Sharpshooter’s 80-year passion for basketball

Olympian basketballer Mr Ho Lien Siew (Photo: Lovorth Media)

20 Feb 2019

By Justin Kor

Ho Lien Siew stands at all of 1.68m, dwarfed by the 3.05-metre-high basketball rim as he positions himself at the free throw line. In a sport that favours taller athletes, he is probably not a player one would expect to see on a basketball court. But it is exactly where the man feels most at home.

He makes a shot. The form is perfect, honed from nearly eight decades of training. His feet are shoulder-width apart for balance, the wrist tilted at 90-degrees to generate backspin and both eyes are firmly fixed on the target in intense concentration.

The ball sails perfectly through the basket. Clearly, the 86-year old still has it.

No surprise there from the former forward who used to be called shen shou, or Sharpshooter, because of his pinpoint shooting. In his heyday, he could sink three-pointers with ease.

Ho did not just play; he excelled in the sport. He was among the 11 basketballers who went to the 1956 Melbourne Olympic Games. It was the only time Singapore had ever sent a basketball team to the Olympics. The Sharpshooter played competitively until the age of 50, then became a coach until he was 82.

The Singapore 1956 Olympic basketball team with well-wishers before they depart for Melbourne. Mr Ho is squatting on the front row, second from left. (Photo: Ho Liew Siew)

The father of a single daughter even met his wife through a basketball tournament back in 1952. No wonder he remains so passionate about the sport. Despite his advanced years, he can still be found on the court at the Ang Mo Kio Community Club every Wednesday, giving advice to younger players and engaging in some practice.

“When I see a ball, I always feel like I must play,” said the soft-spoken Ho.


From childhood passion to the Olympic dream

Mr Ho’s love affair for basketball started when he was a kid, he continued to play competitively for 26 years after the 1956 Olympics. He is the player on the right of the court in jersey no. 5. (Photo: Ho Lien Siew)

His love affair with the sport started on the court of Yangzheng Primary School, where he engaged, barefooted, in daily games during recess. After school, he would continue playing until sundown.

To further hone his skills, he joined the Chin Woo Athletic Association, where his coach made him shoot smaller hoops to be more accurate. The precise shooter was also an accomplished dribbler, extremely adept at making deceptive body feints while driving towards the basket, often leaving stunned opponents flummoxed.

His skills eventually earned him a call-up to the Melbourne Games in 1956, where Singapore was grouped with Canada, France and the Soviet Union.

In Australia, the team was outmuscled and out-jumped by the bigger Western players and lost all three of its group matches.

Singapore would eventually finish 13th overall, after playing four more consolation matches. While the team fell to China and Australia, they beat Thailand and South Korea.

Ho was not in the starting five, but bagged some game time against the Soviet Union – the tournament’s eventual runner-up – and Australia. Their physical prowess left him astounded.

“Though they weren’t very skilful, they were incredibly strong. We were so small. How could we compete with them? When we lined up against them, we matched up to here,” he said, gesturing towards his shoulder, the surprise still evident after 63 years.

“The bigger players could even hold the ball with one hand, block us with the other and shoot. How could I ever do that?” he added with an incredulous laugh.


Off the court and into the coaching box

Mr Ho in Melbourne during the Olympic Games

Following the Olympics, Ho continued playing for another 26 years, representing the country at the South East Asian Peninsula (SEAP) Games in 1959, 1961 and 1965, as well as the Asian Games in 1962. He would clinch a bronze medal at the 1961 SEAP Games.

After wrapping up his competitive career, he began coaching students.

Faced with boisterous and sometimes unruly children, his gentle temperament and good-natured demeanour served him well. He still keeps in touch with players he mentored over 20 years ago.

Chen Rui Ting, 32, who played under Ho at Holy Innocents High School for four years, said of the man she affectionately calls jiao lian (coach): “I have never seen him lose his temper. He took care of us a lot. After training. he would always take us to eat, and it would be at expensive places like Pizza Hut. Although it usually cost more than $100, he would never let us pay.”

Even now, she is not allowed to pay when she meets her former mentor for meals.

Today, Ho is no longer a coach. He hardly practises, and his increasing frailty means he can no longer sink three-pointers. But he still returns to the basketball court every week without fail, mostly to watch others in action. Why go to the courts when you cannot play?

“I just cannot let basketball go,” he simply said with a wry smile.