In the course of writing my San Francisco Chronicle column this week, which focuses on the complicated and often controversial issue of "rooting for your race" in sports, I ended up outreaching to some of the most fervent Asian American hoop fans in my social network. Some of them are players; some, strictly watchers. Some follow sports for a living, others, simply out of passion.
But their responses were interesting and insightful enough that I wanted to share the full "transcript" of their thoughts. And given the limitations on space in my column—limits that I already regularly stretch way beyond the realm of the acceptable—adding 8500 more words seemed like a bad idea. And thus, I've moved this virtual roundtable here, to the frontier wasteland of my personal blog. Hope you find it interesting. And if you haven't checked out the original column, you can find it here.
- Bernard Chang, illustrator and comic book artist, Wonder Woman (position: point guard)
- Steve Chin, social media consultant and managing editor, RezNet (position: coach)
- Keith Chow, senior editor and education director, Secret Identities (position: power forward)
- Albert Kim, staff writer, TNT's Leverage; former senior news director, ESPN, and senior editor, Sports Illustrated (position: play-by-play)
- Michael Kim, anchor, ESPNEWS; contributor, SportsCenter (position: color)
- Jonathan Lee, electrical engineer (position: die-hard fan)
- Jerry Ma, principal, Epic Proportions; art director, Secret Identities—(position: shooting guard)
- Tze Ming Mok, author, blogger (position: front-row trash-talker)
- Nelson Wang, senior editor, CBS MoneyWatch (position: shooting guard)
- Brian Yang, actor/producer, founder, DreamLeague NY (position: power forward)
- Bill Yao, hedge fund CTO (position: sweat-mopper, bench)
Why do you think there are so few Asian Americans in competitive team sports, and in particular, in basketball? Is it a matter of skill, physique, priorities (family or personal), or all of the above?
Keith Chow: While I think the reasons you mention play some part, I think the assumption that those are the reasons there aren't Asian American athletes is the main reason that others—coaches, scouts, press, guys on the pick up court, etc.—overlook Asian American players. People don't expect Asians to excel in athletics, and since that's the default, you have to be really good just to get noticed. And even if you are really good, people still dismiss you.
That's why Yao Ming's NBA career has meant so much to me. I think one of my proudest moments as an NBA fan was seeing Charles Barkley kiss a donkey's butt on TNT because he bet Kenny Smith that Yao would never score 20 points in an NBA game. Of course, soon after, Yao blew up for 30 against Dallas. Point is, even though Yao was the consensus number-one draft pick, people still doubted his ability, and I argue they still do. And as a matter of fact, the main criticism of his game is that it's "too Chinese," i.e., that he's too deferential and not aggressive. That just encapsulated to me what I think most Asian Americans go through on the pickup court. I can't count how many eye-rolls or chuckles I got whenever I called "next" on the court, only to work my ass off to stay on the court.
In a way, though, this question kind of assumes that the stereotypes of Asians are true. There's the idea that goes around that Asians are not "creative," or that they can't "improvise." I think that notion is problematic. The ability to improv is like any other skill or talent and isn't exclusive to any particular culture. If that were the case, never mind athletes, there'd be no Asian comedians, actors, or musicians either. And speaking of musicians, there is actually a long tradition of Asian American jazz. Off the top of my head, I can think of Hiroshima, Anthony Brown, Jon Jang, and Fred Ho. Also, the battle rapper Jin got his big break freestyling on BET.
The point is, Asian Americans' inability to "improvise" on the court or on the playground isn't what's keeping Asians from being a bigger part of team sports; instead, it's the assumption of that on the part of coaches or recruiters that Asians are by nature incapable of improvising that holds us back.
I mean, it infuriates me whenever I hear criticism of Yao as being "robotic". I get what analysts are trying to say, but to me, it's code for "Asians aren't athletic". When Yao came into the league, he was doing things I'd never seen a guy over 7'5" do before. He was, and is, a gifted athlete, but a lot of that is still dismissed by detractors. It really plays into the stereotype that only blacks are natural athletes and non-blacks have to work really hard at "fundamentals" to succeed.
Anyway, I think this is changing for younger generations. Also, I think my family is the anomaly. I mean, both my uncle and cousins were star basketball and football players in high school (I got cut three years in a row. Boo!), though we lived in Luray, a relatively small town in Virginia. In fact, it wasn't until I moved to a larger metro area that I experienced any kind of racism on the court. When I lived in Luray, because of my family's reputation, no one really assumed I couldn't play sports. And my parents never discouraged me to play sports.
Steve Chin: Basketball is a full contact sport where physical play is a big asset. And the closer to the rim—preferably above it—that you play, the better your chances of success. By high school, it gets tougher for Asian boys generally to match up on the court, in terms of height. They possess the skills and quickness, but that's not always enough to make the cut. Same goes for the girls, although maybe to a lesser degree (the physical disparities do not appear as great).
Albert Kim: I think the answers are going to vary depending on what generation you’re talking about. I’m in my mid-40s and my parents were first-generation immigrants who stressed academics and the arts, and could care less about athletics of any kind. For most of my peers, athletic accomplishment ranked way down on the list of priorities. I think younger generations grew up with parents who had somewhat broader perspectives on that front, but they were stifled by not having any role models out there. It’s hard to press forward with an activity when you don’t see anyone who looks like you succeeding at it.
Bernard Chang: I played college basketball for Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, New York. It was a NCAA Division III program, which meant no athletic scholarships, and we played against schools like NYU, MIT, and even Columbia, which was a Division I school. I was not by any means, the "star player" on the team, averaging a mere 3 ppg, but I was the team captain and named co-MVP my senior year. I went on to be an assistant coach for Pratt after graduating, and was promoted to head coach the following season before resigning to pursue my artistic ambitions out west.
I believe the overriding factor [for more Asian Americans not participating in team sports] is family pressures and parental guidance, instilled at a young age which cuts out the possibility for athletic pursuits later on during junior high/high school/and collegiate levels. Most Asian American families value academic excellence more than any other factor for their youth. As a result, more effort is put on studies and other things like "cultural development", most likely in the form of perhaps a musical instrument. Coupled with the fact that there are few Asian American athlete role models (A.K.A. "success stories"), this adds to the argument against pursuing sports.
If you agree with Malcolm Gladwell's theory that 10,000 hours are needed to master a skill, then this a prime example of that. Over the years, I have coached youth basketball, and many times, I've had Asian parents pull their kids out because they wanted them to study more. What those parents do not understand is that while their child may not play in the NBA, there are still many valuable skills and experiences they learn through team sports as opposed to spending an extra few hours in front of a book. And if the kid is dissuaded at a young age to participate in sports, they are less likely to continue that pursuit later in life.
Another example occurred when I was recruiting potential student-athletes as a coach at Pratt. I would go watch tournaments in New York and a good number of the Asian American kids I approached possessed the fundamental and athletic ability to potentially play at the collegiate level, but their answers were always that they had never considered that an option for college because their focus was on pursuing a degree as opposed to athletic competition. The truth is, less than 2% of all college athletes turn pro in their respective sports. Yet you never see a lack of white or black students fighting to play for their schools.
I also believe there is also a psychological barrier that Asians feel they cannot compete with blacks or whites. This is an internal stereotype that stunts the growth of many potential Asian American athletes, and if anyone who has played sports knows that success is "90% mental." This is exhibited in many college gyms across the nation. In a hypothetical gym, there are usually three courts of games: the "A" court, where the best players ball (usually mostly black and white players); the "B" court where casual players play, (mostly white and maybe some Asian); and "C" court, where mostly Asian students play amongst themselves (usually foreign exchange students). The thing is, there are Asian kids who are skilled enough to play on the "A" court, but most pass because either they are not confident enough or choose to play with their friends, who are less skilled. As a result, when you continue to play against less skilled opponents, you rarely improve.
This stereotype is also compounded by bias and racism when Asian American athletes do venture out to play with black and white athletes. I experienced this first hand, and continue to every time I step onto the court to play pick-up. Pick-up games are the majority of basketball games a player will participate in in their lifetime. A group of strangers meet at the court, and whoever has the next game gets to pick his four other players. Players are selected based on ability first—because if you win, you keep playing—and height second.
But if you don't know anyone, and if there is a black or white player of similar height left to be picked, the majority of the time, the Asian will be left out. This is purely based on racial profiling and not actual ability or skills. Once I do play, and show that I can compete with the best of them, the next time it's not as difficult. But again, there is a world of rejection that comes with athletic competition, and it begins even before you have the opportunity to step onto the court to play.
And if you don't think racism exists, it does. When we played against Columbia University, an Ivy League school, I heard fans in the crowd yell, "chink," "ching chong" and other racial slurs whenever I touched the ball.
Jerry Ma: I think the skill level really isn't there just yet for Asians in sports. The truth is, sports are still something "new" to us. Basketball is really just catching on. I do think in, say, 10 years there will be many more Asians in the NBA. But really, we have a lot of ground to cover skill-wise. I mean, I don't even think the NFL is aired in most of Asia. But Asian Americans seem to be getting bigger recently. And I do think that eventually, we will be better represented in sports.
Bill Yao: I think if you trace it all back, our underrepresentation in sports started with immigration patterns back in the Fifties. American universities recruited Asians for scholastic achievement, not athletic prowess. These students married other students and had kids. To whatever extent athletic ability and physique are inherited, the next generations were, as a result, hobbled. And the parents naturally guided their children down the paths that they themselves had followed to success in America. So there's an upward battle for Asian Americans to get onto the playing field.
Jonathan Lee: While I think it's a combination of many things, I don't think it’s so much skill. I think skill can only take you so far in competitive sports. You can be a great shooter or passer in basketball, but if you lack height or physical strength, it will be very hard for you to succeed. Which brings me to the point about physique. Asian Americans are not on average that tall or bulky, and as a result we don't have as much upper body strength, which is very important in basketball. Our natural build and frame already puts us at a disadvantage.
I also believe there is a negative perception of Asian Americans in team sports. Because there are almost no counterexamples, there’s this belief that Asian Americans cannot succeed at the pro level. And that's made worse by the stereotype that Asian Americans are too passive and non-aggressive. It’s unfortunate, but true.
Tze Ming Mok: Well, I never got into sports because nobody ever threw me the f*cking ball during tryouts. That said, I despair a little over the need for Asian Americans to have some kind of macho, "All-American"-tough football or track & field-type sports star. It's like how China got obsessed with their middle-aged hurdler guy, as if the manhoods of over half a billion men depended on it. Nothing says "small man syndrome" like the desperate need for a big tall athlete dude to make the guys feel better about their yellow manliness. I wish they would get over it. Ping pong, FTW!
Nelson Wang: Size and strength definitely matter, particular for contact team sports and especially at the professional level. I’ve known quite a few talented Asian American basketball players but athletes at the professional level are usually both incredibly talented and genetic freaks of nature (see: Yao Ming). In basketball, quickness counts for a lot, but being physically stronger than your opponent is a huge advantage in terms of getting and maintaining position, being able to finish shots, rebound, etc. And a lot of Asian Americans just aren’t as big and strong as their white and black counterparts. That’s probably changing as a result of diet and other factors, so I’d expect that more Asian Americans would be getting big and strong enough to play professionally over time, but it’ll probably take a while.
As for priorities, I’d say that definitely plays a role. Most Asian American parents don’t envision their kids becoming professional athletes (I’m not sure how representative this is, but when I half-seriously tell my wife, who grew up in mainland China, that I’d want our future son to play in the NBA, she scoffs at that as a non-meaningful goal). And of course, the whole thing feeds on itself—when there are few role models, either at the professional level or in kid’s immediate families and extended families, kids don’t even consider playing and practicing, trying out for teams, getting better, etc.
Michael Kim: Yes, there are some gene pool issues on our end. But one of the issues could be attributed to a lack of selfishness—generally speaking—with Asian or Asian American athletes. There is a distinct arrogance and selfishness that comes with (and is required for) participating at a professional or world-class level in sports. We all know Asian artists, musicians, doctors, etc., who are at the pinnacle of their careers who carry themselves "differently" because they know they're the best. That attitude isn't seen as much for Asians in sports. Some of it may also be attributed to our sense of "putting the team first." Sometimes to be noticed, you have to stand out and be selfish with the ball—call the clear-out and take your man to the rack. We're happy to set the pick or play help defense, but that doesn't get you a Division I scholarship or NBA contract.
One other point I'd like to make is that coaches, scouts and recruiters have to be willing to be color-blind in their evaluation of players. We're less than ten years removed from cynics questioning whether Ichiro could ever succeed at the Major League level in baseball. You have to wonder if they'd fairly judge a 6'3", 175 pound Asian guard with similar talent and skillset as a black or white player. And in the case of Jeremy Lin, it doesn't appear as if they did.
Brian Yang: There definitely is not one specific reason for the paltry number of Asian Americans in team sports—assuming you're talking about the pro and major-college level. It starts at home, and most families instill in a young Asian child a focus on academics, as that's what's going to be your future. Obviously, if I had a kid, I'd do the same. I've never felt that Asian parents tend to drive kids away from sports and into a different extracurricular activity, such as an instrument. In fact, I find that most, if not all Asian families, particularly where I grew up—California—encouraged sports. It's just that if you, as a kid, wanted to play ball five to six hours a day, which is what it takes to get to the top level, Mr. and Mrs. Fill-in-the-Asian-last-name weren't going to have any of that. And then again, you have the proverbial "glass ceiling" thing in that, even if you're good and get to practice lots and maybe become California's Mr. Basketball, big time programs aren't going to really give you a look because of your perceived shortcomings.
I think for kids who get to college and the pros in team sports, they've really got to want it from early on; they have to get into the right hands—coaches, camps, AAU teams—to get recognition by influential basketball figureheads who can help them further their career. Regardless of background, an athlete who "has it" can get there. But it has to start with desire from within, a supportive family, and then all that hype the Adidas/Nike camps, college recruiters, ESPN, and ultimately, pro scouts give you.
Why do you think there are so many Asian Americans, relatively speaking, in individual sports like golf and figure skating (see below)?
Keith Chow: I think it's the same reason there are so many Asian American violinists and pianists. I think there's a prestige factor, especially for first gen parents. Golf and tennis are rich white-folk sports after all, so I think when immigrants come to America, they aspire to be just like rich white folk, so they make their kids do things they think rich white folk do.
Albert Kim: Actually, I think this is—relatively speaking—a recent phenomenon. You can peg the rise of Asian Americans in figure skating to the post-Kristi Yamaguchi period—so that was around what—the mid 90s? And elite golfers like Anthony Kim and Michelle Wie have only emerged in the last few years. Michael Chang did find success in tennis, but I’m not sure that he inspired a huge rush of Asian American tennis players. Off the top of my head, I can’t name any. Again, you need role models, and then a generation later come the athletes they inspired.
Bernard Chang: I have no theories about this. I can only hypothesize that individual sports like tennis, golf and figure skating, have a social status that team sports like basketball, football or baseball does not, and that might be a factor as to why parents are more open to push their children in that direction. And that's critical, because success in any sport is a direct result of spending countless hours of playing and practicing. These are motor and reaction skills that develop more rapidly during youth. As an adult, it is sometimes much harder to "learn" new things than it is as a child.
What people often don't understand is the machine that goes into the collegiate athletics world in order to get your child recruited for college. It's not just about rec leagues. Around the junior high level, kids are introduced into traveling teams, or AAU teams, which pairs area-wide youths to compete in tournaments and such. You have to be selected to play on these teams, so at a certain age, if you are not part of that group, you lose out on another avenue of opportunities. Then there are heavily scouted summer camps that again, unless you are invited to play in, almost squeeze you out of a national scope. There are recruiter databases for kids, which track their participation in leagues and stats for colleges to follow. It is not as easy as scoring a 1600 on your SATs and getting into the school of your choice. There is a well-oiled gauntlet of hurdles a kid, and family, must pass to just be on the radar. A division I college basketball team has anywhere from 12-15 players on scholarship.
Jonathan Lee: In terms of individual sports, I believe physique is the biggest issue. Asian Americans are not blessed with natural size and strength. Most Asian Americans are labeled “scrawny,” and despite numerous attempts for Asian Americans to bulk up, it’s simply very hard to do. Team sports such as basketball, football, and soccer require strength, size, and speed that the average Asian American doesn’t possess. Obviously, you will find exceptions.
But you don’t need the same kind of size and strength for a lot of individual sports, such as golf and figure skating. You just need talent and a ton of practice. Traditionally, what are the sports that China excels in at the Olympics? Badminton, table tennis, synchronized swimming, and gymnastics. All of these sports do not require size and raw physical strength—they highlight hand-eye coordination, reflexes, agility, and grace that are not as dependent on the person being big or fast.
And yes, to a lesser extent, individual sports require a lot of personal coaching and more money. And if Asian American parents see a talent in their child, they'll invest a lot to develop it.
Michael Kim: I agree that it comes down to money. Asian families who send their children down this path tend to have plenty of money. When you have the resources to buy the best equipment and coaches, the chances of success are greatly enhanced. This isn't likely to work as well in a team setting.
Brian Yang: I think the ice-skating/golf phenomenon is proof against the idea that Asian families don't support athletic endeavors in general. Most Asian parents would love for their kids to be famous pro athletes—read ESPN's article about Jeremy's father and his love for basketball from early on. But yeah, I think this boils down to socioeconomics. I must admit, I stole this idea from Professor Harry Edwards at Cal. If you're not familiar with Dr. Edwards, he is regarded as the leading sports sociologist in America—I took his class in college and I'm not just drinking the Kool-Aid. It makes sense. Kids from upper-middle class backgrounds have access to sports that are more expensive to engage in: Golf, winter sports, tennis—sports whose startup costs are astronomical considering the equipment and the lessons, sports where there isn't this absorption of costs by a team of people. When you play basketball and football, growing up, all you need is usually just a ball, a field, and the other neighborhood kids.
We've all grown up with athletic idols who aren't Asian or Asian American—yet does it mean something different when we see someone who looks like us on the field of play? Does it matter if the person isn't a "star" but simply a role-player? What would it mean for Asian American fans if there were a legit Asian American superstar in the NBA? Do you find yourself more likely to root for Asians than non-Asians in pro sports in general?
Keith Chow: You're damn right it means something! Having a real presence in the NBA might not erase racism on the courts, but it would definitely inspire more kids, both Asian and non-Asian, to believe anyone can play. And in order to be that inspiration, the dude has to be a star and not just a role player. I mean how many jerseys did Wang Zhizhi sell? Basketball is the only sport where players are completely exposed. There are no helmets or pads in the way. You're just in a tank top and shorts, so the visual alone of an Asian American guy flying up and down an NBA court is powerful on its own.
Albert Kim: Abso-frigging-lutely! I was a baseball fan growing up, and I remember getting a thrill whenever I saw a highlight clip featuring Lenn Sakata. I was a diehard Mets fan living in New York, and yet I couldn’t wait for news about the starting shortstop for the Baltimore Orioles. Could you blame me? He was an Asian player in the major leagues! He was like the Sulu of sports. Or maybe more accurately, the George Takei of sports.
After Lenn, the next prominent Asian athlete I can remember was John Lee, the placekicker for UCLA. When he got drafted by the NFL, first round or early second, I believe, it was a big deal. An Asian player in the NFL? So he was a kicker. Still, to me, a big deal.
You have to remember, there was no one like us out on the field of play. And keep in mind that for many people—both men and women—sports define masculinity. The implicit message is that Asian men just aren’t as manly as black or white men. Remember the whole thing about the asexuality of Asian males? It’s been used to explain everything from the lack of Asian male newscasters to the relative rarity of Caucasian women-Asian male marriages, as opposed to the reverse.
This stereotype is so pervasive that people still think it’s acceptable to make jokes about it. Not too long ago when I was at Sports Illustrated, Rick Reilly covered one of the golf majors, and in his piece he talked about how the tournament directors tried to “Tiger-proof” the course by making it longer. There had been some media criticism that such a move was racist. After the event, Reilly wrote that perhaps it was racist...because none of the top ten finishers were Asian.
The joke, as bad as it was, was based on the assumption that Asian athletes are weaker than others, so they couldn’t drive it as far. The real objectionable thing was, it wasn’t even true! For one thing, Tiger Woods, who ended up winning the tournament, is half-Asian, as we all know. But like others, Reilly likes to overlook that fact.
By the way, racism in sports coverage is an entire topic unto itself. I can’t tell you the number of racist experiences I had during my years working for SI—both from athletes as well as from other sports journalists. Everything from jokes about eating dogs to outright slurs.
Bernard Chang: Of course it matters. We live in such a visual society these days; any symbol of recognition is critical. While many would say that it shouldn't matter—and, yes, in a perfect world it wouldn't—you can't discount the importance of seeing a "familiar face." At the same time, there is also more to just seeing someone who looks like you, it's also hearing them speak in English. Hideo Nomo did wonders to break the racial barrier in baseball, but the guy always spoke through an interpreter, which does little for me as an Asian American.
Jerry Ma: There already is a legit Asian superstar in the NBA. Yao Ming is no joke. He's a franchise player. And yes, I did root for him in the beginning simply because he was Chinese—but now I see other people rooting for him because he is just that good.
I do think it's important to see people that look like you on TV, because unfortunately, we are what we see. Asian people were never looked at as athletes. But now with Yao Ming and Yi Jianlian, they're really letting people see that we can have a physical presence as well.
Jonathan Lee: I follow sports religiously, and I have my favorite teams to follow. But I also follow individual players on other teams, and yes, I do root for people of my own race in pro sports in general. There is a sense of pride when a player succeeds at the pro level; to me, he or she doesn't even have to be a “star.”
In the NBA, there’s obviously Yao Ming who carries the flag for China. But I’ve also closely followed the careers of Yi Jianlian, Wang Zhizhi, and Sun Yue. And in the NHL, I follow Devin Setoguchi and Brandon Yip, a young promising Asian-Canadian for Colorado.
Brian Yang: There's no doubt that when I see an Asian face on the field of play, I'm suddenly more interested. Whether they are a role-player or a star, I'm interested, but obviously, being a sports nut, if he or she is a star, it means everything. We grow up loving Bird, Jordan, LeBron. But when Yao Ming came along, I think it goes without saying that seeing an Asian player on the court, especially as a star, stirs the senses in a different way, because we ethnically identify with that person.
As much as we want to dodge the race issue in America, we can't. Using it as a crutch sucks, but that's a whole 'nother issue. Supporting and reveling in a sports star who is Asian is a no-brainer to me, because we're so underrepresented in that area. If an Asian American were to get onto the right NBA team, and let's say he was a superstar, it would be that team's marketing director's dream. I know for a fact that you would see an upswing in your season ticket subscribers with last names Wang, Lee, Kim, or Nguyen.
But as far as rooting for Asians more than non-Asians? I love my Philadelphia 76ers. If an Asian American was on the Celtics and he went against my Sixers, I'd love for him to play well, but want my Sixers to win. It's still team first, race second.