Commentary

Having won the hearts of new fans, Slingers are already winners

These are special times for basketball fans in Singapore.

No doubt many have been enthralled by the exploits of the Golden State Warriors in the globally popular National Basketball Association (NBA), with the team on the verge of shattering the all-time season win-loss mark in the coming weeks.

But what's making it doubly thrilling for local fans is that Singapore's own professional team, the Slingers, are on the verge of a first Asean Basketball League (ABL) title.

It is rare that Singapore basketball fans find excitement on both the global and domestic fronts.

But right before Slingers guard Wong Wei Long - standing at a mere 1.74m in a game filled with 2m giants - drained that last-gasp jumper in their 75-73 ABL Finals Game 4 win against the Westports Malaysia Dragons on Sunday, it felt exactly like a high-stakes NBA game that was finely balanced between elation and dejection.

This is what sports fans really look for if they are to be won over by local-based professional teams - that the athletes play their hearts out every single game, earning their pay through blood, sweat and tears.

When Wong's shot went in and sent the 2,505-strong crowd at the OCBC Arena into raptures, it highlighted what long-time Slingers assistant coach Michael Johnson told me: "We've worked six long years for this moment."

While there is still a winner-takes-all Game 5 today in the Dragons' "lair" in Kuala Lumpur to finish the season on a perfect note, the Slingers should still savour the satisfaction of achieving full-house support in both their home games in the ABL Finals.

For they have spent much of their history toiling in near-anonymity, playing in near-empty arenas. While NBA basketball enjoys a high level of popularity in Singapore, the local scene struggles with a lack of star power and mediocre playing standards.

But the passion remains amid the Slingers' long-serving veterans. Johnson, head coach Neo Beng Siang, captain Desmond Oh and Wong have all stuck with the team since the Slingers left Australia's National Basketball League to co-found the six-team ABL in 2009.

All they want is some kind of success to boost the level of support, and this year, against unfavourable odds, they somehow achieved that.

This run to the ABL Finals - and the 10-game regular-season winning streak that caught everyone's initial attention - was not due to a sudden talent upgrade.

Rather, it was a case of everything falling into place. Not only did they have three amiable and dedicated foreign imports (Americans Xavier Alexander and Justin Howard, and Filipino Kris Rosales) to build their game around, but more crucially, the local boys also stepped up to the plate and fulfilled whatever roles that were expected of them.

Perhaps sensing that this could be their final season before they consider pursuing other interests, Oh and Wong have played like men possessed - playing stellar defence every game and hitting key shots to get the team going.

Then there is the surprise package of Wu Qingde, the power forward who has had a breakout season, adding a reliable outside shot and punishing defenders who leave him alone outside the paint.

So the Slingers have chugged along, a far-from-perfect team hitting a rich vein of form and somehow sustaining it all the way to the Finals. There have been games when their offence and shooting touch have deserted them, but they have hung doggedly around with top-notch defence and, more often than not, eked out narrow victories.

They will need to be at their stingiest best today against the Dragons, whose efficient and varied attack has caused them problems throughout the Finals.

But, as Wong showed in Game 4, never count this wily bunch out until the final whistle.

And this is what sports fans really look for if they are to be won over by local-based professional teams - that the athletes play their hearts out every single game, earning their pay through blood, sweat and tears.

From the way the Slingers have spent a chunk of their post-game routine thanking fans, chatting and posing for photos with them, they are deeply appreciative of such support. And this rapport will definitely help grow their fan base.

Here's hoping that the Slingers enjoy a decent, noisy crowd come the next term. That could be the best reward for this extraordinary season - winning the hearts of Singaporeans rather than winning the ABL Finals.

If they ever need a reminder that success comes to those who wait, they need only look at the all-conquering Warriors.

Before Stephen Curry and gang began dominating the NBA in the past two seasons, Golden State were the laughing stock of the league - from 1994 to 2012, they made the play-offs just once.

While the Slingers are far from being comedy material in their short history, it is a similar journey of toil and trouble to reach the top. Slowly but surely, Singapore fans have begun to take notice.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 26, 2016, with the headline 'Having won the hearts of new fans, Slingers are already winners'. Print Edition | Subscribe