Stefan Nguyen recalls watching the Olympics in the early 2000s on television with his father when he was still in Sweden. He doesn’t recall exactly what sport they were watching, but he clearly remembers what his father told him that day. That was when Stefan Nguyen started to dream.
“I think it was the Olympics in Sydney,” Nguyen recalls. “me and my dad were watching Vietnam for some reason. We were watching – I think it was – Taekwando. It might have even been my teammate [Nguyen] Van Hung there.”
“The thing is that he always told me that even though you were born and raised in Sweden, don’t ever forget about your heritage. You are Vietnamese.”
“Even though how much I want to say that I love Sweden, it’s not easy always being the odd one out in any occassion. Growing up in Sweden [was] perfect for me, but coming back to where I belong is something special.”
So far, Nguyen is playing like he feels exactly where he belongs with the Vietnamese National Team in SEA Games 2017. He’s been a lead guard for the team, averaging 4.0 assists in two games. After playing professionally in Vietnam with the Saigon Heat for two years, this is his first time representing the country for the National Team. Nguyen had been excited at the chance of playing for the Vietnamese National Team ever since he saw the possibility and it all seems surreal now that he’s actually there.
Nguyen recalls getting a Vietnamese National Team jersey from his friend when he first arrive in the country to prepare playing for the Saigon Heat, which is when the idea of playing for Vietnam really sank in.
“Is it really possible?” Nguyen remembers asking himself at that moment. “Wow, this is amazing.”
Unfortunately for Nguyen, he arrived in the country only after Vietnam had already started playing in the SEA Games 2015 and had to watch his fellow countrymen play on without him. Two years later, he would finally join them on the court in uniform.
“Coming from that point of getting a jersey but not playing for Vietnam, just for the Saigon Heat, it was already a huge step there,” Nguyen says. “Being officially able to play [for the National Team] was a major process but we got it through so that’s just amazing.”
Vietnam recently capped off their first win in SEA Games 2017 against Cambodia, a team they had lost to by 18 points in 2015. The addition of Stefan Nguyen has been a huge part of their improvement. While the national team is enjoying a boost in talent, Nguyen has been enjoying the experience of donning the Vietnam flag on his jersey.
“I didn’t want to disrespect the [professional teams in Vietnam] and what they bring to the table but playing SEA Games and playing for Vietnam is a special feeling,” Nguyen says. “I remember the first time I played for the Swedish Youth National Team. It’s a similar feeling but this time [playing for Vietnam] it’s more… you can really feel it.”
“I do understand now why people want to play for the National Team,” Nguyen continues on proudly. “Even though it’s financially not beneficial but waking up knowing that you can look back to the time when you represented Vietnam in some sort of competition is special.”
“It’s hard to explain but the feeling of putting that jersey on, knowing that the whole country stands behind you is amazing.”
With only two minutes left in the game against Cambodia, Vietnam had the possession along with a precious two-point lead. They had once held as big as a 15-point lead earlier in the quarter, but Cambodia had ferociously rallied back on a storm of three-point shots.
Stefan Nguyen drove towards the basket, crossing left and faking right, and as the Cambodian defence collapsed on him. At the last second he dropped a nimble pass to Tam Dinh Thanh who calmly scored. The basket put Vietnam out of Cambodia’s reach and they would go on to win the game. It was the first win for the team and an emotional one, considering how far they had come.
As the final buzzer sounded, Nguyen celebrated with his team mates and the supporting fans, all united under the same Vietnamese flag.
“It was a dream.” Nguyen had said about representing Vietnam in international competition.
Now, his dreams have finally come true.