Summer League & Ding Yanyuhang

In July, I went with my family and friends to Las Vegas to watch my Los Angeles Lakers play in the Summer League. For those who don’t know, Summer League is sort of like Major League Baseball’s spring training but with rookies and second year players. This year was an extra special because we got to watch the young UCLA phenomenon and Lakers’ #2 draft pick Lonzo Ball play—by the way, he’s as good as advertised.

Because Vegas is so close to LA, many of the people who go to Summer League games are there to see the Lakers. In other words, it means you have to get there early if you want to score good seats—other than the front rows, seating is open. On the night we went, the Lakers were playing at 7:00 pm so we got there around four.

It’s not that exciting to watch games where you don’t have a vested interest in the players or the team. So we were watching the non-Lakers games sort of passively. And being the father of a five-year-old who has the attention span of a gnat, I spent a lot of the non-Lakers games trying to keep my son amused and well fed. That’s why it took me a while before I noticed something unusual.

During the Boston-Dallas game people were going crazy and cheering every time one player touched the ball. I quickly realized it was the Asian (Chinese) player, Ding Yanyuhang. Not only would they cheer, but they would shout MVP. Here’s a YouTube clip I found. Around minute 2:14 you can hear the audience chanting.

I did not cheer or chant because I wasn’t sure if the crowd was genuinely excited to see this particular Asian player or because they were mocking him. My first instinct was that they were making fun of him. Of course, I assume they were going for the old cliché that Asian guys are short and can’t play sports—this even though Ding is 6’7”.

When I realized what was going on, I asked my friends if they thought the crowd was mocking Ding. They all shrugged—they weren’t sure either. I would like to note that none of them participated in the cheering or chanting with the rest of the crowd.

I would have overlooked all of this had I not heard what was coming out of the mouths of a group of young girls about half-dozen rows above me. They were making chopstick references as they cheered Ding on. I turned around and glared at them and tried to catch the eye of one of the parents or chaperones but they didn’t notice me.

Thinking back now, I would like to believe that the entire arena wasn’t being racist—or at the very least insensitive. I mean, I would have thought that with the successes of Asian baseball players and Yao Ming/Jeremy Lin, we would be past the stereotype that Asians couldn’t play sports.

To be fair, no one was shouting racist epithets at the player—as far as I knew—and there were Asians (Americans?) in the arena who were cheering along with everyone else—even in the above clip. And I only found this out while writing this article, but Ding really was the MVP of the Chinese league. So shouting MVP was at least accurate because he was in fact a most valuable player—although I’d be surprised if the crowd watching the game that day actually knew that.

The reason I’m writing this a month after it happened is because it still bothers me. I vacillate between feeling outraged and also wondering if I was being too sensitive.  What do you think?

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Author: Koji Steven Sakai

Writer/Producer Koji Steven Sakai is the founder of Little Nalu Pictures LLC and the CEO of CHOPSO (www.CHOPSO.com), the first Asian English streaming video service. He has written five feature films that have been produced, including the indie hit, The People I’ve Slept With. He also produced three feature films, a one hour comedy special currently on Netflix, and Comedy InvAsian, a live and filmed series featuring the nation’s top Asian American comedians. Koji’s debut novel, Romeo & Juliet Vs. Zombies, was released in paperback in 2015 and in audiobook in 2016 and his graphic novel, 442, was released in 2017. In addition, he is currently an adjunct professor in screenwriting at International Technological University in San Jose.