HE’S only 18 years, a very big lad at two-metres and Lavin Raj is a special breed of young Singaporeans breaking the racial heritage of certain sports.
He now dons the red and white for Singapore basketball on the hardwood floor as the only Indian on the national roster and even hopes to be a professional if he gets the right break very soon.
An Indian boy making heads turn in a Chinese-dominated sport like basketball is a very unusual trademark as much as statistics show that Malays dominate football, widely regarded as the No 1 sport here.
Because of his extraordinary height and physique, Lavin has been dubbed as the “Singapore Shaq” after the USA legend Shaquille O’Neal, who at 2.16m and 147 kg has been ranked as one of the tallest and heaviest players during his 19-year professional career, where he starred for Orlando Magic (1992-1996), Los Angeles Lakers, Miami Heat before retiring with Boston Celtic (2011).
Lavin shyly smiles at the “Shaq” comparison. Matter-of-fact, he’s embarrassed!
But he shows concern when asked about the lack of non-Chinese playing top-level basketball. “It’s probably a cycle. Indians and Malays don’t want to join because they think it’s a Chinese sport, and it’s a Chinese sport because Indians and Malays don’t want to join,” he says.
He sizzled to regional heights after taking part in competitions like the SEA (South-East Asia) Games and the FIBA 2021 Asian Cup qualifiers. Only 16 years, he was a real sight to behold during the 2017 SEABA (South-east Asia Basketball Amateur) Championship, whenever he got on to the court in Manila, the capital of Philippines.
OFFERED A CONTRACT
His wide-bodied frame instantly caught the eye of the Filipino coaches, too. Some of them even offered him a Philippines collegiate contract to continue his development in the basketball-crazy country, which is ranked as the best in Asean.
But Lavin, as much as he wishes to be a professional player one day, chose not to take up the offer then, as his parents wanted him to continue his education as he’s pursuing a Sports Management diploma at the Republic Polytechnic in Woodlands.
He fell in love with basketball at nine years after his Primary 3 physical education teacher noticed his height, and he immediately gelled very well with his Chinese team-mates.
“I even understand Chinese now,” he chuckles, remembering one time when he had to translate Chinese instructions into English for a new Malay mate as everyone spoke mostly in Mandarin.
“If I see another Indian guy coming up to the national team, I will feel proud,” he says “as I want to see more racial integration not only in basketball but every popular Singapore sport. There should be better racial mixing in sports to encourage more youngsters so that the sporting community in Singapore will be more inclusive, and allow more youths to pursue their sports dreams regardless of race.”
It’s been a wild journey for Lavin, who took up the sport only by chance because a teacher thought he had good height to play the game.
‘REALLY FUN TO PLAY’
“When I was in Primary Three, my teacher-in-charge brought me to watch one of the school’s basketball games. So when I first watched it, I thought it looked like it was really fun,” Raj says.
“So I started joining the school team for training and all that, and that’s when I found myself liking the game more. I thought to myself, ‘This game is actually really fun’, so I just started from there.”
From then, Lavin started watching more American-based NBA and Asean Basketball League games. He then chose to go Anglo Chinese School (Barker Road) to join their basketball programme, and that was where he blossomed under coach Ng Choon Hong.
Then, when he was 15, he played in a youth basketball competition called the Milo Cup, which was where he was talent-spotted to go for trials with the national youth teams. A year later in June 2016, he was fast-tracked by Australian coach Frank Arsego, who had just taken over as coach of the men’s national basketball team, while he was preparing for the ASEAN School Games.
“When I first saw him, I didn’t know who he was. I didn’t know there was a new coach coming in at all,” Raj says of Arsego. “But after that, he approached me and talked to me during games and all that, and I slowly got to know him. Frank has been one of those who have had a huge influence on my game. He is constantly providing me with pointers on what I’m doing well and what I can improve on.”
Arsego told the media then he selected Lavin because of his “extraordinary physique”. He says: “When I arrived here, my plan was to look at the youth competitions and what was happening. Lavin Raj was a member of the Under-18 youth squad as an underage player. But we looked at his size, and to be honest he was very limited at the time, but if he was in Australia, he would be someone that we would invest time in.”
“So I went out to watch some of his training, and then I invited some of the younger boys to come and train with the national squad. He kept coming and coming and coming, and I thought to myself, ‘well, why not’?”
It was Lavin’s commitment to training that led to him making the cut with the seniors for the SEA Games team.
While Arsego spoke well of Lavin’s shooting stroke – a rare ability about players of his size – and his prowess inside the paint, the coach made it clear he has to work on his conditioning – specifically, his 145kg body frame.
“I’d love to see him redefine his body a little bit more, so he can use what he has as a continued strength and just continue to develop as a big man,” says Arsego.
In response, Lavin has been going to the Singapore Sports Institute to see a sports training and dietician. He works out at SSI two to three times a week.
“I want to play basketball at the next higher level and keep going higher and higher. I also want to play regularly for the Singapore Slingers (that plays professionally in the Asean Basketball League).”
He’s the youngest teenager to sign a pro contract with Slingers this season. And last week, the Slingers outclassed Hong Kong Eastern 101-70 in Game 1 of the Asean Basketball League (ABL) play-offs semi-finals.
For Arsego, his wish for Lavin is simple – to not give up the sport and to be the mainstay of the national team in years to come.
He praises: “I can see he takes great pleasure representing Singapore. I’m hoping he stays around for our national team program for many years. I genuinely believes he loves playing basketball and I definitely know the guys love him in the team… he has the qualities to put him in the right direction to stay in the sport.”
Lavin’s next regional target is the upcoming SEA Games in Manila end of the year and the FIBA Asia Cup 2021 East Region Pre-Qualifiers.
“Like what I said earlier,” Lavin says with a confident smile. “I will embrace the pressure and use it to push myself even harder. My passion is the same, regardless of what level of basketball I’m playing.”
“The Singapore Shaq” is ready to shine and, more importantly, to break the racial heritage in a Chinese-dominated sport. – By SURESH NAIR
- Suresh Nair is a Singapore-based journalist who is amazed by 18-year-old Lavin Raj’s extraordinary sporting potential and prays he makes it as a rare breed of Asian-class basketball professionals