With under a minute left in the final quarter of a Caltech Beavers vs. UCSC basketball game in December 2014, UC Santa Cruz’s Corey Cilia found his team down by two points. A freshman at the time, Cilia landed a mid-range jumper and sent the game into overtime, which ended in a four-point win for the Slugs.
That moment signaled the start of what head coach Ron DuBois considers to be one of the best basketball careers the school has ever seen.
“That’s when I knew,” DuBois said. “That was a difficult shot, and he had the guts, the courage to take that shot, especially as a freshman, on the road against a Division III team. That’s when I knew he was going to be really special.”
Over the course of his four years on the team, Cilia became a top five career free-throw percentage player for UCSC at 81 percent. With stats like a 44.4 percent for field goals, or all non-free throw shots, and 41.3 percent for three-pointers, he has one of the best performance records in the program’s history.
Cilia’s basketball career at UCSC resulted in him being chosen second out of 18 total domestic and import players in the Vietnamese Basketball Association (VBA) draft in March 2018. The Hochiminh City Wings will field Cilia as one of its two heritage import players starting in the preseason in July.
Cilia is excited to join the relatively new national league, which only began in 2016.
“It’s really a great thing for Vietnamese basketball, because in the next 10, 15 years, these next generation basketball players are going to take huge leaps,” Cilia said. “There’s a huge passion right now for basketball in Vietnam. A huge fan base and support for it. That is really what an underdeveloped basketball program needs in order to excel.”
The VBA allows each of its six teams to field 13-man rosters. These rosters are allowed one foreign and two heritage import players. Heritage imports are players of Vietnamese descent like Cilia who come from overseas.
Cilia has a standard single-season contract with the Wings, with each season lasting around three to four months.
His journey to the VBA began long before his time at UCSC. At the age of three, Cilia was introduced to basketball by his family. His father became frustrated with his older brothers’ inability to score a basket and handed the ball to Cilia, who succeeded on his first try.
From then on, Cilia said he developed a love for the game and became an avid competitor, first competing in a church league, and going on to play for his middle and high school teams in Half Moon Bay. He came to UCSC with the intention of continuing his sports career.
“That was probably one of my biggest goals growing up, to be a college basketball player,” Cilia said. “Growing up in the Bay Area, I watched college teams and games at Stanford, at Cal and these big arenas. That’s what I wanted to play in.”
Stanford and UC Berkeley are Division I sports schools, while UCSC is in Division III. A major difference between the divisions is that Division III programs aren’t allowed to give out athletic scholarships to players. Division I and II programs thus attract higher level players. To apply for Division I, a school must demonstrate its ability to finance a top-level sports program.
“For Division III, I’d say it’s pretty tough to really move on to the next level,” Cilia said. “But there is a lot of opportunity overseas. If you really want it as a Division III player, you have to look for it. If you work hard enough, and you’re persistent enough, you’ll fall in a spot.”
According to fellow senior teammate Matthew Nerland, Cilia is as selfless as he is skilled. Despite being a great scorer, he will often opt to pass the ball instead of shooting. Cilia also sets an example for his teammates by working hard both on and off the court.
“There were times that Corey has gotten in trouble for trying to use the gym too much,” Nerland said. “For someone to want to improve so much that he would get in trouble with the facility for being there after hours, that’s the definition of a gym rat. His dedication to getting that extra practice says a lot about him as a player.”
Cilia’s work ethic and passion for the game proved vital when he first discovered Vietnamese basketball during a trip to Vietnam with his family after his second year of high school. His mother told him of a professional team, the Saigon Heat, that was active in the city at the time. Cilia obtained a workout session with one of the Heat’s assistant coaches who told him to stay in touch in case any opportunities opened up. The idea of playing basketball in Vietnam remained with Cilia.
Four years later in 2016, the VBA was formed, and held its heritage import tryouts in Los Angeles. Cilia attended and was asked to come play for the league immediately, but declined as he wanted to graduate first.
With graduation now only a quarter away, Cilia is looking forward to his time overseas. As the VBA is a new league, he hopes to set a good example for those looking to get into the sport in Vietnam.
“Any chance that I can keep playing basketball, I want to do it,” Cilia said. “This is the best chance for me, especially to make a big impact where the potential for basketball to grow is huge. And I really do want to be a big part of that growth.”