People who got to know me within the past two years may see me as that nerd who loves to code. Fellow developers may think of me as that person with an irrational love for CSS. But for most of my life (even now, to be honest), I was “that basketball player”. I did not grow up in an athletic household. Nobody really did sports seriously. We were a typical Asian family, with typical Asian values of academic excellence. Throwing a ball around, albeit with high levels of skill and precision, didn’t net you much in the achievements department.
I started playing organised basketball when I was 13, and that kick-started a journey that made me who I am today. Even though, at the time, it seemed like the elders of the household did not approve of this athletic endeavour, my siblings always had my back. They didn’t have to say it, but I felt it from their actions. In hindsight, I now realise how important that support was. Let’s just say, I never really had any major self-esteem or confidence issues growing up.
There’s a very clichéd saying that basketball doesn’t build character as much as it reveals it. I think it does both. We were playing in the national semi-final for the under-14 school tournament, and our team was down by 2 points with time running out. And even though this was 14 years ago, I remember it like yesterday. I called for the ball and drove to the hoop knowing I would be fouled. If I had made the shot anyway, and got the foul after, things would have been easier for everyone. But, you know, life. If I make both free throws, we would have tied, and who knows what would have happened in overtime. I missed one.
But I knew that I wanted the ball in my hands. I was going to have an impact on the ending regardless. So we lost, it wasn’t like anybody died or anything, but I was pretty upset at the time. I remember making 22 free throws in a row the next day. Too little too late though. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
Life lesson #1: Things don’t always go your way. Pick yourself up, dust yourself off and move on.
I had a 2-hour commute to and from school at the time. And remember Asian values? I landed my ass in a pretty strong academic school and so, schoolwork + basketball + travel-time = 😱.
I learned pretty early on that trying to do everything at once is a recipe for failure. You’ll just end up feeling so overwhelmed that you can’t finish anything at all. But the ridiculous schedule meant I was forced to learn how to prioritise early on in my life.
Think of it this way. It’s like when you’re playing Assassin’s Creed, you don’t jump into an area filled with enemy guards, get yourself surrounded and take a beating. It’s much easier to pick them off one by one. Same principle. Video games mirror life, people.
Life lesson #2: You can do anything. But you can’t do everything. Prioritise your tasks, finish each one, and check it off your list.
As a forward/centre, I usually play in the post. The post players and perimeter players train separately while practising individual skills. A common complaint from the post players is that the perimeter guys don’t pass the ball inside. And the perimeter players complain that it’s impossible to make that pass because the post players aren’t posting up properly. At some point, the coaches had enough of that and told everybody to switch places. Meaning, the post players came out to the perimeter and the perimeter players posted up inside.
That was, how shall we put it, an interesting experience. The post players realised how stressful it was to try to make that entry pass to the post while a defender was draped all over you. And the perimeter players realised how much physicality was required to actually pin the defender behind you for those couple of seconds to get open for the pass.
If you don’t care for basketball at all, that probably didn’t make any sense to you whatsoever. But the point is, when conflicts arise, try to put yourself in that other person’s shoes. They have their struggles on the other side as well. Could you do what they are doing right now?
Life lesson #3: Don’t be so quick to criticise until you’ve walked a mile in their shoes. Who’s to say you wouldn’t have done the same?
When I first joined the national team, I went from being a starter to a scrub. And that was a hard lesson to learn. The level of competition was different. I had always been a post player, but at the international level, I was way too small for that. I had to learn to play a position completely new to me, and fight for a spot on the team against players who had played that position their whole lives.
I realised that coming off the bench was harder than being a starter. Especially if you didn’t know when your number would be called. But when it was, you’d better be ready to deliver. In that sense, the stakes were a little higher, because you’d enter the game cold and be expected to keep up the pace immediately. Playing time is a privilege, not a right, and that privilege is earned by doing the best you can whatever your role may be.
During the 2009 William Jones Cup, another team-mate and I were relatively junior and didn’t play very much during the first couple of games. But as the tournament went on, we didn’t do too badly. We definitely weren’t the most skilled players at the time, so the only thing we could do was hustle, play defense and do the little things well. By the final 2 games, we were on the floor for more than the half the game.
Life lesson #4: Understand what your role is and how you fit in the grand scheme of things, then play that role the best you can.
I got the chance to play in the FIBA Asia Championships, the SEABA Championship and a couple other tournaments over the years. But there was tournament that I never made it to. That was the Southeast Asian Games (SEA games). This tournament meant everything, a gold medal guaranteed funding for the next 2 years.
In 2011, I had decided it would be my last year with the national team. As much as I loved chasing my dream of playing basketball, the matter of fact was, professional sports is not much of an option in this part of the world right now. It definitely wasn’t easy. I got injured early in the year and had to work extra hard to get back to where I was. Rehab taught me a lot about patience, about mental toughness, and about listening to your body.
Despite my best efforts, I was one of the last players to get cut. To say I wasn’t disappointed would be a lie, but I know I had put in my best effort already. Sometimes, your best effort just isn’t enough.
Life lesson #5: Hard work gets you closer to success but does not guarantee it. If you’re only fixated by the end result, then failure becomes devastating. But if you focus on the process, then the end result becomes secondary.
Even after I made the national team, I still felt as if the elders in my family didn’t really approve of what I was doing. Both my parents worked, so I was largely brought up by my grandmother. And she’d use to say things like, when are you going to play until? Don’t play until you fail your exams. Stuff like that.
Rationally, I could see where she was coming from. As someone who raised 3 kids on her own because my grandfather passed away rather early, she was very practical about life. But, deep down, all I wanted was for her to be proud of me. After I left home, I would still call back to tell her about where we were flying to for the next tournament, if we won or lost, and life in general. But I don’t think she’d ever seen me play.
I was playing in a national league tournament in 2012 when I got the news that my grandmother had passed away. Although she wasn’t in the pink of health, at 86, she was still sharp and could move around. Let’s just say, nobody expected she’d go that quickly.
After the funeral, one of my relatives, who had been around while my grandmother’s health took a turn for the worse, handed me a newspaper. It was a full page article about the tournament I was playing in and my photo was featured in it. She told me, that was pretty much the last thing my grandmother saw, and she was so proud. You bet I cried on that bus ride back to join my team.
I wished I had at least showed her videos of my games, but I always thought I wasn’t good enough, that I’d wait to play the perfect game, then I’d show her. As fate would have it, we won that tournament. And I received my first MVP award of my career. But the person I most wanted to tell, wasn’t around any more. It was 2 weeks too late.
Life lesson #6: If you have something you want to say or show to a loved one, do it now. There might not be a tomorrow.
My 6 year stint with the national team is an experience that is worth more than anything money can ever buy. When people find out that I gave up the opportunity pursue my tertiary education in Singapore to go back home to play basketball, they give me a look that says “You must be nuts”. I say, there are hundreds of thousands of students who graduate University, but how many people get the chance to wear their national flag? 10 years ago today, I chased a dream. If I had to do it again a thousand times, I would have done the same.
Basketball has taught me a lot about life. And made me the person I am today. I’m thankful that I decided to stick with it despite the familial objections. It really is more than just a game.