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Coach Neo earns the respect of his own private army

Slingers coach Neo Beng Siang barking instructions during the ABL Finals. A Game Five victory will surely rank right up there with the 2013 SEA Games bronze, which he called his "proudest moment as a coach".
Slingers coach Neo Beng Siang barking instructions during the ABL Finals. A Game Five victory will surely rank right up there with the 2013 SEA Games bronze, which he called his "proudest moment as a coach".ST PHOTO: KEVIN LIM

Mention Neo Beng Siang's name to anyone in the local basketball fraternity and some might quiver at the sound of his name.

For the Slingers coach is known as a tough disciplinarian, courtesy of his time in the army.

But his no-nonsense approach to the game has earned him the respect of his players in the Slingers and the national team, which he helmed for more than 12 years before stepping down last month.

Point guard Wong Wei Long, 27, who has been under Neo's charge since he was 18, said: "On court he's very disciplined and very systematic, sometimes too systematic to the extent we think… 'Wow, okay'."

Neo attributes his tough-as-nails approach to his own mentors when he was a national player, as well as his time as a commando during national service, where he was once named best in physical training. 

He said: "The commanders were hard on us all the time. When I started off coaching, I built on that as well, as I learnt from my army life that 'no pain, no gain'."

Indeed, in his early days as a coach, training during the season was as hard as pre-season. There was no easing up on intensity and it was "hard all the way", he said.

Fortunately, Neo has since mellowed and learnt not to perennially push his players from former Slingers coaches such as Gordon McLeod and Frank Arsego, whom he assisted before replacing the latter as head coach in 2010.

Going for overseas courses also helped him build other approaches to training. For example, at a junior coaching programme at the Australian Institute of Sport in 2006, he noticed how Australians treated warm-ups with the same intensity as training instead of "going through the motions".

He decided to implement that in the national set-up as well but realised it was difficult to enforce it. He then decided to compromise, saying: "Perhaps I was too soft on that, I could have demanded it. But I felt as long as they were serious during training, I'm fine with that."

Being more malleable worked a treat and lifted his players' spirits. And Neo went on to lead the national team to two bronze medals at the 2013 and 2015 SEA Games. He described the 2013 medal as his "proudest moment as a coach", as it was the Republic's first at the multi-sport event in 34 years.

But behind the stern, serious demeanour lies a caring individual.

Slingers and national team captain Desmond Oh described Neo as a "second father", saying: "I used to have a bad attitude, I had no respect for others. But he taught me how to be a better person on and off the court, and to be humble."

Being the only son in a family with five daughters, Neo explained that he was pretty much a "Lone Ranger" as a youngster, barely interacting with his siblings. Initially squeezing in with all of them in a single room in their Boon Lay flat, he decided to sleep in the living room when he was a little older, and even went out to watch movies on his own.

Now married with three daughters - Ying Xue, 23, Ying Qi, 22, Ying Min, 18 - the 48-year-old admits with a chuckle: "I've been surrounded by girls all my life, even now with my daughters."

From an all-action point guard to a vein-bursting coach, Neo has devoted much of his life to the sport he loves - but it has come at a cost.

Lamenting the lack of time spent with his family, he said: "Usually after the Slingers' season is over, I need to turn my attention to the national team. As training is in the morning and night, I often stayed in the office during the afternoon break because nobody would be at home anyway."

While he has worked since his secondary school days, with basketball his No. 1 priority, his only other day job was a part-time role selling used cars at his uncle's company Eng Tat Credit. He gave that up when he took on the role with the Slingers.

It is no wonder he is grateful for his wife's unstinting support. "It was difficult to cope with not seeing him much at first, but I didn't want to stand in his passion's way. Along the years, I just got used to it," said Serene, his wife since 1991.

Having stepped down as national coach after more than five years juggling that role with the Slingers, Neo is ready to spend more time with his family. He says it is his current "driving motivation" in life.

He said: "I owe them a lot… earlier in my life I spent all my time on basketball. Now it's time to repay my family's patience with me."

Nicholas Tan

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 21, 2016, with the headline 'Coach Neo earns the respect of his own private army '. Print Edition | Subscribe