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Merlion Cup's revival a boost for Singapore basketball: Slingers coach - Sep 9, 2016

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Beng Siang
He played in the last edition of the Merlion Cup held in 1996, and in two weeks, Neo Beng Siang will again be keenly involved as the basketball tournament makes a comeback from a 20-year hiatus. This time around, Neo, who turns 55 later this month, will be in a coaching role as the Singapore Slingers fly the nation's flag in the six-team professional club tournament taking place at the OCBC Arena from Sep 21-25. Playing in Group A, the Slingers are up against the Kinmen Kaoliang Liquor from Taiwan and the Shanghai Sharks, a team owned by Chinese basketball legend Yao Ming. Group B features the Seoul Samsung Thunder from South Korea, Filipino side Mighty Sports and reigning ASEAN Basketball League (ABL) champion, Westports Malaysia Dragons. The Slingers have set themselves a modest target of reaching the semi-finals. But given the quality of the opposition, winning just the one group game that would get them there would be a tall order, something Neo acknowledges. But the former national captain is excited simply to have the opportunity to expose his players to a higher level of competition, while casting his eyes on the new season of the ABL, and the Southeast Asian (SEA) Games next year. He said: 'The Merlion Cup is an opportunity for our boys to play against better teams, such as from China and Korea. We enjoyed a good run last year after qualifying for the Asian Championships, and played against the top teams, and it helped as our players had to face bigger-sized players in every position. 'It pushed our players to another level, and the experience gained meant they were able to play without fear when faced with similar situations.' While the ABL allows for each team to employ four imported players - two each from ASEAN and non-ASEAN countries - the Slingers have over the years stuck to the philosophy of hiring only three, so as to free up an extra spot for a local player. This has helped with the development of the Singapore national team, as evidenced by the bronze medals in the past two SEA Games. And it is that long-term vision to grow Singapore basketball that has seen the Slingers franchise work hand-in-glove with the Basketball Association of Singapore (BAS) to ensure the needs of both are met. BAS' president, David Ong, said it is a good time for the Merlion Cup to be revived, especially as the association has been able to muster up the S$500,000 in funding the organise the tournament. He said: 'We've been seeing good crowds for basketball games held here, and we want to leverage that and put on another marquee event for the fans. We were able to get enough support from our partners and sponsors, and riding on the success and interest of basketball in tournaments such as the SEA Games and ticket sales for other matches held here, we feel that this event is timely. 'And with the Slingers helping to develop our national players with their participation in the ABL, we're more than happy to provide this platform for our players to go up against teams of international standing.' Preparations for the Slingers leading up to the Merlion Cup have been limited to a session a day, with Singapore players involved in the ongoing national basketball league which wraps up next week. And Neo has had to find replacements for local players Delvin Goh, Toh Qing Huang and John Ng, all of whom have entered National Service. The Slingers have retained their two American imports, Alexander Xavier (198-G-88, college: S.Nazarene) and Justin Howard (208-C-81, college: Mercer), who will only arrive back on Sep 10, while Filipino point guard Jeff Viernes flies in next week to be trialled during the Merlion Cup. A good showing will lock Viernes in as replacement for last season's standout Kris Rosales (183-G, college: Hope International), who has left for Tropang TNT in the top-tier Philippine Basketball Association league. Neo recalled how Merlion Cup games of yore could attract sell-out crowds at the 10,000-seater Singapore Indoor Stadium, especially if they featured the China national team and a side from either Russia or the United States. And he is certain the 3,500-capacity OCBC Arena would be packed for the five days of the upcoming Merlion Cup. 'Let's fill every seat and get the momentum back for basketball in Singapore,' he said. 'The players need the atmosphere, and I'm sure they'll deliver great entertainment for the fans.'
Courtesy of:   

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