Thoughts: 12 Experiences I’ve Had Playing Basketball as an Asian American

I wanted to take a break from all the typical hobbies I’ve written about on here and talk about another one of my favorite activities: playing basketball. I’ve been playing basketball casually for over 15 years, never playing at a competitively level beyond intramural leagues in college and one city league after college. Even this year, as my body has begun showing signs of wear that it did not during my early 20s, I still try to play pick up a few times a month.

However, one thing that’s always affected my experiences on the courts, whether in West Virginia or Chicago, at a fancy indoor gym or a outdoor public park, has been my identity as an Asian American. Much has already been said about this since Jeremy Lin’s emergence in the NBA six years ago (including from the man himself), but I wanted to share some of my own anecdotes in my own experience in pick up basketball.

Two important notes before I start:

  • I understand that it’s possible that some of the following experiences may happen to non-Asians as well for reasons unrelated to race such as height, athletic build, etc., but I am already controlling for that variable in my stories. These things often happen to me even if I’m not the shortest, skinniest, or whatever player on the court.
  • My intention in sharing these experiences is never to diminish others’ experiences/feelings, nor is it supposed to be a generalization of what all Asian American basketball players experience. I just hope that we can learn to understand each other better through our narratives.

1. People don’t want to play a game when I ask, but when others ask they do

Let’s start with something that happens before a game even starts. This doesn’t happen all the time, but when it does, it’s very obvious. It goes something like this: There will be five, seven, or nine people shooting around warming up (usually a group of friends). I’ll arrive and after warming up, ask them to play a game since I make even teams. They’ll reply with “I don’t feel like playing right now” and we’ll all continue shooting around. Then after another non-Asian stranger (not with their friend group) arrives, they promptly start a game without me. I mean, come on.

2. Consistently get picked last (even after little kids)

Fortunately, in most places I play, we shoot for teams when there are too many people, so this isn’t an issue. But in the instances where two people are captains and two teams are drafted the old-fashioned way, I am almost always left out when there are too many players. Even little kids are more often than not picked over me! It doesn’t matter how many shots I hit in a row during warm-ups or how high I jumped to grab that rebound when we were shooting around, I’m almost always picked last.

3. People are excited to have me guard them

This scenario happens pretty often and is often one of the first things I’ll notice in a pick up game after it begins. When we pick defensive assignments at the beginning of a game, I tend to pick someone to defend whom I believe is at my level (this is normal for everyone, no?) and sometimes, that will elicit some comments or smirks out of the player along the lines of: “(To friend) Hey! Mismatch over here! Lemme go to work.”

At this point, I’m forced into a lose-lose situation. If I make a single defensive slip-up, then my teammates will inevitably berate me for my lack of talent and the opposing player’s cockiness will grow even further. On the other hand, if I make a strong defensive play, the following happens….

4. People assume that I am lucky, rather than a good defender

This exact situation has happened several times to me: I’ll be guarding someone who on the outside (whether due to race, build, height, etc.) looks more talented than me. They’ll make a strong drive to the basket or post me up, during which I alter their shot with solid defense. The shot misses, but not quite badly enough for it to obviously be a blocked shot.

At this point, my teammate will either directly ask me or talk to another teammate to switch defensive assignments with me. It makes no sense! I just prevented him from scoring, but the assumption is that it couldn’t have been my defense and they can’t leave me as a “defensive liability” on that player again, in case next time I don’t get “as lucky.”

5. People call me for fouls when they realize they can’t just overpower me

Staying on the topic of defense, this is one that is incredibly frustrating when it happens. I’ll usually be guarding someone bigger in stature than me, and they’ll be trying to drive or post me up. At some point when they’re trying to make a move to the basket, they realize that they can’t just push me over like I’m some little kid on their way to the basket. To many of these players, there can only be one explanation: I must be cheating and fouling them. An example would be when a big man is trying to post me up and push me toward the basket and is unable to; he’ll then call a foul on me for “pushing too hard” when all I’m doing is holding my ground and not allowing him to back me into the paint.

6. People offensive foul when they realize they can’t just overpower me

This is opposite of #3 above, and is even more upsetting and often dangerous. Instead of calling a foul on me when they can’t score on me, the player will sometimes resort to sneaky offensive fouls, knowing full well that most players in pick up basketball don’t call the fouls. This way, they can keep their pride by “schooling the Asian kid” without looking weak and calling a foul on him. Common fouls I’ve dealt with are elbow swings during post-ups, hand checks during step-backs, and hooking with the off arm during spin moves.

Funnily enough, when I call them out on the foul, the response is almost never a straight denial. It’s almost always “You’re the one who fouled me first!”, which takes us full circle back to #3 above.

7. Assuming that I missed the defensive assignment

This one is definitely a little more subtle than most of the other experiences on this list. What will happen is that someone on my team will miss a defensive assignment, leading to a lay-up or an open three. At this point, another player on my team (usually the cockiest one who thinks he’s the best player) will ask me “Hey! Who do you have on D?” I’ll respond with the truth and point at a player totally unrelated to the missed assignment, and he usually shuts up at that point. But hey man, why assume that it has to be my fault when someone else messes up on defense?

8. People make little kids defend me

Enough about defense, since I have plenty of experiences related to the other side of the game too. If the other team decides defensive assignments at the beginning of the game, I often get the little kid (if there is one) as the person who guards me. Now I’m totally fine with this, because it means I can usually dominate him on offense, but it definitely gets old and is pretty insulting.

Also, if I miss my first opportunity to score against the kid, it leads into….

9. I have to earn the ball (often 1 missed shot = no passes)

This is a very annoying experience that I deal with in almost every game I play. Generally, I already get the ball < 20% of the time at the beginning a 5-on-5 game, but that will quickly drop to close to 0% if I miss my first opportunity to score, even though I am human and I make mistakes. This can be something as innocuous as a shot that rattled off the rim or (God forbid) something worse like a turnover. At this point, grabbing rebounds becomes my primary way to touch the basketball at all, and standing at 5’9″ as a guard, it’s not an ideal situation for me (not to mention I should probably be running the break rather than crashing the boards after a missed shot).

I find that if I make my first shot, then I’m usually respected to about the same level as my other teammates. It’s less than ideal, but this often leads me to take shots early while I can. If I believe I have a > 50% chance of scoring during the first possession, I’m going to take the shot since I’ll take the chance to be respected for the rest of the game rather than be treated as a scrub until my defense speaks to my abilities. Oh wait, see #1 – #5 as to why that won’t happen either.

10. No “license to shoot the ball” for me

I find that in most pick-up games, there’s usually at least one player on each team that has a “license to shoot the ball.” That is, people believe they are talented, so if we win a game to 10 points, and they score 5 points on 25 shots, that’s totally fine and they are regarded as heroes. I would love to shoot that much in a game! In fact, I’m pretty sure in many of these games, we’d be better off just having me dribble the ball up and jack up a three every possession (especially when we’re playing by 1s and 2s). But alas, I have never had this “license to shoot the ball.”

11. “Jeremy Lin!” “Yao Ming!”

Even when I do well and carry the team on my back offensively, the racist comments don’t stop. Before 2012, people would yell out “Yao Ming!” even though my play style is nothing like a 7’6″ center from China. Since Jeremy Lin’s emergence, he’s been the point of comparison whenever my game shows any signs of promise.

While I appreciate being compared to these top players, I don’t appreciate how this is only targeted toward Asian players. We don’t call every white basketball player Larry Bird, Dirk Nowitzki, Jerry West, John Stockton, etc. whenever they score. We don’t even call hispanic players Francisco Garcia or Leandro Barbosa when they make plays. But it’s perfectly acceptable to call Asians Yao Ming and Jeremy Lin?

12. “Ching chong”

As I’ve grown older, this overtly racist remark has grown rarer, but it still does happen time to time, especially when I play with middle schoolers or high schoolers. As recently as this past December, I went to a local public gym to play basketball with my 14-year-old brother, and as we were arriving, I heard a kid nearby say “Ching chong” and laugh with his friends. With a smirk on my face, I asked him “Did you say something?” He of course denied any wrongdoing, looking a little surprised that I could speak perfect English.

I want to end on a positive note and name some groups of people who are rarely (if at all) guilty of the experiences above:

  • Friends: This is obvious. Friends have each other’s backs and wouldn’t participate or tolerate these kind of experiences.
  • Coworkers: Similarly to friends, coworkers spend so much time with me that it’d be pretty awkward the next day at work if they did any of the above to offend me.
  • Asians: Since many of these experiences are common among most Asians, it’s easy to understand why we don’t tear each other down with this kind of behavior.
  • Women: Women are already so disrespected on the court (and off the court too, but that’s another issue) that they often are more empathetic and sympathetic individuals, leading them to avoid this kind of racism.

If you’re reading this and are part of these groups, know that I greatly appreciate you treating me like any other player on the court! We should all strive for that level of understanding.

2 thoughts on “Thoughts: 12 Experiences I’ve Had Playing Basketball as an Asian American

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