Slingers coach eyes Merlion Cup four
Despite strong field, Slingers coach seeks strong showing ahead of ABL
He was a national cager the last time Singapore hosted the Merlion Cup in 1996. Two decades on, Neo Beng Siang will coach the Singapore Slingers in the tournament, which will be held at the OCBC Arena from Sept 21 to 25.
The 54-year-old former national coach does not remember much about the 1996 tournament except that "it was held at the Singapore Indoor Stadium and the support was good".
But he is looking to make the Merlion Cup comeback a memorable one by targeting a place in the semi-finals.
"The Philippines (Mighty Sports) have loaded their roster. South Korea (Seoul Samsung Thunders) are one of the best in Asia, as are the Shanghai Sharks," he told The New Paper yesterday.
"I'm not sure which team the Malaysia Dragons will field but it's a quality field, and that can only be good for us ahead of our Asean Basketball League season that starts in November.
"Definitely we will continue to be defence-oriented, which helped us get good results last season.
"Usually, good defence leads to good offence."
Drawn in Group A, the Slingers will face stiff opposition against Yao Ming's Shanghai Sharks and Taiwan's Kinmen Kaoliang Liquor, while the Malaysia Dragons, Mighty Sports and Seoul Samsung Thunders are in Group B.
The Singapore team will welcome back two of their key American imports - centre Justin Howard and swingman Xavier Alexander - as well as a core of local players, including captain Desmond Oh, shooting guard Ng Hanbin, power forward Wu Qingde and point guard Wong Wei Long.
"It feels good and I'm happy to be back playing for the Slingers for the third time," said the 2.11-metre tall Howard.
"We made our first ABL finals and finished second earlier this year, not where we wanted to be and it feels like Xavier and I have unfinished business.
"We want to build on that magical run. It helps that there is some form of continuity with Xavier and I coming back to join most of the players who were here last season. We know each other and get along very well, which is definitely a big advantage."
However, the Slingers will miss the services of 2m-centre Delvin Goh, who has joined the Beruang Blazers in the Yuwang East Malaysia Basketball League, as well as forward Toh Qing Huang and guard John Ng, - who have enlisted for National Service.
As such, the trio of shooting guard Richard Neo, small forward Tay Ding Loon and Filipino point guard Jeff Viernes are hoping for a good showing at the Merlion Cup to secure a Slingers contract for the ABL.
"The Merlion Cup is a big opportunity for us to show our talent," said 27-year-old Viernes, whom Neo will rely on to organise the team and contribute in both offence and defence.
Neo, a 26-year-old who plays for newly crowned National Basketball League champions SBPHK Hornets, added: "At my age, the call-up is quite unexpected. Hopefully from the Merlion Cup, the selectors will think that I can contribute to the Slingers and give me a chance to play in the ABL."
With a full basketball calendar to look forward to, Slingers general manager and assistant coach Michael Johnson is optimistic about the future of Singapore basketball.
The 53-year-old Australian said: "This is the kind of calendar we have been lacking for a sport that enjoys a high participation rate here.
"It's a good restart for the Merlion Cup, and the organisers have done well to get quality teams to play. It would be great if the tournament can be established for the long run.
"After the launch of the ActiveSG basketball academy in May, Sport Singapore also brought in the Junior NBA programme in July. With the ABL, Merlion Cup and the SEA Games, we hope it will all come together to raise the level of interest and standard of the sport here."
"Definitely we will continue to be defence-oriented, which helped us get good results last season. Usually, good defence leads to good offence."
— Singapore Slingers coach Neo Beng Siang
Merlion Cup tickets
Concession tickets at $10 each are available to those with a local student pass or senior citizen card.
Season passes are priced at $75 each, while standard tickets cost $15 for weekdays and $20 for weekends.
Courtside tickets are also available for $50 each on weekdays and $60 on weekends.
The public can purchase tickets online at www.sportshubtix.sg or via phone booking at +65 31587888.
Operation hours are 10am to 8pm from Mondays to Saturdays, and 12pm to 8pm on Sundays and public holidays.