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Spring-Ford’s Jacob Nguyen is on the brink of big things

08/22/2023, 10:00am EDT
By Joseph Santoliquito

By Joseph Santoliquito (@JSantoliquito)

His hoops incubator came in the bump-and-grind of the driveway wars Jacob Nguyen had daily with his older brother Josh, who was always Jacob’s standard growing up. It usually began with Jacob’s verbal nudge, “Come on, let’s go out and play.” It always ended with Josh beating younger, smaller Jacob over, and over, and over again on their Royersford, Montgomery County, asphalt driveway court. 

Then, one summer afternoon a few years ago, the work, and the countless shots Jacob took in the rain, under the glaring sun, when he would not stop shooting until the ball fell completely through the netting without touching the rim, began to have a tangible effect.

Suddenly, Jacob was able to move by Josh, who is seven years older. Suddenly, the things Jacob could not do he did. Suddenly, one memorable afternoon, baby brother Jacob won the daily make-it, take-it brotherly battle to 11.

Spring-Ford junior guard Jacob Nguyen helped his team to the PIAA semifinals last season. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)

Jacob raised his arms like the Rocky statue and yelled. He let the block know. He let his family know the Nguyens had a new hoop king. If it were up to him that day, he would have grabbed a bullhorn and rented a convertible to comb the leafy, suburban streets and let Royersford know. It was one crucial step in Jacob’s evolution as a basketball player that continues to advance.

Jacob Nguyen, Spring-Ford’s 6-foot-4, 185-pound rising junior guard, will be at the eye of a Spring-Ford team primed to make another PIAA Class 6A state playoff run. The right-hander with the deft shooting touch is emerging from one of the best players in suburban Philadelphia to one of the best in the state.

The Rams went 28-4 overall last season, which set a school record for most victories in a season, marked the first time in Spring-Ford boys’ basketball history that the Rams reached the PIAA District 1 Class 6A championship and the state semifinals, where they lost to eventual 6A state champion Reading (55-32).

Nguyen, whose parents Andrew and Jady escaped from Vietnam before the Communists took over what was then South Vietnam, played a vital role in the Rams’ success. He will be the face of the program the next two years.

Jacob is coming off a highly successful sophomore season in which he scored 522 points and averaged 16.3 points a game, a significant jump from the 127 overall points and 5.8 he averaged as a freshman.

In just two years, legendary coach Joe Dempsey has transformed a middling program into a state title contender. Jacob is a reason why. He has evolved from a stand-in-the-corner shooter to driving the lane, handling the ball, to defending and rebounding. Jacob has added a mid-range game, has a step-back game, and can create his own shots.

“He’s added so many different dimensions to his game there is no question he is a Division I player,” Dempsey said. “For Jacob, it’s going to be about how high he will go Division I, and how his defense is on guys that may be quicker than him. Other than that, he is the whole package. Jacob is absolutely the hardest working player that I have ever coached. He’ll fire up shots before he shows up to school for our shoot-arounds. He’s incessant. He bugs me every day to open the gym. He’ll lift, play AAU games all weekend, and start the next week doing more. He’s a special player—and a special kid.

“Jacob loves the game of basketball more than anything.”

Andrew, left, and son Jacob Nguyen pose together. Jacob is a D1 prospect whose game continues to trend upward. (Photo: Joseph Santoliquito/CoBL)

Talent with devotion is not always melded together. It is usually one, or the other. The rare blend is what makes Jacob who he is.

“I think that started early, I always loved the game,” said Jacob, 16, the youngest of three who is starting to emerge from his shell. “I was around five in first grade when I started playing, and I would follow my brother Josh everywhere. I would shoot at halftime of his games (at Spring-Ford). We would constantly play each other. Whatever Josh did, I had to do. I would see him in his games and idolized him.”

Everything through a child’s eyes is magnified. Young Jacob would stare bug-eyed at the high-school aged players, thinking they were in the NBA. Jacob also admits something else, too, he was not very good when he first touched a basketball. Tutored by Josh and his father Andrew, Jacob came up with sound fundamentals. By seven, he was making regulation free throws. He won the knockout games against the other kids his age during recess. His development also entailed one-on-one games against Josh.

“I would always lose,” Jacob recalls, laughing. “Josh gave me no breaks. I was always Kobe Bryant in our games because Kobe was Josh’s favorite player. I finally got him. A few years ago, when I was 14, I beat him. I let him know. I had to talk trash to him (laughs). We haven’t played one-on-one in a while since then (laughs). We’ll shoot around. That’s it.

“It’s kind of funny though. When I was young, I was loud. I talked constantly. I couldn’t shut up (laughs).”

It is hard to get a peep out of him now.

That, Jacob knows, will need to change this season. He possesses a great self-awareness, and a dry sense of humor.

He is going to be Spring-Ford’s go-to player on a state-title contender.

And though he may not say much, his play is speaking volumes to college coaches.

Amauro Austin, a director of the AAU Philly Pride program with intimate knowledge of Jacob, found out about Nguyen before he entered Spring-Ford. Jacob was a 6-3 Vietnamese American who was quickly embraced by Austin and Philly Pride.

“First, the family is tremendous,” Austin said. “Being flat-out honest, Jacob is one of the best shooters in the country. His body has matured the last few years, he’s grown a little bit and he’s gaining muscle. What will complete Jacob is his lateral quickness. He is going to work on that. He does everything else. A big factor is how much Jacob loves the game. He has played through injuries; he is willing to play through anything. It’s tough to say how good he can be. He is a D-I player now. He is a high-academic kid who is a mid-major as a high school junior.

“The skills are there. When he improves physically, that will open more doors. When you have a quick release and you can shoot like him, you can go to a lot of different places. At this level, he is a great catch-and-shoot player. The next step is being able to do more off the dribble and be a playmaker. He has D-I offers now. He is ahead of the recruiting curve. He has a lot of doors open if he continues to improve.”

Bryant, Bucknell, Drexel and Albany are presently on the table of a growing list.

“But Jacob is not here without his parents,” Dempsey said. “You cannot tell Jacob’s story without telling his parent’s story. They are resilient, remarkable people.”

They are.


Andrew and Jady Nguyen's remarkable journey have inspired their son Jacob. (Photo: Joseph Santoliquito/CoBL)

The unique thing about extraordinary people is that they do not think they are extraordinary.

Meet Andrew and Jady Nguyen.

Both will be the first to tell you they are not extraordinary.

Those around them say otherwise.

Their journey is certainly extraordinary.

Andrew and Jady attend every one of Jacob’s games. They play it low-key at courtside.

Andrew, 52, is the youngest of 12. He was born and raised in a war, amid daily gunfire and exploding bombs that shook the ground underneath him. He was four when he got out of South Vietnam, on April 29, 1975. The fall of Saigon came a day later. Andrew and his family were saved by a passing U.S. merchant ship.

He was too young to completely recall being saved, but he endured the hardships like refugees escaping Communist Cuba. When he arrived in the U.S., the only thing his family literally had were the shirts on their backs.

His family was among the first Asians to settle in the projects of Biloxi, Mississippi, not exactly a raging bastion of warmth for Vietnamese immigrants. His family has fishing roots from Vietnam, and his older brother, the family patriarch, Dong, 77, served as a father to Andrew, since his biological father died before he was born. Learning to speak English, dealing with angry, ignorant Americans over the Vietnam War, and the poverty of wearing the same clothes daily, looking out of place, feeling out of place, Andrew tolerated immense bigotry.

He had to fight every day.

“My father is the bravest, most courageous person I know, both my parents are, it’s probably why I play the way I do, I want to play with a fearless edge, because my parents are fearless,” Jacob said. “I know about some of the stuff my parents had to go through.

“I do know they went through a lot. They inspire me. If I think I am going through tough times, I just have to think about my parents. You can say that, two courageous parents make a courageous basketball player (laughs). My mom prays before every game, for me and my teammates. She is pretty amazing.”

Andrew moved from Biloxi to the Philadelphia area in his early 20s. He had attended the University of Mississippi for three years, where he still encountered ignorant spatterings. He transferred his senior year to Immaculata, where he graduated with a degree in accounting, to be close to Jady.

He has only worked for one company his entire life and is about to enter his 30th year with the local business.

“That sounds typical. You see the way Jacob carries himself. Just look at his father. You know he is going to be there for you, you know you can depend on him,” Austin said. “That comes from his dad. Think about what the guy had to go through, growing up with nothing, in Biloxi, having to deal with that b—t every day.

“He is a brave dude. You see the way he raised his family and how much Jacob puts into his game. You do not have to look far where he gets the work ethic and dependability from.”

But Andrew will correct you. He will argue he did not have it that bad.

“You want tough, you want courageous, you want someone who went through a hell of a lot more than I did to get out of Vietnam, look at Jady, my wife,” Andrew says. “I had it easy compared to her. She has the hardest time saying ‘no’ to anyone. My story is nothing compared to Jady’s. She is no doubt the bravest, most religiously faithful person I know. She is so giving, so selfless, it is never about her.

“The life Jady and I went through, we endured it. It is why we made the commitment to our children that they would have everything that we did not have. The phrase I told my kids growing up, ‘I raised you to be better than me.’ These kids today are amazing. I am not just talking about my kids. I am talking about all kids. It is why I root for every kid on my son’s teams. I want all these kids to have a childhood me and Jady never had. That is what is important to us.”

Andrew got out of Vietnam the day before the Communists took Saigon. Jady, unfortunately, did not. She seems to have a cosmic touch. She escaped Vietnam in 1980 at the age of 10. When the bombs fell, she and her family sought refuge in muddy tunnels. They were placed in a Malaysian refugee camp for a year and had family in the United States, though did not arrive in the U.S. until January 1983.

Jady and her family made three attempts to escape. The first failed attempt they had to hide in the rice paddies at night to avoid patrols. The second failed attempt she got caught on an overcrowded fishing boat that sunk, forcing her to spend two weeks in a Vietnamese prison camp. The third time proved to be the winner, on her uncle’s fishing boat.

The problem: They launched without a navigator on the high seas with no idea where they were going. On the fourth day out, Jady and her family were accosted by Thai pirates. They took everything except the rags they had on.

“We were lucky, I felt blessed because they took young girls and women for slaves, but they let us go,” Jady said. “We were fortunate. Then we saw a Holland navy ship that picked us up. That led us to the Malaysian refugee camp for a year. Then we were moved to the Philippines for six months, before moving in with my aunt in Downingtown.”

She graduated from Downingtown High School, where she was friends with Andrew’s sister, who had transferred up from Biloxi. She met Andrew through his sister.

“I grew up early, I felt like I didn’t have a childhood, living through the war, protecting my younger brother,” Jady said.

She never saw snow before moving to the U.S. She did not know the language and owes a lot to a tutor, who would communicate with her through a dictionary.

While in high school, Jady attended beauty school at night. She began doing hair and liked it. It is what she does today as the owner of an Exton hair salon.

“When I look back at everything, I never really thought of it as anything special,” Jady said. “I used to see it as something you had to do. I was a little girl who survived a war, and pirates. Now when I look back, I do sometimes think, ‘Wow, did I really live through that?’ It is why I pray. I pray every time Jacob plays. I am very proud of him. He loves the game. I know good things are ahead.”

After surviving everything she has, who could doubt her?


Joseph Santoliquito is an award-winning sportswriter based in the Philadelphia area who began writing for CoBL in 2021 and is the president of the Boxing Writers Association of America. He can be followed on Twitter here.

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