Lah Say checks out of Tuesday’s home game against Payette after four frenzied minutes charging all over the court, pressuring any Pirate with the ball.
He takes a spot at the front of New Plymouth’s bench, turns around and surveys the green-and-orange Gatorade bottles for the one bearing his name. He grabs a quick sip, and five seconds after sitting down, he’s back on his feet.
He implores his teammates to box out on a missed free throw. The Pilgrims grab the rebound and head back up court to Say’s cheers of, “Good job, Cody. Good job, Trey.”
Say’s next three minutes on the bench feature more of the same — vigorous clapping, miming jumps for rebounds and high-fiving every player coming off the court. The only time he stops moving is to wipe the soles of his shoes clean, making him a louder presence on the bench than coach Mark Van Weerdhuizen.
Van Weerdhuizen said Say’s brand of upbeat, high-energy basketball is key for the Pilgrims. And it’s a trait that’s pulled Say from a refugee camp on the Thailand-Myanmar border to a starting guard at New Plymouth.
“He’s probably had to get by. He’s had to be friendly and positive,” Van Weerdhuizen said. “But part of it is you’ve got to have a makeup like that. You can only fake it so long if that’s not really who you are.”
Say’s parents fled Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, in 1993 during an ongoing war between the Burmese government and the ethnic minority Karens that has dragged on for 67 years, the world’s longest-running civil war. They escaped to Thailand one night when soldiers attacked their village, burning rice fields and houses, killing or enslaving anyone they caught.
Thaw Re gave birth to Say, the oldest of five children, five years later in a Thai jungle village. When Say was about 4, she moved to the Umpiem Mai refugee camp in Thailand, home to more than 10,000 fleeing the war, to take advantage of its schools and facilities.
But Say didn’t begin his education until he was 9. Instead, he spent five years splitting his time between the camp and working with his father, Maung Nyo, at a farm that grew corn, peas and rice. For meat, the two would hunt snakes in the jungle.
“When we’d see a snake hanging from a tree, we’d shake the tree,” Say said. “When they came down, the dog would kind of scare them so they don’t move anywhere. My dad ran around behind the snake and grabbed his tail and whipped it on the ground (to kill it).”
After eight years in the camp, the family earned refugee status in 2010 and came to the United States. Julie Fischer, a volunteer with the International Rescue Committee in Boise, said they didn’t speak a word of English.
“They don’t pick where they go,” Fischer said. “They find out 24 hours ahead of time that they are going to be resettled. They showed up in the U.S. with basically the clothes on their back.”
The organization assigned Fischer to help the family settle in Boise, setting them up in an apartment, showing them how to use plumbing and helping Nyo find a job at an Oregon dairy.
The apartment complex contained a basketball court, where an 11-year-old Say saw the sport for the first time. He played soccer and chinlone — think volleyball played with your feet — in Thailand, but never a sport with his hands.
He stood around the court until someone invited him to play, teaching him how to dribble and shoot. He was hooked, heading straight to the court each day after school.
His first taste of organized basketball came in seventh grade. Boise’s Fairmont Junior High didn’t have a team, but organizers from the YMCA came to the apartment complex asking for seventh-graders looking to play in a rec league. He jumped at the chance.
“I said, ‘Sure, I can speak a little bit of English,’ at that time, but not really,” Say admitted.
The team won a league championship, but Say spent his eighth grade year in South Dakota when the family moved to a larger Karen community. After a year, the family moved to New Plymouth, Fischer’s hometown, to be closer to her.
Say tried out for the Pilgrims as a freshman. Van Weerdhuizen said he couldn’t have possibly made the team at Capital, where Fairmont students attend. But at a small school, Van Weerdhuizen gave the quick-footed, hard-charging guard a chance, even if it meant some remedial teaching.
“In that way, he was kind of frustrating, because here’s this kid, and you’re trying to teach some kids more stuff, and you’re having to basically teach him what a travel is,” Van Weerdhuizen said. “ … But his attitude is just so good. You want to get mad at him, but he’s just like, ‘Alright, got it, coach. Thumbs up.’ ”
Van Weerdhuizen said the gamble started to pay off as his skills and shot improved over the summer. He tried out for the varsity team as a sophomore — Van Weerdhuizen said because he didn’t know any better — and he made it.
He rode the pine most of the season, only playing during blowouts and never scoring. But Van Weerdhuizen said all the mental lessons kicked in over the past year, allowing the 5-foot-6 junior to start this season, where he’s averaging 4.5 points per game while harassing opposing point guards and leading the league in high fives.
“That’s a good spot for him because he always knows where to go. ‘I’m going to go to the ball and put some pressure,’ ” Van Weerdhuizen said. “Offensively, he’s usually away from the ball, a pretty good shooter for us. He’s actually a really good offensive rebounder, even though he’s so small. But he goes in and gets it. He’s a real good energy guy.”
Say’s energy and attitude extend off the court, where he’s earned the nickname “Mr. Nice Guy” in the halls at New Plymouth. And as the oldest child with the best English, he translates for his father’s job interviews and reads the family’s bills and writes their checks.
“He’s an amazing kid. He’s always happy,” Fischer said. “He’s so happy to have the opportunity to go to school. Something happens that our kids would throw a fit over, he’ll say, ‘It’s OK Julie, it’s OK.’ He’s always happy.”
Instead of sulking or resting when he comes out of Tuesday’s game, Say remains engaged on the bench, ducking and weaving his head around his coach to make sure he doesn’t miss anything on the rare occasion he sits down.
When Van Weerdhuizen notices one of his player’s tiring, he knows where to turn. Say pops up, scurries to the scorer’s table and squats, eagerly waiting for his next opportunity.