, this tourney was an incredible showcase of bonafide point guards. You have Steve Nash in John Lane, although Nash's shot looks way better than Lane's. Thompson reminds me of Chris Paul. Benny reminds me of, well, nobody. So Benny is just Benny. In fact, Benny really didn't have the numbers to show for it, but that's why you must watch the games to see for yourself! Benny directed traffic for the Alpine system and, as I have been saying, simply delivered the ball to the right guy at the right time. The only problem? Nobody else on Alpine could really deliver the ball to Benny at the right time and that may have been the difference for Alpine.
Odou and Maruoka are somewhat no-brainers. They were clearly the best frontcourt players in the tournament. Although our very own Sunny Margate has shown himself in other tourneys to be potentially as dominant as Odou and Maruoka, quite frankly Sunny had a subpar tournament, but then again he was surrounded by a team that was not necessarily conducive to that. We were rag-tag.
Finally I ought to say that Tae Lee of the Tigers Blue, I would have picked him up there, but he wasn't there on Sunday (and maybe even Saturday). Tae was a huge difference for the Tigers as they won 3rd Place over Mario-less PacRim. So no 3rd Place Tigers in my First Team All-Tourney because, quite frankly, nobody on Tigers Blue really stood out except for Tae. Still, the Tigers Blue played very well as a team.
If they ever combine with Odou (along with Hamner, but Odou must be there) on any particular tournament team, yikes! I wonder if Chester has made sacrifices by not purposely combining such Tigers teams together. I mean, it was a 12-team field and it didn't have to be. I suppose in a local tournament for them, they'll keep the teams separate as if it was any other week in Japanese League, but it really is scary to think of Odou playing with Tigers Blue.
My guys, although they had never really played in a Japanese/Chinese tournament, had much respect and enjoyed their time down in LA. Primarily it was the patience of the Alpine team that was most impressive. What's crazy is, we're almost forgetting that Hawaii beat Alpine, so that just goes to show you we do have much respect for Hawaii as well in overcoming Alpine, although we narrowly were defeated by Alpine ourselves in the first game where we had no idea what to expect.
The Tigers tournament is very much like LVI, or should I say it the other way around, since the Tiger tournament is the oldest tourney I know of. I'm not sure if it draws the utmost top teams, as I'd like to brag that our Dream League National Championship can certainly hold its own. Let's not diss the IndoPak national tourney circuit either. That's a whole new world -- pardon the pun and reference to Aladdin, which my 2-year-old loves to watch -- that's waiting to be unveiled to us. With guys like Chester opening it up a little to the Filipino circuit, the Tiger tournament is really the only other tournament besides ours where you can see some of the best Filipinos go up against some of the best Japanese/Chinese.
The return of Coach Wong further put a stamp on this year because it especially showed my guys the difference in styles between the two circuits. The Japanese/Chinese play a much more patient, controlled game, true to the roots of Hoosier-like basketball -- and let me take this opportunity to observe that Coach Wong is the Bobby Knight of Asian ball; a true living legend. The way Alpine transformed from a #4 team at the Sac Barons tournament we played in, into a championship-caliber team capable of knocking off as physical and talented a team as Hawaii, now that's basketball. Not to downplay the Filipino circuit because there are extremely strong teams there too, but I've observed that the Filipinos play more of an NBA-style athletic game, but the best Filipino teams are still those that have the best teamwork, unless there is a LeBron James-like ringer. Curiously though, Dream League's tournaments utilize the NBA format, so that might bring even further parity should we have more games between such opposing styles and circuits.
I've only seen so many IndoPak matchups, but you know what, the best IndoPak teams fall somewhere in the middle between pure patience and outright athleticism. They tend to be big teams, but the best teams do try and move the ball around. Unless a certain Japanese/Chinese team has lightning quick guards or the rare size to matchup, coming from the Japanese/Chinese circuit I dare say that my brethren might have trouble against some of the top IndoPak teams. However, the teams right underneath the perennial powerhouse IndoPak teams tend to stray to the athletic/impatient game, so I'm only talking about a select few at the top. And I've built our future Dream League team to handle the size. Well, I shouldn't say I built it. To be honest, it just turned out that way that we have a tall team.
Embrace the opportunities of basketball
The last thought I want to make and perhaps share with you if you're willing, is about this silly era of ballplayers who just don't want to go out of their comfort zone. We have players like that on my regular squad. They want to play with certain players and friends, otherwise it's not worth their while. Well, guess what. They missed out on seeing Coach Wong and Alpine in action. They missed out on catching a glimpse of the Hawaii team.
That's the thing about quality tournaments. In basketball, it should be about your journey. The more journeys you make, the more chances you have of seeing quality ball and winning championships. Sometimes, like we have seen in recent tourneys with whatever last-minute Tigers squad Chester brings out (and he hasn't had his fab five in a long, long time) over and over again, you go in shorthanded. Only you and your teammates are gonna know that, but that's OK. You go for the sake of basketball.
I was talking with former Alpine player Kenny Phan who now runs the LA Mofufus league. He was saying that there doesn't appear to be a next generation of Alpine players. The team they got right now, this may be the last one. We were talking about how players coming up don't want to be part of a system anymore. They play with their friends and stuff and that's great, but it doesn't end up shepherding the game in the right way. I think we can all see this at the macro level, most notably represented and reflected by Team USA in the Olympics. It's just the American Way right now.
Guys like me, Chester, Don Raymundo, Kenny, Coach Wong and Coach Jones Wu (of the East Bay Cardinals) are really just trying to play basketball the way it's supposed to be played. With teamwork and sacrifice that leads to a higher level understanding of the game. Unfortunately the generation of today cannot see that higher plane.
So next year, I'm going to insist that most of my guys come no matter what. Even if we are shortstacked. They forget how much trouble it is that we coaches go through to do this thing we love. I ended up spending about $1,200 of our marketing budget on coming to this tournament and from a business perspective, it did well. Better than most sponsorship budgets you see out there in the Fortune 500. We got our name out there and we advertised our Beijing 2008 Olympics trip very effectively.
From a basketball standpoint though, this was one of the most rewarding learning experiences I've ever had. I have Coach Wong, my guys who came with me, and my fellow impassioned Asian baller expert assistant coach/player Torrent to thank for that. Sure, it was time spent away from my family, but for us hoopsters, it's like that necessary trip men take with each other camping every year. Or fishing. Or golf. Except that it's hoop for us. We learn more about each other and we learn more about the subject at hand.
Embarking on journeys with teammates where you have no idea where it will end, those are the journeys that make you a champion. You can apply that theory to a lot of things: going out with friends you just met, traveling to different parts of the world, getting to know distant family members you don't really know well.
A little bit of sacrifice always seems to go a long way in more ways than one.
The next tournament is the Filipino Showtime tournament in Hayward. We were originally signed up for the Japanese/Chinese Drakes tournament in San Francisco, but backed out of that one once we heard the Showtime tourney was back on. The Showtime tourney guys didn't really give us that much time, otherwise I would have tried to help them find a solution where we could play in the pre-established Drakes on one weekend and move the Showtime to another weekend (perhaps, well it's up to the gym directors, really).