Buena's Klemm Made Transition From the Front Line to Backcourt : Native of Vietnam Leads Team's Quest for Girls 4-A Title

Times Staff Writer

If the Vietnam War had ended differently, Mary Klemm probably would be chasing chickens on her family's farm in her native South Vietnam. Instead, Klemm is racing up and down a basketball court, dribbling and passing at Buena High in the quiet beach city of Ventura.

Local basketball coaches say Klemm might be the top point guard in the Southern Section. Last season, she set a school record for assists and was one of five juniors selected first-team All-Southern Section.

"I've seen several of the top teams play this season and I would say Mary is one of the best point guards in the Southern Section if not the best," Thousand Oaks Coach Chuck Brown said. "She certainly does everything they ask of her."

In nine years as coach, Joe Vaughan has led Buena to two state championships and five appearances in the Southern Section 4-A Division finals, winning two titles. He has coached six players who are playing for Division I teams, but he thinks Klemm might be his best college prospect.

"I would rank her as one of the top five players to play at Buena High," Vaughan said. "She's the most-recruited player I've ever had."

Klemm, however, never would have had a chance to demonstrate her basketball abilities if her family was able to remain safely in South Vietnam.

Mary's father, Richard, served four years in Vietnam as a Navy pilot, surveying the Tonkin gulf. He received his discharge from the Navy in 1965 but returned to South Vietnam three years later to be with his wife and two children. He worked as a civilian contractor for Dyna-Lectron, a private company with military contracts, and had planned to live the rest of his life in South Vietnam.

The Klemm family lived in Da Nang, a seaport near the border with North Vietnam, where Mary and her younger sister Laura were born. Da Nang was a major American base and a focal point of military action during the Vietnam War.

"We had instances where rockets and mortar shells would go off near where we lived," Richard Klemm said. "But we lived in town away from the base and were never really in much danger."

The family evacuated South Vietnam when then-President Richard M. Nixon signed a cease-fire agreement in 1973, one year before the city was overrun by the North Vietnamese.

"I never imagined we would lose the war," Richard Klemm said. "We owned a chicken farm and some land to build a house on. I had planned to raise my family there and buy a Kentucky Fried Chicken Franchise."

Richard Klemm, 57, moved his family to Ventura, his hometown, and it didn't take long before they adjusted to their new home.

"Two years after we moved, we were sitting around the dinner table when the telephone rang," Richard Klemm said. "My wife answered the phone and started speaking in Vietnamese. I asked my son what she was saying and he said, 'I don't know dad. She's Vietnamese and we're not.' "

Klemm, who was 4 years old when the family moved, doesn't remember much about South Vietnam. Her parents tell her stories and she receives letters from relatives. She doesn't mind talking about her background but is rarely asked.

"I don't look Oriental and only the players on the team know that I was born in Vietnam," Klemm said. "When people do find out, it doesn't scare them. They say 'Wow' and ask me questions about what it was like, most of which I can't answer.

"I can't speak Vietnamese. I know how to count to 10 and say I'm hungry, but that's it."

Klemm, 17, is mostly hungry for assists and steals. She's an unselfish player who would rather make a good pass than a basket.

"Points are not important to me," Klemm said. "I'll shoot the ball when I'm open, but I prefer passing the ball. I get excited about my assists and I love playing defense. We have a good shooting team and I enjoy seeing other people making baskets."

Through Tuesday's games, Buena has an 11-0 record and has won two tournament championships. Klemm, who was most valuable player in the Simi Valley tournament, has averaged 12 points and 9.8 assists a game. The 5-7 senior is also an incurable Klemm-tomaniac, averaging 9.8 loose ball recoveries a game.

"Mary does things that don't show up in box scores," Vaughan said. "You have to really understand the intricacies of the game to know how important she is to this team.

"She has great court presence. She understands my philosophy of coaching and she knows exactly what to do without me having to say anything to her on the court."

Last season, Klemm had 212 assists to break the school record of 193, set by Lee Brock in 1984. Klemm grew up watching Brock play basketball and patterned her style of play after Brock's. Buena won its only two state championships with Brock, who plays for Oklahoma.

"I didn't know I broke the record until the awards banquet," Klemm said. "It wasn't like I knew I was close and tried to get that extra assist. I always wanted to be as good as her."

Klemm also has surpassed Brock and other former Buena stars as the most recruited basketball player. She began receiving letters from colleges as a sophomore and estimates she has been contacted by more than 50 schools. She has narrowed the list to Utah, Pepperdine, Arizona, Arizona State and New Mexico State.

"My goal is to play college basketball and then represent the United States in the 1992 Olympics," Klemm said.

But first Klemm would like to win a high school championship. Unlike Brock, Klemm has never been on a Southern Section 4-A Division championship team. Last season, Edison beat Buena, 52-46, in the 4-A final.

"We've been to the playoffs every year for the past 11 years," Klemm said. "It's a tradition we're proud of. I would like to help win another title for Coach Vaughan. We lost last year and I feel we owe him one."

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World