With a knee injury ending Linsanity for the 2012 regular season, one might wonder about the future of Asian American basketball. Is all of the current enthusiasm over basketball just a temporary craze that will fizzle out? Will another Jeremy Lin emerge? To answer those questions, it’s helpful to look at the past history of Asian American basketball to see where it is going in the future.
The Past: Basketball Leagues Emerge from Segregation and Internment
Long before Jeremy Lin came on the scene, Asian Americans were playing basketball. Asian American basketball leagues, as pointed out in this excellent article from ColorLines, have been around for almost a century. Basketball was a relatively cheap social activity that required relatively little room and equipment, especially compared to baseball or football. These properties of basketball became ideal for providing diversions for Japanese Americans in the internment camps. From that environment came the very first Asian American basketball player in the NBA, Wat Misaka, shown above to the left of Jeremy Lin. Misaka played for the Knicks in 1947.
Basketball leagues formed in American Chinatowns during the segregated times of the early and mid 20th century. Says Kathy Yep, who played in Asian American leagues in the Bay Area and is the author of “Outside the Paint: When Basketball Ruled at the Chinese Playground” states:
“People were segregated by law in terms of immigration, citizenship and marriage, and then de facto white privilege regarding housing and employment. It made sense for them to have their own leagues in part because of the segregated environment of that time period.”
These leagues give Asian American basketball players, especially younger players, a chance to play and develop without having to worry about the kind of racial comments that dogged Jeremy Lin in college. Jamie Hagiya is a former USC point guard who grew up playing in the Asian American leagues. She only realized how sheltered she was in those leagues when she joined a club team where she finally played against other ethnicities and an opposing team’s parent commented, “Oh, that eskimo sure can play!” Hagiya is now preparing to try out for the WNBA.
The Present: Asian American Leagues still going Strong
Asian American basketball leagues are still going strong, both at the adult and youth level. When Number Two Son and I arrived at a recent practice of his mostly Asian school team, there were two Filipino basketball teams of middle aged guys going at it on the adjacent court. The only non-Asians on the court were two black referees. That game finished, and followed by a game with a Chinese team playing a heavily tattooed Filipino team. Two of my son’s school team coaches (all Asian) play in Asian leagues too. Filipinos are among the most basketball crazy among Asians, as written about by Rafe Bartolemew in his book “Pacific Rims: Beermen Ballin’ in Flip-Flops and the Philippines’ Unlikely Love Affair with Basketball.”
The Colorlines articles brings up the point that Asian American basketball leagues are not just places to play basketball but are ways that build community and reinforce long standing ties. Long after Asian Americans dispersed to the suburbs from Chinatowns and Japantowns, they and their children still come back to play. This is not just a West Coast thing, as the East Coast Asian basketball teams like the Philly Suns have been around for almost forty years. Some of Number Two Son and The Daughter’s classmates have played for local Asian American teams like the San Jose Ninja. These teams are still going strong, and the Ninja recently hosted a tournament in San Jose with teams from as far as Pasadena.
The Future: Getting into the Basketball System
A key requirement to succeeding in basketball in high school and beyond is getting on an AAU basketball team. Many of these AAU clubs are invitation only and do not widely advertise their tryouts or their existence. Number Two Son and I experienced this as we had a lot of trouble finding an AAU club for him to join. Some of the AAU teams that he has played are completely of the map – when he went to check out the teams that he was going to play, some teams had no web presence on the Internet.
Once we started going to AAU tournaments, we have seen a reasonable number of Asian Americans on teams, including some on Number Two Son’s team (see picture). I can’t say that there are a huge number of Asian American AAU basketball players, but they are not uncommon. This shows that some Asian American parents are willing to make the time and financial commitment to have their kids do AAU ball. That commitment is significant, as Number Two Son’s team is traveling to tournaments all over California almost every weekend. I have even seen predominantly Asian American AAU teams such as the South San Francisco’s Bulldawgs or the Union City Kings.
My sons and I watched a number of the local high school games this past season. One of the teams in the Central Coast Section championship had many Asian American players. Another team that eventually won the California state Championship had an Asian American.
So what do I think the future looks like for Asian American basketball? Given the long history of Asian American basketball, with Asian American basketball leagues for both young and old thriving and Asian Americans entering the AAU system and getting on high school teams, the future of Asian American basketball seems to be bright. I am most encouraged by the fact that Asian American adults are playing. Only small percentage of players get basketball athletic scholarships and even smaller percentage of that number ever get to the pro level. It’s far better that the love of basketball be expressed by playing the game, staying active, and being connected with people rather than sitting on a couch watching Jeremy Lin on TV.
For more information on Asian American Basketball and its roots:
(Wat Misaka photo credit: Bettman/Coris)