During my childhood days, from around 5 to 8 years old, my uncle (who was just a couple of years older) would take me out to various void decks and hardcourts to play pick-up football. One evening, while I was waiting for my turn to play footie, some kids sitting just a couple feet away from me started picking on me. They started throwing specs of sands and small stones at me. Humilated, I went home that day and decided never to return to playing with the neighbourhood kids again.
Sometime around 9 to 10 years old, my interest in basketball piqued due to a conflation of factors – I vividly remembered passing by a couple of kids who were having fun playing basketball at the school basketball court, while on my way home. The thrill and laughter I witnessed would ignite my interest in the game.
That memory, coupled with popular culture, would sparked my journey into basketball at the age of 11: the popularity of Slam Dunk comics (I was a manga fan), as well as my interest in the NBA team, the Indiana Pacers. Born in Indiana, I always had an interest in anything Indiana-related. In the 1994-95 season, I would follow Reggie Miller’s Pacers make it to the Eastern Conference finals, only to lose to the Orlando Magic.
During the school holiday, I recall taking a cheap, rainbow-coloured basketball to the nearby court and shooting hoops on my own. I wore a baggy t-shirt and black Vans skating shoes. I looked out of place – an obese kid fumbling around the court, trying out different moves – spin moves, crossovers, behind-the-back etc.
In secondary school, I’d challenge the older kids to basketball. It was humiliating when my opponents would just pluck the ball away from me with ease, but it only made me want to train more to improve my game.
By this time, Kobe Bryant burst into the NBA. His dunking feats would make him a fan favourite all around the world. My peers would try imitate Kobe’s basketball moves, proudly proclaiming to be like the basketball break-out star himself.
As a Singaporean kid, football was all around me – Kids in school discussed football; I followed the English Premier League myself and played Championship Manager. But my bad experience in my early childhood steered me away from playing the game with others. I’d still dribble a ball around the house, but more often than not, I’d be practicing my basketball moves. I had a minature hoop installed on my bedroom door. I’d be shooting all day. When my parents complained about the noise, I’d then practiced with an imaginary basketball. During classes, I would be fantasizing about basketball plays and tactics. Sometimes, I’d even skip class to play basketball and stay late after school to play.
Eventually, I would try for the basketball school team in 14, but I would be passed over. Dejected, I joined the guitar club instead. Gradually, I’d find myself skipping guitar practice to play basketball instead.
I was 15 when Kobe and Shaquille scored their first championship ring in 2000. They’d beat my hometown team, Larry Bird’s Pacers, and go onto make a 3-peat. As much as I wanted to see the Lakers lose, I would eventually find myself supporting them. They were just too entertaining to watch.
At 17, I would finally make it to a school team – this team my junior college team. Initially, I was deemed to have a lot of potential among my batch of teammates. I was a guard with reasonably good post-up skills. This was largely because I was the taller kid back in secondary school and develop a good game in the paint. But my peers would outgrow me later.
Over the course of training and friendlies with other schools, I would find myself giving in to competitive pressure and under-performing. During the ‘A’ division games, I was mostly a bench player, a 6th man, sent out to be a tough defender on key players. In the 2nd year, my interest in competitive basketball waned and I started to skip training.
When I went to college in Indiana in 2007, I would love it that I was in a basketball-mad environment. Basketball was invented in the Hoosier state, and the campus had plenty of basketball courts – both indoor and outdoors. During the mid-western games among Singaporean students studying in the region, I helped my school win a trophy.
Kobe’s Lakers would return to form around that period and I recall going to the sports bars to watch them play. Together with Pau Gasol and Derek Fisher, the Lakers would go on to win two more championship rings. I was a fan of Kobe then, and I would become a bigger fan.
While Michael Jordan would loom large during my years actively playing basketball, it was Kobe that I mostly grew up watching. He was the star of my era. Yes, he may have emulated Jordan in his early career, but he grew into his own and probably had a better 1-on-1 game than Jordan. It’s crazy that he’s gone so soon, and I still cannot believe it. I keep thinking I’m in some weird alternative reality… and his passing has made me reflect on my own basketball journey.
Kobe Bryant is a larger-than-life personality, on-and-off the court. As a brand ambassador for Adidas and then Nike, it meant that his image was seen everywhere in malls. I still remember these pair of shoes being the trendy basketball shoes back then:
In 2003, when Kobe faced sexual assault charges, it felt like everything was crashing for the basketball great. But he survived that and became even more popular. I must say, prior to his retirement, I had not followed Kobe’s career very much because the Lakers were a shadow of themselves. But when he did retire in 2016, it was a sports milestone in itself. I remembered reading his beautifully written letter to fans that was eventually made into a short Oscar-winning animation film. What a powerful and poetic letter, I thought to myself back then. This guy is not just a gifted athlete, he is an artist, an investor, a creative genius and a inspiration to the world.
Growing up, I was a timid and socially awkward kid, but picking up basketball helped me to gain confidence and to socialise with my peers. It was a sport that I became good enough to play on a competitive, inter-school level. When I debut for my JC team in the ‘A’ division, my dad was around to watch the game. He told me later that he was proud of me.
Sometimes, I look back to my early childhood days and wondered what it would have been like if those kids hadn’t picked on me at the hardcourt that evening. Would I continue playing football like most boys? On hindsight, they probably targeted me because I wasn’t very good at the game and/or because I was the Other – a lone Chinese kid (they were of a different race).
Although I do not play basketball as often as I like to now, the sport is still a big part of my life, and I will remain an advocate of the sport and a lifelong fan of the game.