Tanah Merah Prison School, Singapore — Wearing simple covered cloth shoes with rubber soles that had no laces, about 30 youths were playing out 5-on-5 basketball games in an open court.
It would have been just the usual outdoor activity at Tanah Merah Prison School except that this Saturday was slightly different. Looking on from the sidelines were five professional basketballers from the Singapore Slingers.
Slingers Wu Qing De, Mitchell Folkoff, Desmond Oh, Delvin Goh, and Damien Goh were there to volunteer their time to conduct the third and final mentoring session at the prison on Saturday.
Approximately 30 youth inmates, aged between 18 to 23 years, have been getting basketball tips first hand from the Slingers. This is an initiative of the SportCares Foundation that was recently set up by the Singapore Sports Council to drive social good through sport. The Foundation is one of the recommendations of Vision 2030.
The inmates are taking their N, O or A levels while in prison, and basketball has helped to relieve stress and keep them focused when studying.
One of the youths felt that the dedication of the Slingers especially inspired the change in him.
“We have more discipline and we are more focused on what we want in the court, unlike outside where we tend to be more temperamental. It’s an honour to be under the guidance of the Singapore Slingers. I can see that they have the passion in teaching us,” said a 19-year-old inmate.
His teammate agreed.
“Outside we used to shout at each other. Here, we give moral support to each other. When I saw one of the Slingers dunk the ball, I wanted to be like one of them.”
Aside from physical skills, the Slingers have been emphasising values like perseverance, respect and teamwork to help the youths adjust back into the mainstream society.
Slinger Mitchell Folkoff said: “Basketball is a very physical sport. For them to be pushed down and then help each other up, it shows how much they have matured. They are very good sportsmen.”
Fellow Slinger Wu Qing De gave his team a special pep talk before every game.
“I tell them that no matter what, don’t give up. Even if they make mistakes, they still have second chances. So I remind them to play with effort, confidence and belief,” said Qing De.
Assistant Director of the SportCares Foundation, Laura Reid, described the heartening scene.
“Watching them pick their teams last week, it brought an innocence that I bet they haven’t felt in a long time. You can literally see their faces go, ‘Pick me! Pick me!’ They’re so excited. It’s been huge to see them in the drills that they go through.
“They had one side shooting the baskets … they’ll be counting off as the score and they get louder as the numbers go up. (You can see) that pride. It becomes part of the holistic education and redemption for them. We learn something too when we come in to watch them play,” said Reid.
Reid applauded the Slingers for their commitment.
She stated: “The Slingers have been really good at working on their technique … I’ve seen an improvement in the shooting, in the team strategy. There’s one team that got the passing strategy and they were winning. So that’s something that the Slingers reinforced afterwards.
“The temptation is always to be the star but when you play as a team, you have a better chance of winning. You don’t have to like each other to play well on the team; you just have to respect the efforts.”
Pleased with the outcome, Reid exclaimed: “This [SportCares] is a project to see how the values of sport can translate into a more controlled environment. We’re very optimistic. Sports is not just about picking up the physical skills. It’s about the character development that they can get from working on a team. This is just the beginning, it’s a small program. We’re planning to do more and this has been so satisfying.”
The Slingers eventually had to leave but they left the youths autographed basketballs, a welcome gift in a spartan environment. If the balls become well worn in the months ahead through constant use, the gift will have served its purpose and will also be a warm reminder to the inmates of the time that a bunch of professionals took time to play basketball with them.