On the blacktop of a Cranston court, Soap Toun’s storybook basketball career was born. It took him to state championships and milestones at Cranston East, to the college basketball ranks at Stonehill, to the Cambodian National Team.
Sixteen years after it began, the story is still going, and Toun is writing a new chapter not too far from those first dribbles. The 28-year-old former star is in his first year as an assistant coach with the men’s basketball team at the Community College of Rhode Island.
“It’s been fun,” Toun said after a recent Knights win. “I’ve always tried to keep around the sport, playing by myself and in some leagues around here. It’s good to have an opportunity to be around the game again.”
Toun joined a CCRI staff that’s headed by his former high school coach, Rick Harris. They won two championships together at East and remained close after Toun graduated in 2003. Harris always thought Toun had a future in coaching or education and suggested it several times. Toun, who works full-time at Citizens Bank, finally took him up on it this year. He’s at work from nine to five and then hits the court soon after.
“He always asked me if I was interested,” Toun said. “We’ve kept in touch over the years. I didn’t want to initially. Now I’m getting a little older, I’ve been out in the working world, and I realized I really do miss basketball. It just felt like this was a great opportunity to get back into it and see what it leads to.”
Harris thinks it’s a great fit.
“He’s a people-person,” he said. “His nickname at Stonehill was ‘The Mayor.’ Everyone gravitated toward him. I always said to him through the years, you belong in education – high school coach, high school teacher, college coach. I think it’s something he’s thinking about.”
Harris was thrilled to give Toun the opportunity to break into coaching. The Knights’ head coach since 2006, Harris won three championship trophies at Cranston East, and Toun’s fingerprints were all over them.
“I was always very close with him,” Harris said. “He made me. My success in coaching had a lot to do with all the great players I had. They made me look good.”
Toun remains near the top of the list. He made varsity as a freshman, despite only a few years of organized basketball experience – and a background that wouldn’t suggest hoops stardom.
Sopheeng Toun is one of six children in his family, which moved to Rhode Island from Cambodia before he was born. He was the first of his siblings to be born in the United States. When his family moved from Providence to Cranston while he was in elementary school, he and his brother started playing basketball on a neighborhood court.
“We moved to the Park View area and that took me away from my elementary school friends,” Toun said. “I didn’t have anyone to play with. There was a court down the street, so it was just me and my little brother. We said, ‘Let’s get a ball and start playing.’”
Toun tried out for his Park View Middle School team in sixth grade – and got cut. But still, he kept pounding the pavement with his basketball.
“I was always on the court playing,” he said. “It was literally wake up, go to the court, play, play, play.”
He made the team in seventh grade and became a key player in eighth grade. During his freshman year tryouts at East, he was bumped to the varsity court.
“I didn’t know how good I was,” he said. “Once I went to Cranston East, coach gave me an opportunity and believed in me and it went from there.”
What followed was a dream career – two state championships, 1,000 career points, two All-State honors. The cherry on top came in the 2003 championship game, when Toun hit the game-winning three-pointer with four seconds left.
“You could write a movie about him,” Harris said. “He gets cut then he becomes a good middle school player. He watches videos of Glen Rice shooting to learn how. He makes varsity as a freshman. Sophomore year, he starts at the point and we make the finals. Junior year, we won it and he was MVP. Senior year, first team All-State and he hits the game-winning shot to beat NK in the finals.”
On top of all the success, Harris still remembers how Toun’s charisma drew people in.
“He was one of the first players I ever saw where opponents were looking for him to give him five,” Harris said. “They really gravitated towards him.”
Toun went on to Stonehill, where he played four years and helped the Skyhawks to the Division II Final Four as a junior. He graduated with a degree in communications and a minor in business.
He was grateful for the chance.
“Coming out of the Asian community, there’s some gang violence, that kind of thing,” Toun said. “Basketball drew me away from that. It taught me a lot. It opened a lot of doors.”
Basketball continued to give him opportunities after college, including a stint with the Cambodian National Team in the Southeast Asian Games.
“I competed pretty well, so that kind of fulfilled my taste for playing overseas,” Toun said. “I wanted to come back and see what’s out there.”
Toun has been with Citizens Bank ever since, but the tug of basketball always remained.
“I’ve always wanted to be a coach,” Toun said. “I didn’t know if I wanted to be a head coach or more of a one-on-one, individual development coach. This was a good step on the path.”
Toun spends much of his time working with the Knights’ guards, lending his expertise and even mixing it up on the court at times. CCRI is 10-6 so far this season.
“His strength is he can still play,” Harris said. “The kids like that – hearing from the guy who can still play a little bit. When he’s here, the kids gravitate towards him and they want to work with him. It’s great to have him around.”
In addition to teaching, Toun is learning the coaching ropes. Seeing the game from the bench has been an eye-opener.
“I always had the player’s perspective. Now I know why coaches yell at us so much,” Toun joked. “It’s a different point of view, and I’m learning that side of it now.”
He plans to keep learning – and to keep his basketball story going.
“It’s something I think I’d like to do – maybe not the head coaching part, because I’m not an X and O guy,” Toun said. “But I enjoy the development part of it. It’s been fun.”