Slingers coach Neo hoping for a happy ending
Slingers coach Neo hopes his efforts and sacrifices will culminate in historic glory
WESTPORTS MALAYSIA DRAGONS v SINGAPORE SLINGERS
* Best-of-five series tied at 2-2
(Tomorrow, 2.30pm, StarHub TV Ch 205)
Twenty-seven games into the Asean Basketball League season (more than any other team because the Singapore Slingers have gone the distance in the play-off semi-finals and finals), it is easy to understand why Neo Beng Siang is in the zone.
He has smiled, he has scowled. The 1.70m-tall Slingers head coach has patted his players on the back, he has had to jump and unleash the hairdryer treatment on two-metre-tall giants.
He also has a lingering three-month-old cough from all that shouting.
It is worth it, he said, because he has led the Singapore franchise into their first ABL Finals.
In fact, one can hardly blame Neo for treating this interview like tomorrow's all-or-nothing Game Five against the Westports Malaysia Dragons.
The 48-year-old defended his decisions well, made crucial points and declined comment on his national team successor, who is yet to be named.
There's always room for one or two surprises, too. For example, did you know that Neo's first love was football?
He started out as a goalkeeper in primary school, became a forward because he was quick, and was retained for a year in Primary 6 because he neglected his studies.
Luckily for basketball, he was open to new ideas. After taking part in an inter-house basketball competition in Sec 2, Neo was invited to trial for the Toh Tuck Secondary School team.
A year after he made that team, he made another bold move - following his seniors to change school and play for Yuan Ching.
"They were a good basketball school and, anyway, it is nearer to my home in Boon Lay, so my parents did not object," said Neo, who was known for his penetration and organisation as a forward and point guard.
He loved basketball so much that he turned down the opportunity to be a commando section leader while serving National Service so that he could represent Safsa (Singapore Armed Forces Sports Association).
He made it to the national Under-18s in 1985 before joining the senior national team in 1989 for a decade.
But never did he expect to become national coach, not even when he was approached by Police to handle their third-tier side in 1999 after he called time on his playing career.
The national selectors took notice after he helped the Police side earn successive promotions to the National Basketball League Division One.
"When they asked me to be national coach (in 2003), I thought about it for very long because I didn't think I was ready," said Neo, who has since stepped down from the post to spend more time with his family.
"I agreed because I wanted to help take Singapore basketball to another level. In my first SEA Games (that year), we finished fourth, which gave us confidence that we were moving in the right direction.
"Our next SEA Games was in 2011 and we finished fifth. I had to make a big decision then to start grooming the youngsters or persist with the seniors who were in their 30s or late 20s.
"In the end, I chose to make the cut and we went on to unexpectedly win bronze in 2013 and 2015, our first SEA Games medals since 1979."
Neo, the new ABL Coach of the Year, paid tribute to the Slingers programme for the turnaround in Singapore basketball's fortunes.
"By having most of the national players in the Slingers, it allowed them to train together day and night, play regularly in the ABL, and therefore raise their standards," said Neo, who also painstakingly compiled a play book as he learnt training methods and man-management skills from his Slingers predecessors Gordon McLeod and Frank Arsego.
"Being national and Slingers coach, I try to run the same plays so the players are not confused.
"This season, both the local and the import players have really stepped up. We lost our first match and people were expecting us to struggle with four local rookies and just three imports.
"But we went on a 10-match winning run and caught everyone's attention. We want to end this season on a high and bring back the championship trophy."
THE YIN YANG CONNECTION
There’s great trust, belief and teamwork... between MJ and I. We don’t have to specify who does what, we are just on the same page.
— Neo on working with Johnson