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Watching Singapore play in the ASEAN Basketball League


During player introductions, an almost fully inflated Harvey Norman appliance store blimp sat lazily in the corner of the Singapore Indoor Arena, while the white squid monster mascot (turned out to be a Merlion-a mythical creature, the head of a lion, the body of a fish) made semi-sexual hip movements and hand gestures. Miles and I were sitting to the right of a reporter from Fox Sports Asia at the courtside media bench, having been granted press access after sending an email claiming that we were working for an alumni magazine out of New York City.

To our right was the San Miguel Beermen (of Pasig City, in the Philippines) bench. Gabe Freeman, a star of the Canadian Basketball League from Phoenix and one of the three allotted Import Players on the Beermen, took off his white t-shirt for the first time since warm-ups began. Behind him, a man charged with making sure the shot clocks were working checked his watch and sighed as the song lyrics “Live like we’re young” blared from above. Freeman, wearing black socks with a custom “GF” logo on them, brought the Beermen together. “Start Strong!” he yelled. “Together on three!” Then he put his white t-shirt back on and returned to the bench while the starters trotted onto the court.

The game’s first half was unremarkable.

Singapore basketball game with the PhilippinesAsi Taulava, a large Filipino man with a bleached mullet-hawk, hit a mid-range jumper and gestured furiously at his elbow as if to say he was fouled in the act of shooting. The crowd cheered the shot, then yelled angrily on his behalf—In general, the home team did not feel like the home team. In Singapore there is a large Filipino population, and many of them work in the houses and swank condos of the city-state’s wealthy. But these workers always get their Sundays off, and they represented the clear majority of a 2,000 person crowd scattered about an arena built to hold six times that many people.

After a few minutes, Gabe Freeman took off his t-shirt and entered the game. His team’s super-quick point guard, Chris Banchero, looked ready to punch his coach, Leo Austria, for taking him out. “Fuck,” Banchero muttered. “Fuck Fuck Fuck.” His team led 22-12, and the home team, whose shorts said “Slingers” across the upper rear-end, looked sluggish after a tough four point victory on the road over the Saigon Heat two days earlier.

Freeman hit an impressive runner off the glass (and also gestured at his elbow running back down the court). A Fox Sports producer sitting near me pointed to a beautiful woman and said she was being groomed as the ASEAN Baketball League’s sideline reporter. He didn’t think she was quite ready yet, but she had a nice voice. Freeman set a screen for one of his teammates, who knocked down a three. The producer asked us why we were covering a pro basketball game in Singapore, and we stumbled through our alumni magazine story. Miles, my purported photographer, was dressed in business casual attire, taking blurry pictures of the players from my phone. I was still sweating from the laps we walked around the arena hours before the game, when Slingers coach Beng Siang Neo almost hit us with his car. Freeman hit another tough shot in the lane and Banchero started yelling at his coach to put him back in the game.

By halftime, the Beermen led 38-28 and one of their coaches had taken out his phone and snapped a photograph of the British men drinking Carlsbergs and heckling the road team from behind their bench. They were the most vocal supporters of the Slingers in the entire arena. Throughout the half, a man wearing a turban, sitting in the sponsored turbanizer.com box underneath one of the baskets, had dangled a custom digital sign that said “Miss” on it from a wooden pole as the Beermen took free throws. Turbanizer.com is the official website for an app that allows you to superimpose a variety of turbans on people’s heads after taking their picture. And so it bears mentioning that the Slingers had found a way, though it may have been luck, to put their most enthusiastic supporters behind the opposing team’s bench and underneath one of the baskets.

The game’s 2nd half was more interesting.

Desmond Oh is a famous Singaporean player known for his aggressive defense and toughness, which is why his fans call him D-Glove—the Gary Payton of Singapore. He is generously listed at 5’10” and, at the time of the game, had a perfectly symmetrical dirty blonde bowl-cut. With around four minutes to go in the third quarter, he tripped and became trapped under the feet of Gabe Freeman. Freeman repeatedly tried to free his feet, eventually became frustrated, and towered menacingly over Oh with his fist cocked back. Oh threw a harmless jab at one of Freeman’s legs, and a skirmish ensued.

The players, amid much posturing, were initially separated with ease. But as the refs attempted to settle down the screaming, stomping Beermen coaching staff, behind their backs, Oh and Freeman came face to face at half court, and for a moment it seemed as though a 165 pound Singaporean defensive specialist and a 6’6”, 205 pound former NBL Canada MVP from Phoenix were going to engage in a classic quickness vs. strength fighting experiment. Suddenly Kyle Jeffers, a 6’10” former Oregon State forward for the Singaporean club, came running to support D-Glove and took his place in the confrontation with shouts and shoves to Freeman’s chest. A murmur of anticipation rose from the crowd, a heavyweight bout at midcourt, with a visibly worn down circular Jobstreet.com logo forming the ring.

Before either man threw a punch, the benches cleared, the refs whirled around obliviously, the players paired off and separated each other from confrontations, and the coaches on both sides became livid. They vouched for players on the opposing team to be thrown out of the game, and flung themselves back into their seats with faces of agony or resignation. When play resumed minutes later, the bewildered fans came back to life and, since the crowd was bipartisan, booed every time a player involved in the fracas touched the ball. Taulava (he of the golden mullethawk) appeared unable to stop laughing as he defended Jeffers in the paint. During this juncture, the Beerman coach heard me say “The intensity level has been high all game,” turned, and laughed in my face, even though I was being serious.

The truth was I had been impressed by the players and how much they cared, even if the producer informed me that the overall talent levels of each team was at the lower end of division 1 college basketball. And so what if Wei Long Wong couldn’t travel to away games because he was a student—he’ll be on the national team for the next 20 years, and what a life to lead…

Soon, Freeman fouled Jeffers with a forearm to the head and the two were face-to-face again. As the players were assessed double technicals, Freeman walked over and raised his arms to the delight of the Filipino segment of the crowd, which roared with enthusiasm. A ref dressed in a gray athletic t-shirt with orange piping and the ASEAN league logo attempted to get Freeman to come speak with him near the yellow Jobstreet.com midcourt circle. Freeman ignored him as the away-crowd continued to cheer. The man in the turbanizer box and his guests sat quietly and appeared to collectively wonder how it had all gone wrong (this was, after all, a fight for sole possession of 2nd place in the league behind the Indonesia Warriors). Perhaps attempting to match Freeman’s bravado, Jeffers shot playful finger-guns to all sections of the crowd after knocking down his 2nd free throw (he missed the first one, badly).

When play resumed, Banchero, who had returned from his early benching to push the Beermen towards a 13 point league, slipped awkwardly and fell on top of the ball. He writhed on the ground for 30 seconds clutching his crotch area, then rose with the help of his teammates. Freeman attempted the final shot of the third quarter, a tough one in the lane off the glass, and missed. He yelled “Finish that shit!” to himself as he walked back to the bench.

The final quarter was defined by collective but unsatisfied expectations of a full out Freeman-Jeffers fight, given their continued posturing up and down the floor, and yelling/stomping from the Beermen coaches, their anger directed both at the refs and their own players despite a sizable lead. At one point, Freeman was called for a foul and screamed angrily across the court at his own staff: “What you want me to do? He tied me up!”

One of the coaches stopped yelling at Freeman and turned to the ref nearest him. “Hey ref—you call properly. You hear me? Yeah—what you looking at?”

Soon Filipino star Eric Menk took an elbow to the nose and walked off the court bleeding, sending the Beermen coaches into further hysterics, screaming at everyone who would listen, including me. “You know what the story is!” I nodded. Cheerleaders emerged to shoot small orange bouncy balls into the crowd, and Freeman was taken out of the game after the refs mistakenly believed he fouled out. He returned several minutes later, knocked down a three, then left again.

He hugged his coach. “Sometimes you just gotta talk a little shit,” he said. “That’s all. You just gotta talk a little shit.” They laughed together, and soon the game was over. The final score was 66-55 or 65-55 Beermen, depending on which scoreboard in the arena you looked at.

Freeman was in high demand afterwards, taking pictures with Filipino families and signing autographs. I walked aimlessly around the court, until I saw Desmond Oh posing for a photo with a member of the home crowd, a woman who had purchased the breast cancer awareness variety of his jersey. I asked him about his much larger teammate getting in Freeman’s face for him.

“Me and Jeffers, our whole team, is family. We have played together for four years. We love each other.” Something about a small pesky defender from Singapore having that kind of bond with a big man who grew up in the Bay Area made me feel good. “We are very tired,” Oh said. “We will remember this in a month,” when the teams play again. Then I walked over to Freeman and asked him about the t-shirt he wore during warm-ups and on the bench.

“Always,” he said. “Always have the t-shirt.” He was friendly, patting us on the shoulders as he spoke like we were ten year olds, which we may as well have been. “Basketball kept me off the streets in Phoenix. I wasn’t as fortunate as most. I’ve been playing in this league for four years and I’ll keep coming back. Look at these fans—they’re my family, man.” And then a few moments later: “Talking shit is a big part of basketball. I love talking shit.”

We tried to talk to Banchero, but we was so engulfed by fans, and looked so happy.

So Miles and I walked across the court and up a tunnel, and turned right down a long hallway, unsure of where we were going or how to exit. Soon we passed the Beermen’s visiting locker room. For a fleeting moment, I saw Matt Rogers, a recently signed import player who started at center, biting into a Subway sandwich. I nervously flashed him a thumbs up, but I don’t think he noticed me.

Slingers vs. Beermen, 2/17/2013, Singapore Indoor Stadium

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