Singapore: Barren Ground for Basketball Girls
By Sylvia Tan, Michelle Tsen, and Nur Shafikah Sulaiman IT IS HARD TO KNOW WHERE IT ALL BEGAN. FOR MOST OF US, WHAT started out as a way to burn calories and to earn points for our Co-Curricular Activities, as required by Singapore’s Ministry of Education, ended up enriching those years of our adolescent lives—and for most of us, our adulthood. That being said, we did not have the easiest time playing the game of basketball, especially as girls in an Asian country.
Our best story of our four or five years together had the worst start, back in the beginning of 2010. Nobody called us the underdogs. We did. We watched other teams win with flourish, while we barely scraped by with a few points against mediocre teams. It was not that we did not have the talent. We, the basketball girls at Jurong Secondary School, just could not find the confidence to believe in ourselves. We were a group of players were scarred cut by the crushing disappointment that came after waves of high hopes and failed seasons, one after the other. So when we were dealt a humiliating 22-point defeat early in the season by our long-time rival, Jurong West, it was a disgrace—and the sharpest wake up call for all of us.
As 15-year-olds, many of us were caught up in the fantasy of being the next Asian player in the WNBA. Even though Singapore is a young nation that regards education with the utmost priority, studies soon became secondary to most of us. We willingly woke up at five in the morning for a jog, yet we grumbled at 8 am classes. We spent hours after school on the court and a quarter of those hours on books. We would go under the hot sun to perfect that left-hand lay-up, but never took the time to master logarithm. We would make sure to pack the necessary gears for training, but could care less about the missing buttons on our school uniforms.
"The game took more than two hours, double overtimes, and with five of our seven main players fouled out by its end."
We live in a country pervaded with Asian values, one where basketball is regarded as a male sport and we are expected to conform to gender roles. Some of us had parents who supported our participation in sports; some of us didn’t; and the rest of us had parents who changed their minds halfway through our unforgettable season. We had a friend who could not join the sport because her mother did not want her to be too tan because “girls look nicer fair”—because, until five years ago, the majority of the basketball courts in Singaporean schools, including ours, were outdoors. Other parents found the sport too time consuming, and too rough “for a girl”. Our best season happened to be the year our school carried out construction of the indoor sport hall, so that four basketball teams had share one outdoor court. So we spent our days going to other schools in the hopes that we could borrow their courts. Our parents scolded us because “girls should not be staying out so late all the time.”
But we were teenagers, of course, in the prime of our rebellious years. To us, basketball was everything. We turned deaf ears to our nagging parents and blind eyes to disapproving looks.
"Nobody called us the underdogs. We did."
In the quarterfinals of Singapore’s U16’s National Basketball Championships, in the midst of exams, we had lost to two weaker teams in our grouping. To move onto the semifinals, we would need to beat a team whom had not lost a single game all season, Unity Secondary School, by no less than six points. And, like any fairy tale, we won, by exactly six points. But unlike the fairy tales, our happy ending was not the result of a random fairy godmother handing us our victory. For one week, we endured what we later called the “trainings from hell”. We were mentally and physically pushed to our limits. We did countless sets of push-ups and sit-ups on burning blacktops. We were purposefully hit, slapped, elbowed. We ran and ran and ran until our strongest runner collapsed. And we didn’t even know if it was going to pay off. It was one week of breaking limits and when we finally won, it was as surreal as it got. We were our own fairy godmothers, weaving the magic strands of our determination, sweat, tears, laughter, doubt, then trust and belief to craft our own legacy in that victory.
It was in the semifinals when we again met the team who had handed us our 22-point defeat earlier that season. The game took more than two hours, double overtimes, and with five of our seven main players fouled out by its end. We scraped and clawed our way back from a 10-point deficit. We would love to say we won the game, but we did not. We lost by four points. We played a game that had every single one in the gym standing and screaming. We played a game that made every second counted. But we lost. We had lost before but this loss was the hardest. We cried so hard and replayed every scene that could have reversed the results. Thinking back, we may have lost our shot at the national championship, but that season we won more than a medal. We won the respect of everyone in the gym that day, including our opponents, by making a spectacular comeback. We won the admiration of our teachers who came to watch a basketball match but saw values that they could never teach in the classroom. We won our time worthwhile, paying back all the sacrifices we had made. We won.
As teenagers, we didn’t think of sports as tools to enable our growth as a person, to bridge differences or to reduce us to crying, emotional messes at the end of heartbreaking seasons. But it did. Rather than the virtuous ladies our parents expected of us when they berated our participation in basketball, we became more. We applied the discipline we gained from stringent trainings on completing homework. Through our willingness to work with a myriad of different personalities on a team, we grew into empathetic, appreciative and cooperative women. The countless times that we did not walk away from trainings, critiques and disappointment nurtured the resilience we needed to thrive in a country system that emphasizes meritocracy. The lessons of accepting defeat and the ability to climb back up gave us determination and confidence. We learned to identify the silver linings in life, and to turn any loss, however debilitating, into another lesson learnt. Finally, we learned that we, as girls, can kick ass in pants, shorts, skirts or dresses.
Basketball has taught, provided and inspired us in ways we never would have imagined. We are who we are today, partially, mostly or wholly because of what we have been through in our failed seasons. The most significant lesson we learned was that we are always capable of more than what we expect of ourselves.
To the Muslims girls who practiced during the fasting month, thank you. To the injured or sick players who still turned up for practice, thank you. To the girls who knew from the start they did not have a chance to be in the main rotation, but pushed us every day in practice, thank you. To the team who stuck by their captain who seemingly abandoned her team, who offered to run 83 sprints with her when she walked out on practice, thank you. To the one true team most of us will ever have. For coming together in that perfect season of 2010 and sticking through thick and thin, for believing in yourselves and in the team. THANK YOU.
Finally, we will always remember that to get what we have never had, we must dare to do what we have never done.
Jurong Secondary School Girls' Basketball Team 2010 (above) & 2015 (below)