Sports

Co-owner Johnson is Neo's 'unpaid assistant'

Slingers' multi-tasking co-owner Johnson downplays his role as coach Neo's assistant

Even as other sports struggle to find the right recipe with local and foreign coaches, the Singapore Slingers and the national basketball team have done so brilliantly with the Neo Beng Siang-Michael Johnson partnership for almost a decade.

To the untrained eye that sees the 1.95m-tall assistant coach Johnson bellowing instructions while the 1.70m-tall head coach Neo, even shorter in his customary squatting pose, goes almost unnoticed, it is easy to mistakenly reverse their roles.

But the 53-year-old Australian said: "I have no ambitions to be the head coach, so we have found it easy to get along and work as a team."

Johnson, a former shooting guard who played 70 games for Australia from 1984 to 1998, was just being modest. In fact, he was the one who put Neo there.

They first met in 2006 when Johnson was hired as an operations manager to help set up the Slingers programme when the team played in the Australian National Basketball League.

What was originally a two-month stint has stretched to more than 10 years, as he became general manager and now co-owner.

But he almost never got to establish this remarkable relationship with Neo, as the Slingers had pulled out of the NBL in 2008 due to costs and the league's instability.

"There was some pressure put on me to stay on and keep the Slingers going, but I liked Singapore, the culture and the kids who played," said Johnson, who is also in the Australian Basketball Hall of Fame.

"After we pulled out of the NBL, we played in the Singapore Challenge Series before we pushed for and helped set up the Asean Basketball League in 2009.

"After Frank Arsego left at the end of the first season, I decided to elevate Neo to head coach.

"He was national coach then. When I saw him working alone during national team training, I asked if he needed a hand, he said 'yes', and I've been his unpaid assistant ever since.

"Essentially, I'm doing this as a volunteer, but our relationship has just grown and grown. It's amazing and it's cool. Sometimes he is the bad cop, sometimes I am the bad cop. We play off each other very well.

"Neo is a very open coach, we go through everything together and we don't talk over each other.

"He's done so much for Singapore basketball and is still the one who carries the bags, pushes the balls back into our office and gets the water ready. I don't know many other head coaches who would do all these for the team."

DEDICATION

It is committed colleagues like Neo, the dedication of the playing roster he helped build, and the satisfaction from reaping the rewards from a bold move to develop local talents by signing just three imports for the Slingers, that has kept the multi-tasking Johnson going.

"It's definitely not easy to be a general manager and an assistant coach; I worked from 8.30am to 10pm for six days a week in the last six years," he said.

"It's tough, but I've played basketball since I was 14 and had success as a player. I enjoy the competition and the challenge, and trust me, Singapore is a big challenge with National Service and the academic culture.

"But our owners have been fantastic, even when we were 7-15 in the 2013 season. Heads would have rolled in other teams, yet they believed in us.

"Mr Wee (Siew Kim) and I are good friends and I want to battle alongside him for the Slingers. Neo and I may have stepped down from the national team, but we are sticking around for the Slingers."

- DAVID LEE

THE YIN YANG CONNECTION​

Sometimes he is the bad cop, sometimes I am the bad cop. We play off each other very well.

— Assistant Slingers coach Michael Johnson on working with coach Neo Beng Siang​

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