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SOUTHERN SECTION BOYS’ BASKETBALL PLAYOFFS : DIVISION III-AA : He Changed His Game; His Name Is Next

TIMES STAFF WRITER

After the Estancia High School basketball team finishes its season, guard Son Ly will turn his attention to a different kind of transition game--becoming a U.S. citizen.

Ly, who moved to the United States from Vietnam in 1985, is eligible to apply for citizenship because he has lived here the minimum five years.

Sometime in the next two months, he’ll take a brief exam covering American history, then take an oath with his brother, Huang.

Then it will be official.

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“That’s when I think I might change my name to something else,” Ly said. “Something easier to pronounce.”

Easier to pronounce? Son Ly . . . the last name rhymes with three, as in points.

“I was calling him Son Lie until this year,” Estancia Coach Tim O’Brien said. “I didn’t know how to say it right.”

But one thing can’t be mistaken about Ly--his basketball skills.

A 5-foot-11 senior, Ly’s averaging 11.9 points entering tonight’s Division III-AA semifinal game against Ganesha. His recent improvement in outside shooting and free throws have added one more weapon to Estancia’s potent offense.

In other words, when the Son shines, there are good things on the horizon for the Eagles.

“Son’s the unsung hero of this team,” O’Brien said. “I really didn’t expect this from him this year. He’s a self-made player. He did all of this on his own.”

Ly didn’t start playing basketball until he was 12, when he moved with his family to Memphis, Tenn., from Vietnam.

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“I didn’t know how to do anything at first,” Ly said. “I was real bad.”

He continued playing when the family moved to Costa Mesa just before his seventh-grade year.

“I’d shoot around and it was impossible to make a basket at first,” Ly said. “I thought the ball was too big.”

Through pickup games at the beach and in local gyms, his skills began to improve.

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By his sophomore year, he was starting on the junior varsity. He was promoted to the varsity for the last few games of the season.

Last season, he was the sixth man on the Eagles’ Division III-AA championship team.

But basketball has given Ly more than just a championship medal. He has used the sport as a way to meet friends and adjust to his new country.

He and Huang barely spoke English when they first moved to the United States. While Son played basketball, Huang, a freshman at Southern Michigan University, excelled at badminton.

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“I picked up English playing ball with my American friends,” said Ly, who’s still working out some rough edges in his speech. “Huang plays badminton with Vietnamese players, so he hasn’t used English as much.”

O’Brien said Son Ly is one of the quickest players he has coached.

Ly also has the most stamina on the team, breaking the five-minute mark in the mile during preseason conditioning. He plans to run track this spring.

“He’s a tough guy to match up with because he’s so quick and he can shoot outside,” O’Brien said. “He has his better games against teams like Lynwood, teams that like to run.”

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Ly, who was named the most valuable player of the Laguna Beach tournament in December, scored a career-high 28 points this season against Laguna Beach. He was guarded by the Artists’ Josh Borella, one of the top players in the county.

Ly’s steady improvement is a result of his work habits. A few hours before a game, you can usually find him in the Eagles’ gym, blasting music through his stereo headphones and shooting free throws and three-pointers.

“Last year, I couldn’t shoot at all,” Ly said. “So I started going down to the gym and shooting 100 three-pointers and 100 free throws. One time I made 62 of 100 three-pointers.”

After his private shooting session last Friday, Ly made his first three three-pointers and finished with 15 points in a 70-58 victory over Foothill in the quarterfinals.

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Ly is a free-lancer in O’Brien’s game plan, which features a frenzied full-court press, the inside play of Matt Fuerbringer and Torrey Hammond and the outside shooting of Paul McDaniels and Mike Haas.

Playing for a team with so much offense, it’s easy for Ly to get lost in the shuffle. He has no specific plays designed to get him the ball.

“I have to work for all my shots,” Ly said. “I move a lot without the ball, run some give-and-go. That’s my game.”

But in the final seconds of the third quarter against Foothill, O’Brien finally called a play to get Ly the ball. The result: Ly drove inside for a layup with eight seconds remaining.

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“That was the first play I got all year,” said Ly, laughing. “After I hit my first three-three-pointers, I guess (O’Brien) figured he better call me a play.”


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