Imagine having Germany’s Dirk Nowitzki, Australia’s Andrew Bogut, USA’s James Harden, Britain’s Luol Deng, China’s Yi Jianlian, Singapore’s Wong Wei Long, the Philippines’ Jimmy Alapag, and Serbian’s Rajko Toroman as head coach, all on the same basketball team. Isn’t it intriguing to find out if these athletes from different nationalities and cultures could actually play with each other and work together towards one common goal?
In the dynamic cosmopolitan city-state of Singapore, demographic conditions have made it possible for a unique mix of individuals to enjoy the game of basketball and compete as one of the 13 teams in the PRO-AM Singapore Basketball League (SBL) – the country’s premier basketball league which is already on its second season.
This team is known as the PROFORM SN EAGLEZ – a newly-formed squad consisting of 22 players from 10 different countries. We are not too sure if, in the history of sports, there exist a team with more or even the same level of diversity? But the chances are really low. This makes Proform SN Eaglez a true pioneer of how sports, specifically, basketball can bring diverse peoples together.
Besides the fact that the team has players from 10 different nationalities with at least 8 different languages, it’s also a family affair as the team boasts of a Father and Son combination (Craig and Andre Whatley) from the United States, whose age difference is exact 25 years apart, and also a pair of twin brothers (Dean and Henry Nguyen) from Vietnam.
The name of the team is a reflection of its 3 founders – Noel Pollock (Head Coach and Managing Director of Proform Basketball Academy) from Britain, Gabriel Chia (The Founder of Slingers Nation) from Singapore and Russ Sarip (Captain of Pinoy Eaglez basketball Team) from the Philippines. When the team was assembled, the diverse composition of the final line-up wasn’t even really planned by anyone. In fact, it was a few months into the team’s preparations when this unique quality of the team was discovered.
The early stages of the team’s formation consisted of several informal practice sessions and scrimmages held at the OCBC Arena and Anglo-Chinese School in Barker Road. After one of those sessions, some of the guys had their post-practice meal at the Kallang Wave food court when they were surprised as a tall gentleman approached to chat with them – it was former Australian National Youth team coach and National Basketball League (NBL) player Warren Pink. What initially drew his attention to the group was the size of 6 foot 11 inch tall gentle giant Vijay Siva. After all, it’s not everyday that you see someone that tall in Singapore.
You may call it fate, destiny or just plain coincidence, but fast forward to a few weeks, Warren Pink officially became the head coach of the team.
Coach Warren brought stability and a sense of direction to the newly formed Eaglez with his strong emphasis on the importance of defense, proper floor spacing and ball movement.
However, it didn’t come easy as he had to deal with several challenges hampering the progress of the team. The first issue was getting his instructions across. Eaglez Team Manager Gabriel Chia, a constant fixture on all practices, often has to translate coaching instructions into Mandarin to ensure that some of the players would know what to do when the drills and plays were being executed.
Then adding to this was the issue of availability of the players for practices and official games. All of the team members either have day jobs or are students here in Singapore; so in times of schedule clashes (e.g. overtime work, business trips, examinations, holidays), it’s a no-brainer that basketball would have to take a back seat in favour of more important responsibilities or events. This was most evident during the Christmas season and Chinese New Year break as the team played severely short-handed because a lot of the players had to go back to their respective hometowns.
And as most new teams would normally experience through the “Stages of Team Development” (Forming, Storming, Norming, Performing), there were also some instances at the start when some of the players bumped heads and didn’t see eye to eye on certain things but eventually these were all sorted out and resolved.
The Journey so far
After 11 regular-season games, the team has shown its own share of flashes of brilliance and let downs.
From the heart-breaking 1-point loss after squandering a 16-point lead during its debut campaign, to the exhilaration felt during the blow-out and breakthrough wins, to handling disappointment after being in the game in the early parts then being left in the dust against the league powerhouses, to witnessing the plays of the season – the back-to-back baskets off nifty passes to Samer Anouti (aka Sammy Shake) and Pete Miljkovic’s (aka Pistol Pete) dagger 4-point play. It has definitely been a roller-coaster of a journey for everyone involved so far .
But despite all the cultural challenges, and not having professional players on the team*, Proform SN Eaglez finished in 7th place in their inaugural season and has qualified for the Elite 8.
*The team was privilege to host former Thailand Basketball League MVP, Kevin Van Hook, who played as a guest player for a game. You could read about his experience in a separate article here.
Proform SN Eaglez have already reached their goal of playoffs in this inaugural season. They have already broken cross-cultural barriers and proved that unity in diversity through basketball is indeed possible. But can they now go further than that?
In the play-offs, the Proform SN Eaglez are grouped together with the heavily-favoured Falcons (2nd seed) Fast Break PIAS (3rd seed) and Infiniti Jewels Singapore Supras (6th seed). Since all games will have an impact on qualifying for the Final 4, expect all teams to bring their A-games and a higher level of intensity.
As what has transpired all season long, the team is expected to be led by sharp-shooting Pete Miljkovic and star point guard Noel Pollock. But in order for them to compete at this level, their “bigs” have to be able to go toe-to-toe and hold their own against the stronger frontlines of the other teams. The bench will also play a crucial role as they will need to provide energy and support to the starters.
Can the Eaglez turn it up a notch, dig deep and score an upset during the playoffs? Will the team be able to find a way to play their best basketball of the season and realise its fullest potential?
These questions will be answered in the coming weeks. Regardless of the outcome, the team is looking to finish strong, go hard and play with pride as they make their attempt to claim Pro-Am SBL glory.
-Article contributed by Adrian Cenon, Facilitator/Consultant at ODE Consulting Pte Ltd & player of Proform SN Eaglez
-Photos by Pro-Am SBL Photographers Kim Angs, Phua Jin Tat, Kiko Aguelo and of course, Slingers Nation