Tall, Short and Segregated Asians: Six Lessons from a Basketball Season

My sons finished their very long basketball seasons last month, and I was surprised how some of my own views on sports, basketball, and Asian-Americans changed after what seemed to be an endless season. Here are six lessons that I learned:

Lesson 1: There are tall Asian-Americans out there

I find that the Asian-Americans are generally shorter.

I said that (so did Barack Obama), but after this season, I’d have to qualify that statement to “some groups of Asian-Americans are shorter.” Number One Son’s 6th grade basketball team had a non-league game scheduled against “School T”. Both teams were mostly Asian-American, but School T’s Indian and Chinese kids were taller than our Filipino kids. The real shock came when my sons’ schools’ 7th grade team played School T’s 7th grade team. While both teams were mostly Asian, their 7th graders towered over our 7th graders, with a Chinese forward and an Indian forward who were each close to 6 feet tall.

I have noticed that more and more tall Indian and Chinese kids are playing basketball. This discussion points out that some provinces in China are known for having tall people. Moreover, the Asian-American basketball league Dreamleague has 6 feet and over divisions. One thing, though, is that when there is a tall Chinese kid, he gets referred to as “Yao Ming.” “Yao Ming just got the rebound!” Annoying.

More lessons after the jump…

Lesson 2: Some teams don’t take Asian-American teams seriously

Teams that aren’t used to playing Asian-Americans teams often don’t take them seriously. Number One Son says that when some teams see his team of shorter Asian kids, they think that they will win easily. These teams are surprised when his team isn’t as easy as they think. The weak nerdy Asian stereotype is there, but it can be useful when it lures teams into overconfidence.

Lesson 3: Asian-American kids can play basketball as well as anyone

Number One Son’s team of smaller Asian American kids took first place at their last tournament, beating almost totally white teams. They make up for being shorter by being faster, scoring lots of points on fast breaks. School T’s 7th grade team was at the same tournament. They played against 8th grade teams and just destroyed their opponents.

Lesson 4: Silicon Valley is seriously segregated

Number One Son’s team played against more teams of mostly one ethnicity than against truly diverse teams. Number Two Son’s team had an African-American majority, and all of the mostly African-American and Hispanic teams they played were from our local NJB district. His team also had a similar experience to his brother’s team with their opponents, playing undiverse teams. Despite hype about Silicon Valley’s diversity, it’s still is a pretty segregated place, and you really see it with youth sports teams.

Lesson 5: Asian-American parents are starting to treat athletic experience as something you can buy, just like tutoring sessions

As Asian-American parents become aware that colleges and selective high schools are not going to admit their kids if they stick only to academics and perhaps music, I see more and more Asian-American parents making their kids do sports. I am reminded of this comment on why few Asians-Americans are in the NBA:

That’s because American born Asians have it easy. Try playing against native-born Filipinos, who honed their skills playing on concrete or dirt courts while playing barefoot or in flip-flops. They may not be as tall or jump as high, but they’ve got incredible ballhandling skills and can change directions like a deflating balloon.

The way get good in a sport is to concentrate exclusively on it, playing on well coached club teams in the off season. The playground stuff is good to an extent, but having a knowledgeable coach and practicing and playing real games year round is the most effective strategy for getting good (you are unlikely to learn things like press breaks on the playground). School T is an academically oriented private school that doesn’t even have its own gym, but it’s clear from the way their kids played that their parents also pay for club team experience. Many school teams form their own club and AAU teams to play together in the off season. Whether this is good for kids, leads to the next lesson…

Lesson 6: Sports should be about fun, exercise, and participation

On a previous post, there was the following comment:

I’m going to say something politically incorrect: Asians don’t have the genes to play basketball, they don’t have the height, the fast twitch muscles to make it to the big time basketball league like NBA. Jeremy Lin might be an exception so is Yao Ming.

I don’t understand the part about fast twitch muscles, especially after seeing Asians in Olympic level badminton or table tennis. We discussed height above, and frankly, everyone in the NBA, some 450 players out of the whole planet, is going to be an exception. The point about the post about Jeremy Lin is even though he is an exceptional player, he didn’t get recruited or taking seriously because he was Asian-American. sp-asian16_phlin_0499471792

Now my turn to say something that might be considered politically incorrect. While watching pro sports like basketball may be entertaining, getting butts off the couch and actually doing sports is, IMHO, far more important. I recall one quote saying that a football game was “22 men desperately needing rest watched by 22,000 desperately needing exercise.” Diabetes and obesity are real problems in the Asian-American communities and beyond. Overemphasis on winning, as seen by parents making their kids drop all sports in order to specialize in only one, really kills the desire to participate in sports and to be active. In Number One Son’s last tournament, we the coaches (I was an assistant) were so eager to win that we didn’t put all of the players in the championship game. Even though the team won and everyone there played in all the other games, the kids who didn’t play were really unhappy. Although we later apologized, I think we forgot the point of why youth sports exist – to be active and to learn to love a sport that they can do the rest of their lives. It’s wonderful that organizations like Dreamleague exist, promoting basketball for Asian Americans of all ages, heights, and skill levels as something you do and not just something you watch passively.

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About Jeff

Jeff lives in Silicon Valley, and attempts to juggle marriage, fatherhood, computer systems research, running, and writing.
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