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Sporting Life

Slingers' devotion to fans an ideal reason for wide-scale support

The game is over, the match is lost and the sweaty Slinger is on his knees. "Hi," says the folded giant to the tiny boy who clutches his grandfather's leg. Forty minutes of Friday-night feistiness is over, four quarters of feet squeaking, coaches squawking, elbows banging is done, but still the Slingers are working.

They're down 1-2 in the series but they pose, they shake hands, they grin. They haven't yet digested defeat but they mingle, they sign bandaged arms, they smile some more. "Thank you," says the Slingers captain - whose name has been turned on a poster into Desmond Oh My Goodness - to a Slingers fan. "Thank you," says Xavier Alexander to another.

Thank you?

From athletes? To fans? In an entitled era?

You should watch them today only because you might never have seen anything like them before.

It's not just Oh and Alexander, both of whom have spiritual tattoos inscribed on their bodies; this entire team is devout when it comes to their fans. They sign after every match, they - says assistant coach Michael Johnson - do 80-odd school clinics a year, they do 50 community events. In an EPL-infatuated, local Lions-loving, Schooling-supporting nation, these basketballers are just trying to find a little place for themselves and their game in the Singapore sporting sun.

This entire team is devout when it comes to their fans. They sign after every match, they - says assistant coach Michael Johnson - do 80-odd school clinics a year, they do 50 community events. In an EPL-infatuated, local Lions-loving, Schooling- supporting nation, these basketballers are just trying to find a little place for themselves and their game in the Singapore sporting sun.

Chasing an elevated game in a bonsai sporting nation is a tall order. It's why a taxi driver, probably dreaming of Yao Ming's seven-foot cousins, asks Johnson: How many imported Chinese do you have? None, says Johnson, we have mainly locals (to be precise 10 locals, three imports). No, says the driver, Singaporeans are too small, they can't play basketball.

Actually they can.

Let us be clear, this is not the NBA. Out here imported players don't get a limo and a penthouse, but an MRT card and a shared condo. Out here the only dunking concerns a doughnut shop. The average height of an NBA team is roughly 201cm, here it is 188cm. But as guard Wong Wei Long, at a mighty 174cm, says: "Even if you're short you can play. You got to show heart, you got to work harder than taller people."

When basketball was first invented, the basket had no bottom and a ladder was brought on court and the ball poked out. It took time; the Slingers, at their best, play as if they're running out of time.

They break towards opposing baskets with the speed of a scattering flock of surprised crows. They crash and collide and occasionally are run over by a medium-sized truck named Reginald Johnson, the Dragons' amiable centre who is 208cm and 132kg. They fake, feint and drive to the basket much like darting thieves through a crowd. On Friday, they couldn't get through.

Music pounds. When Johnson, the assistant coach, is annoyed with a referee or a player he leaps with furious indignation from his chair as if his ancestors have just been insulted. A grandmother wields clappers, a middle-aged woman yells, a baby is dressed in Michael Jordan's red 23.

It's theatre. Really.

Turn up. Actually, it might be a full house, so maybe just tune in.

The Slingers need to win today but it's impressive that they got as far as today. Coach Neo Beng Siang says he has only two full-time players when other teams are stuffed with them. They have three foreign imports, Malaysia has four. They travel for league games with 10 players, two coaches one trainer, but other teams have a group of 20. If they win the league somehow, it will be history wrought on a lean budget.

Friday night was tense. Today will be jittery. On Friday the basket they were shooting at seemed too small. Today they can't afford to miss. On Friday, when they were losing, some fans left the stadium. Today, people must hang on.

To stay is to show faith. To stay is to believe in basketball. To stay is to get an autograph from players. Who - win or lose - never leave early.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on March 20, 2016, with the headline 'Slingers' devotion to fans an ideal reason for wide-scale support'. Print Edition | Subscribe