Over the years, I've told people that my father used to play for the Singapore national basketball team in the 1960s. But when pressed for details, I wasn't able to give any, simply because I had none.
My earliest awareness about my father's basketball days stemmed from one particular photo, with a particular man in it. When I was old enough to learn who was that man in the centre of the photo (which you'll soon see if you read on), I started to pay a little more interest but still not a lot.
Growing up, there were times my father would relate some memorable events but again, I didn't attempt to find out more (let's just say that in my growing-up years, my relationship with my father was typical of most Asian families of our generation then — where the father was the disciplinarian and heart-to-heart conversations between fathers and sons existed only in American TV shows).
All that I knew thus far were that: (1) the 1960s were the heady days of basketball in Singapore, and (2) my father had represented Singapore to play in the Asian games and overseas tournaments. My father's story was made all the more credible by my mother. She usually stayed out of his other stories but she'd add a brief word or two about his days as a national player.
Recently, when I emailed my brother about my (immensely small) part in Yesterday.sg, I suggested that we interview my father for a basketball story. My brother liked the idea about posting in Yesterday.sg but he'd rather that I do the interview.
"You know how Pa is like. Once he starts with his story, he will never stop", wrote my brother. That was that.
So yesterday, when my wife and I dropped by my parent's place for one of our weekend dinners, I took the chance to ask my father about the photo.
“Pa, 你还有没有你以前打篮球的 photo?”
[Pa, do you still have those photos from your basketball days?"]
[Yes. Plenty. Which one do you want?]
“那张有 Chiang Kai-shek 在里面的.”
[The one with Chiang Kai-shek in it.]
My father is/ was the young man at the front row, second from left.
He played for the National Squad (if it could be called that) from around 1954 to 1966. He was around 21 when he joined and remained the only left-hander during those years. He finally retired from the squad at the age of 33, after 12 years.
According to my father, basketball clubs existed in the pre-war years (i.e. pre-1942) and continued well into the post-war, post-colonial, and post-independence years (Singapore gained Independence in 1965).
The above photo was taken in 1955. It's particularly significant because it was taken with the late leader of Taiwan ROC, Chiang Kai-shek and his wife, Soong May-ling (click on image to see larger version). Don't believe me? Cross reference with this photo and this one.
I asked how the picture came to be. My father said a basketball tournament had been organised in Taiwan as part of the celebrations for Chiang Kai-shek's birthday. Various teams had been invited to play (I forgot to ask from which countries).
The team my father was in comprised of players from Malaya and Singapore (this was in 1955, before Merger, Separation and Independence). The team was known as 马华 (Ma- Hua), taking the first Chinese character for “Malaya” (马来亚) and Chinese (华, to mean Singapore). The players in the photo were the selected few from Malaya and Singapore.
I asked my father if he and his team mates shook hands with the late President Chiang. He said no. There was heavy security and teams were simply ushered in and out of the palace like a production line.
I play basketball, in case you were wondering, but I doubt if I'm as good as my father ever was. Certainly not National Team material. So I'm doing what I can do slightly better, which is to write about it.
Both men are now in their early 70s.
As I write this, my father is still in relatively good health for his age. From the way he works the garden at the Community Centre, you'd never tell he has a Defibrillator in his chest. He can out-lift some youngsters more than half his age (flower pots filled with soil aren't light at all). Benefits of a sporting lifestyle, eh?
He and his basketball buddies are also working as part-time basketball coaches for students in some primary and secondary schools. I doubt if his students know of their backgrounds and glory days. Perhaps one day they'll read Yesterday.sg and say, "Hey, that was my basketball coach… and I had no idea."
It's funny… while I'd seen that 1955 photo with Chiang Kai-shek as a child, it was only yesterday, 2 Apr, 2006 (writing for Yesterday.sg) that I've learnt a story behind it. And as I write this now, I realised I almost my father's age when he retired from playing basketball.
Perhaps I should come clean.
Writing for Yesterday.sg is just a catalyst, almost an excuse (albeit a very good one) for me to tell the world, "That's my father."
Oh, and he used to play for Singapore.