Basketball: Howard hopes the Slingers will bring his first career title

Singapore Slingers' centre Justin Howard at the OCBC Arena on Feb 23, 2016.
Singapore Slingers' centre Justin Howard at the OCBC Arena on Feb 23, 2016. ST PHOTO: LIM YAOHUI

His three American passports and the many entry and exit stamps tell the story of a basketball career spanning 14 countries and four continents, but Singapore Slingers centre Justin Howard has never won a trophy since turning pro in 2003.

That could change in a few weeks' time, as the Slingers are among the contenders for the Asean Basketball League title this season.

They are locked in a tough battle with defending champions Hi-Tech Bangkok City in the best-of-three play-off semi-finals. They lost Game One 70-73 at home on Sunday, and need to beat Hi-Tech in Bangkok tomorrow to force a deciding Game Three back at the OCBC Arena.

They will need Orlando-born Howard to be a key contributor, and the 34-year-old - in his second stint with the Slingers after signing midway through last season to replace injured former captain Kyle Jeffers - is keen to end his long wait for a championship triumph.

He is at peace with his long career as a journeyman, saying: "I've travelled all over the world… (I got to learn) different cultures, different aspects of life. Plus I'm being paid to do what I love, so that's the bonus. "

This passion has sustained him through his 13-year career, even though he learnt soon after graduating from Mercer University in 2003 that he was unlikely to fulfil his dream of making it to the National Basketball Association (NBA).

The Singapore Slingers' 2.1m centre Justin Howard has plied his trade in 14 nations across four continents in his long career. Now he needs two wins in the ABL semi-finals for a shot at his first championship. ST PHOTO: LIM YAOHUI

A couple of pre-season workouts with the Philadelphia 76ers and his hometown Orlando Magic was the closest he got to the NBA. Undaunted, he took part in a free agent exposure camp, and was eventually approached by Mexican team Zorros de Morelia.

"That's how the ball just got rolling," the 2.1m Howard said, as he went on to play across South America, Europe and Asia. "I was a bigger guy but I came from a smaller school, so I knew I needed to get my foot in the door.

"There are some people who start at the top but most work their way up and that's what I did.

Through his journey, there has been a common theme. "There's always a worry over, will I get signed, where will I play? Every year people are getting younger and faster, and there is that point where you have to start weighing your options if you haven't signed a contract."

Playing in several countries has included the difficulty of language barriers. Though his college minor in Spanish helped in Spanish-speaking places, he struggled in the Middle East, Thailand and Vietnam.

Syria was a particularly arduous place for Howard - in his six weeks there, he conversed only with his Australian coach, and spent most of his time in his hotel room, stepping out only for meals and training.

But he has never considered throwing in the towel. He said: "You have your moments, but that's when you have your friends and team-mates to help you out... basketball always got me through it."

His family also show their support from more than 16,600km away, with his mother sending a 45-second voice recording to cheer him on for every game.

His passion and willingness to work hard were key factors in Neo Beng Siang's decision to bring him back to the Slingers pre-season. The head coach said: "He's very coachable, he works hard in training and helps to guide our locals. Pre-season he worked his a*** off to build his fitness and strength."

"He's a very nice person on and off the court. He doesn't keep to himself, always tries to mix around and he asks where we want to go for food," said captain Desmond Oh, pointing out the American's penchant for trying non-spicy local food.

Howard remarks on the bond within the Slingers. He said: "I've never been on a team where everybody's so close. There're no cliques, everybody gets along, it's a really good atmosphere. That makes it a lot easier."

And call it caution or superstition, but when asked about injuries (he has had some dislocations and torn muscles) he admits he has been fortunate although he literally knocks on wood while on the subject.

The Slingers will be hoping their globe-trotter maintains his form, with his average of 15.9 rebounds per game the highest in the league.

Perhaps Neo and the rest of the team should be knocking on wood too, as they bank on Howard's performance in the paint to win their maiden ABL title - and his long-overdue first championship.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 03, 2016, with the headline 'Howard hopes the Slingers will bring his first career title'. Subscribe