Slingers' Howard and Alexander have unfinished business
Slingers' American duo Howard and Alexander determined to win their first ABL title
|SINGAPORE SLINGERS||ALAB PILIPINAS|
He may have lived in Singapore for only over three years, but Orlando-born Justin Howard feels very much like a local.
"Besides the passport, paperwork and not speaking Chinese, I'm basically Singaporean," he said, drawing chuckles from his teammates.
The Singapore Slingers' big man once dreamed of making it to the NBA, but is now at peace with his career as a journeyman player in South-east Asia.
"Every kid in the States wants to play in the NBA," the 35-year-old said.
"But, I figured, there are only 325 jobs (in the NBA) and about 20 million people who want one.
"I knew I'd have to find work elsewhere if I wanted to play - so here I am, in the ABL (Asean Basketball League)." .
But there remains unfinished business for Howard.
Since turning professional in 2003, he has played in eight different leagues but has yet to win a single championship.
This season - his fourth in the ABL - could be his time.
The Slingers have reached the semi-final play-offs, where Alab Pilipinas stand in their way.
The first of their three semi-final meetings takes place at the OCBC Arena.
With a 2-2 win-loss record against the Slingers in the regular season, Alab head coach Ronald Cuan has put a target on the 2.11m-tall Howard's back.
Yet, the American, who averages 23.2 points per game and a 62.9 field-goal percentage in the regular season, cut a relaxed figure during Thursday's training session.
"Alab aren't the first team to come at me and they won't be the last," he said with a shrug.
"I can't say I look at (Sunday's game) the same as every game, but I'm just focusing on what we have to do as a team."
His compatriot, Xavier "X" Alexander, is no lightweight on court, either.
The 28-year-old swingman recently became the first player in ABL history to notch two triple-doubles in one season.
He said: "This time of the year (play-off season), games like (this) are what I live for.
"I'm never worried. Basketball is what I love to do, and I love the other guys in the team.
"They're more than teammates, they're my brothers."
The two Americans have shared an apartment since Alexander joined the team in 2015, but more than that, they share a burning desire to bury the pain of last season.
Then, they lost 3-2 in the best-of-five Finals series to the Westports Malaysia Dragons.
"One hundred per cent, the goal this season is to win the championship," said Howard, with a steely glint in his eye.
"Besides the team unity and the friends, that's the main reason Xavier and I are back this year - we have some unfinished business to take care of."
Head coach Neo Beng Siang is also counting on the deadly duo.
He said: "They know their jobs and they've been performing well.
"As long as they put themselves out there and show me the effort and energy, that's enough for me."
While Alexander still hopes to break into the NBA one day, Howard has no plans of going anywhere else.
He said: "I've been all around the world and every country has different appeal - I love the food in Argentina; Bangkok's culture has a lot to offer, and Spain has great wine. But, Singapore?
"It has a little bit of everything, and I love it."
Slingers confident despite injury woes
Step into the OCBC Arena during a Singapore Slingers training session this week and you could easily mistake it for a competitive match.
Take a closer look and you'll see players' battle scars from a string of injuries that have plagued the team this season.
Forwards Wu Qingde and Kelvin Lim, both out for the rest of the season, could be spotted on the sidelines on crutches.
Head coach Neo Beng Siang also sported a furrowed brow as he watched guards Wong Wei Long and Ng Han Bin, who sustained concussions one after another in the Slingers' last two games of the regular season, run the court.
Ahead of their first play-off semi-final tie against Alab Pilipinas at the OCBC Arena tomorrow, the coach has come to terms with his team's injury jinx.
Neo said: "It is what it is.
"At this stage, we are pretty confident even though we are undermanned.
"I just hope Wei Long (who was cleared for the clash earlier this week) stays sharp."
The worrying list of absentees has forced the coach to rejig his training plans ahead of tomorrow's clash.
Neo said: "The intensity of training is more important than the duration now; I want them to come out fresh and focused for the game on Sunday."
On Neo's agenda on Tuesday was also a video review of February's 64-62 loss to Alab, against whom they have a 2-2 win-loss record.
The coach said: "We know what went wrong with us. Defensively, we didn't stick to our plan.
"Individually and as a team, we weren't playing well, but we still went into overtime and lost by only two.
"The (12) turnovers were what killed us the last time, we just need to cut it down now."
He is also unfazed by Alab's marking of American imports Justin Howard and Xavier Alexander.
Said Neo: "Basketball is a team sport, I believe the local boys can make an impact as well.
They just need to step up and make their shots count." - JOLENE ANG