Boris Lai had never played netball before, but two years ago at the University of Hong Kong registration day, he and his friend decided to sign up. The netball team isn’t one of HKU’s biggest sports clubs, but it is growing in numbers and victories. The players hope their skills on the court will make more people aware of the sport, which is similar to basketball.
Explaining the key difference between the two games, the 20-year-old Lai says: “In netball, everyone has different positions and different roles. Since the ball can only be passed from one teammate to another – instead of being bounced along the court by one player – it requires the cooperation of teammates to bring the ball up the court, let alone to score and win the game.”
But the games are similar – so much so that Lai’s role model is NBA superstar Steve Nash. The sports share enough techniques and rules that Lai can take Nash’s lead in upping his own game. “I love his passing game, his shooting stroke and his competitiveness,” he says. “I especially love the way he passes the ball to his teammates from anywhere on the court, leading to easy scoring opportunities.”
Lai, who plays in goal attack or goal shooter positions, says: “I like netball because it is a team sport. I enjoy working together with teammates to perform all the simple tasks during a game.”
Earlier this month, Lai joined the Hong Kong National Youth Men Touring Team when they headed to Penang, in Malaysia, to compete at the USM-Penang International Netball Tournament.
There were plenty of strong teams at the event, but Lai says he was his own worst enemy. “I am actually a pretty slow learner and thinker. While the game is flowing around me, I take time to assess the situation and plan my moves,” says Lai. “We played different teams in every match, so I was the constant threat to myself. Sometimes my concentration would lapse, and I couldn’t get into the rhythm of the game quickly. In short games where every second counts, this could affect the whole team’s performance.”
Netball requires speed and agility, but most of all it requires good teamwork to be able to anticipate passes and create formations. The Youth Men team trained for months to be fighting fit for Malaysia, working on their individual skills, and also focusing on how to perform and cooperate as a team.
Lai says: “Before the game, I hadn’t played anyone from outside Hong Kong, so I had no idea what netball elsewhere was like. When I played the first match against the Malaysian team, I was surprised how physical the game was. While I was on the court, I was being bumped around more than I’d ever experienced in Hong Kong, and it took me some time to get used to this difference.”
In their second match, they faced elimination; only a victory would allow them to move on to the next round. During the pre-match huddle, the team planned their approach.
“Before the game, someone from our team said: ‘It doesn’t matter if we win or lose the next game ... but we have to win the next game.’ It seemed funny at first, but it showed that we have to work hard in every game, no matter how important it is,” Lai recalls.
“It is always disappointing to lose a match, especially by one point,” says Lai. “I was not satisfied with my performance during the tournament and I think I could have done much better. Still, I was grateful to have the opportunity to go abroad, and I vow to be better prepared when the next match comes.”
While it’s true that netball doesn’t get the same exposure and funding as sports like basketball and football, it is still one of the biggest sports in the world, with formidable national teams in Australia, New Zealand and Britain. And it’s upon this world stage that Lai has set his sights.
“I’d like to play in Australia as they have some of the world’s best netball players,” he says. “I would be able to learn a lot from them ... although Hong Kong would lose the match by a huge margin in the process.”
Looking to the future, Lai will keep playing netball while studying, then see where life takes him after university. “I don’t really have an ultimate goal for now,” he says. “I would like to take it one step at a time and focus on improving my skills among other things. Hopefully I am able to improve my game play and see where that takes me.”
What song/movie title best describes you when you’re playing netball?
Staying Alive by the Bee Gees. While on the court I have my ups and downs, sometimes the game just doesn’t go my way. When that happens, I just try to stay alive in the game, not to let the game overwhelm me, and work on my basic skills.
If you could have the abilities of any animal during a match, what would you choose?
I would probably choose the kangaroo for its jumping ability. I am a bit “ground-bound” compared to my height but if I could just jump a little bit higher I could get the rebound easier and could just lay the ball into the net. This could also help me a lot with my field goal percentage.
What’s your favourite thing to eat before a big event?
A banana or two is always good if I’m feeling hungry.
Which fictional character would you choose as your teammate?
Tigger from Winnie the Pooh. It would always help if a player can bounce as high as a tree! You could throw the ball from anywhere and he would still able to catch it. Also, he would be able to get all the rebounds and block all the shots.
10 years from now, you are a famous athlete. What company would you sign on as spokesperson for, and what product would you promote?
I would not want to be a spokesperson, as I would feel really awkward seeing billboards of myself. However, I would consider it if it were for a good cause, such as environmental protection. While there isn’t really a link between netball and the environment, I could still help to spread the message, and it would be nice to know I had done something good.