The Southern Section basketball playoff pairings were released Sunday, and one of the most intriguing teams is Mark Keppel of Alhambra, whose coach, Hung Duong, escaped Vietnam in 1978 on a boat with his parents and five siblings and has grown up to become a successful biology teacher and coach.
With a student population that's 72% Asian and the winner of the L.A. County Academic Decathlon, Keppel isn't exactly considered a boys' basketball powerhouse even though it has won four consecutive Almont League championships. There are zero transfers and no shoe contract. Duong does carry around an Adidas bag that he bought from Sport Chalet.
What the Aztecs offer is a home-grown team that plays hard, plays smart and tries to execute its way to victories. So far, Keppel is 22-5. The Aztecs' best player is 6-foot-5 junior Bertram Mak, an A student who's constantly smiling on the court.
In the school program listed under hobbies, Mak has "racing pigeons, bird-watching and tea tasting." But they're fake hobbies put in by Duong to reflect his players' personalities. Another player has hula hooping. Another has texting, tweeting and ballroom dancing. Another has tanning and collecting headbands.
"They don't look much, but I'm proud," Duong said. "They work hard and they're solid players. We run a Princeton-style offense but Princeton on steroids."
They full-court press and run plays Duong picks up from watching men's and women's college basketball on TV. Most of all, they reflect the passion and commitment of a 40-year-old who before every league game goes to his father's grave site during lunchtime and lights incense while honoring his father.
"I ask Dad for good luck and to take care of us," Duong said.
It was his father who helped sneak him out of the house as a freshman at Alhambra High to attend 5 a.m. basketball practices. His mother didn't want him to play sports. She wanted him to focus on academics. The secret lasted for a season. He was cut from the freshman team, made the reserve team and later became a varsity player and graduated from Occidental College.
If you want to bring a smile to Duong's face, bring him a Coke. Ever since he arrived from Vietnam as a young boy and got his first sip, he said, "Man, this is great." And he hasn't stopped drinking it.
He teaches three Biology I classes and also serves as a co-athletic director while coaching basketball.
Because of the Southern Section's new Open Division playoffs, the top team in 1A, Riverside North, was pulled and placed in the Open Division, giving schools such as Keppel a better chance at advancing in the tournament. Keppel's first-round opponent Friday will be Fontana Miller.
"Making it to the quarterfinals and semifinals is a big deal for us," Duong said.
Duong has been Keppel's coach for 13 years. Each season, he quietly and competently takes whoever shows up and tries to develop them, remembering his own experiences.
"Not too many people I tell the story to," he said. "That's why I demand so much of my kids, because I know I've been to the bottom and kind of worked my way back up."