Bui's boys take it to the hoop

MASAE team photo Back row (left to right): Coach Vinh Bui, Shaun Galano, Mark Castillo, Jim Tran, Paul Bedard, Justin, and Alex Mortel. Bottom row: Duy Pham, Branden Ngo, Mikey Pham, Aly Tran, Hung Tran, Mike Tran, Thanh Nguyen and Minh Truong. Not pictured: Phibe Pham, Mico Tran, Kevin Tran.

At 5 feet 5 inches, Vinh Bui does not fit the typical image of basketball stardom, nor do the 18 or so Vietnamese and Filipino teen boys who play hoops on the team he coaches. But in what he calls "the biggest underdog story out there," Bui's team recently won the Asian Basketball Classic, sponsored by Asian Hoops in New Jersey.

The other teams had more experience and better funding, facilities and trainers, Bui said. "I brought a bunch of kids from Dorchester, brought 'em out against supposedly well trained kids, and we ended up winning the whole thing."

Bui has always been passionate about basketball despite the scarcity of Asian players in mainstream leagues. He started coaching with Al McLean's Al Ski League at the Grover Cleveland Middle School, where kids logged after-school hours finishing homework to earn time on the court. Bui said he picked up ideas and a no-nonsense coaching style from McLean, as well as the philosophy that basketball could save kids from the temptation of gangs and drugs.

"It's not just basketball," Bui said, who started the program a year and a half ago with funding from the Dorchester Youth Collaborative. "That's just what gets the kids in the gym." Bui said he knows Dorchester and he knows that the majority of people in this age group are either in gangs or targeted by gangs.

"There's illegal stuff going on here that sets up a subculture of gangs," Bui said, though his basketball program serves as a counter culture to that - he recruits from the same age group that the gangs target: 11 to 15-year-olds. "It gives kids another outlet," he said, "an alternative."

Vinh's team, officially the Massachusetts Asian Society Athletic Establishment, or M.A.S.A.E., are their own gang of sorts, Bui said, likening training sessions to initiation rites. But when "gangs go out looking for trouble, we go out looking for basketball games," he said.

As a coach, Bui is merciless. At a Saturday practice in April, 10 players loped up and down the court, exhausted and cringing with pain as he looked on from the sidelines. "Push it," he told them and they did.

"Vinh expects a lot from us," said 15-year-old Hung Tran. "It's hard work, but he's trying his best to make us fit where we belong." The boys, who call each other brothers and their coach a friend, are thankful to have Bui in their lives. "We all know he could be doing something else right now," said Michael Tran, "but instead he volunteers his time and he gets us out of troubleĀ…He takes care of us."

There is a group consensus on the team that Dorchester is a dangerous place, especially for young Asian males that Bui said are often picked as "easy targets" for their smaller statures.

"We all feel scared," said Branden Ngo, who lives near Dudley Street. "We walk down Dorchester Avenue knowing people will jump you for no reason."

The violence is an apparent part of these kids' everyday lives as each one interjects the word "scared" somewhere in their explanation of what it's like to live in Dorchester. In January, the severity of violence in the Vietnamese community was exposed when a video appearing on the Internet showed the brutal beating of two Vietnamese teenagers in Fields Corner was reported in the Reporter and the Boston Globe. But Bui said this wasn't an isolated event, despite what some of the older Vietnamese community leaders believe.

"When I was 12, 13, walking through Fields Corner, it happened all the time," Bui said, "kids walking through back alleys getting jumped."

His players deal with gang members on a daily basis, Bui said, remembering a time when he saw some of his boys being followed after practice. Bui pulled up in his car to rescue them and give them a safe ride home, but said he was disgusted by "the fact that someone would initiate that type of violence."

At practice on April 19, the boys were experiencing another type of fear as they prepared for a rematch with the team they beat in March at the Asian Hoops tournament. "It's scary," Tran said of the upcoming game, before joining his team on the court for another round of drills with Bui.

On April 26, MASAE lost their championship title to NYCE (New York City Elite) a Filipino team from Staten Island.