Few Asian American Basketball Players at the NCAA D1 Level – Does it Really Matter?

jeremy_linAfter almost 10 years of playing in community, NJB, AAU, and school leagues, Number Two Son dropped out of organized basketball for good this year.  When I saw this article asking why there are very few Asian American division I college basketball players, my experiences with Number Two Son have given me insights why I think that’s the case.  The article says that basketball seems to have “relatively few obvious barriers to entry” and hints at racism being a cause.  While I have little doubt that racism is a factor (e.g. Jeremy Lin’s recruitment), other large and nonobvious barriers do exist.   There are also other important questions to ask – is it really that important to have Asian American players Division I college basketball players?  Is it in fact better that Asian Americans avoid that whole system?

Getting into the D1 Pipeline

To frame this discussion, I’d like to share how I have seen kids developed and recruited to play basketball and other sports at the Division I college level.  One requirement is to play at high schools with elite levels of competition.  These high schools have excellent coaching, year-round conditioning programs, professional trainers, and seminars for dealing with college recruiting.  In Silicon Valley, elite levels of high school sports occur in the West Catholic Athletic League (WCAL) which dominates its section in most sports.   Number One and Number Two Son go to a WCAL school.  Every year, their high school holds a seminar for parents and students on how to deal with college sports recruiters.  The WCAL league is so competitive that despite having a 2-12 league record, their school basketball team won the section championship for their enrollment level division and made it to the quarter finals of the Northern California tournament .  I have watched WCAL games where there were three seniors bound for Division I including the NBA bound Aaron Gordon, four if you count the D1 football player who also played basketball.

So how do you get on a team at one these high schools? It helps to be on the right AAU team during the school off-season.  Some schools sometimes their own invite-only AAU teams associated with them.  Playing on the “right” AAU teams in the “right” tournaments and going to the “right” summer camps is important for getting on the high school teams and for college recruitment.   Kids pretty much have to play basketball all year, a single sport specialization that is part of the overall professionalization of youth sports (and a danger to their health)  The elite level high schools also scout middle school tournaments – Number One Son remembers talking to a WCAL coach scouting at an 8th grade tournament filled with WCAL feeder schools.  So a kid looking to get noticed for college needs to start doing tournaments and playing AAU by middle school level to get into the elite high school programs and elite AAU teams.

Similar things happen for other sports.  When I coached The Daughter’s volleyball team, the team went to a number of WCAL school sponsored scouting tournaments.  Number Two Son also likes to do distance rununing – he was scouted and contacted by his current high school cross country coach because of his 5K times during 8th grade.  When he was accepted by the high school, the school made a special effort to make sure that he would go, calling him and including special notes with his acceptance letter.

Ideally the prospective Division I player gets into the right high school and right AAU teams.  This assumes that they make a high school team.  Teams are extremely selective – at my sons’ school, about 100 boys try out for two freshman teams.  Later in high school, these are pared down to one JV and one varsity team.   Of these varsity players, only small number of WCAL players will make it into D1.

Time and Cost Barriers

What are the costs of doing an AAU season (and there can be as many as four in a year)?  Number Two Son’s last Spring AAU season ran $1500.  That doesn’t count all of the cost and time of driving to practice, travelling to remote tournaments (including hotels and airline tickets), extra tournament costs, uniforms, etc.  I always told myself that it least it was cheaper than joining a Club Volleyball team!  I did draw the line at the AAU National Tournaments (he was invited to go twice), which would last for a week on the opposite coast.

So what does this have to do with Asian Americans and basketball?  The significant investment in time and money it takes to approach D1 status can make Asian American kids and especially their parents wonder what the Return on Investment (ROI) is for all of that activity.  The probability of making a high school varsity team, much less a Division I scholarship, is pretty low, and the probability of a lucrative NBA career is even lower.  Most parents, myself included, would conclude that the time and money of the D1 basketball path is better spent focusing on academics unless their child is a Jeremy Lin level player or is extremely passionate about playing.  A poor ROI isn’t everything – another way to look at the high level basketball path is a luxury good to be purchased.

Height:  Factor or Non-factor?

newjumpThe NPR article says that height isn’t a factor, but with my observation (not scientific, admittedly) watching WCAL games is that while there definitely Asian American kids who can play at that level, but they are generally not tall.  My sons’ school, they did have a 5’6’’ Asian pointer guard who started on varsity.  The Asian kids of Asian ancestry on the team who are tall enough to dunk are part white.   Tall Asians like the Bhullar brothers are more the exception.  I still remember the time that a 5’6” Number Two Son had to do the opening jump against a 6’5 kid (shown to the right).

That being said, smaller Asian American teams can do well.  I wrote here about Number One Son’s team of fast, highly skilled players, who could would often surprising taller teams of white players.  5’1” Marissa Hing was on the  2014 California Division V girls MaxPreps All State team,  and led the Pinewood School Girls team, which had a number of Asian American starters, to win the 2014 California State Division V championship. You can see them in the video below.

College Basketball – An Institution Worth Joining?

It’s also worth discussing whether becoming part of the NCAA division I basketball system is really something to strive for.   College sports is so corrupt in many ways, with academic scandals like that at UNC making a joke of the notion of “student athlete.”  With ethnic groups fighting over a shrinking number of college slots with initiatives like SCA5, coveted college slots are taken by athletes who have much lower graduation rates. Tuition has been rising and students loans burdening young people are said to threaten the future of the US economy.

It is a disgrace that taxpayer money is used to provide free minor leagues to profitable leagues like the NFL and NBA. As Colorlines points out, more than 30 states’ highest paid employee is either a college basketball or football coach.  Revenue from basketball and football goes to fund nonrevenue sports and not into college general funds.  That supposes that there is excess revenue.  In 2012, only 23 out of 228 Division I schools athletic programs made enough money to cover their expenses.

While Jeremy Lin received racist treatment in his college recruitment, his college playing days, and the NBA draft, a far more egregious racism is how many African Americans basketball (and football) players are used for entertainment and income generation for college sports programs but actually have a remote chance of playing professionally and frequently don’t graduate and receive poor education for their efforts.  It’s little wonder than some college football players are seeking union representation.

Why Number Two Son Stopped Playing Basketball

So why did Number Two Son give up basketball?  Having seen the freshman teams play, I think that he could have made one of the teams.  Part of it was that he got turned off by the whole system.  As kids got older in AAU, some began to act like egotistical free agents to the point that it wasn’t fun anymore – doing things like not passing the ball to open teammates just to get off a buzzer beating shot, changing teams quickly if they didn’t get enough playing time, and making it more about themselves than the team.  Lots of cheating going on, particularly with kids playing beneath their age level.  He also saw that it would be very hard to make it to Varsity as the number of available positions would steadily shrink.   Number Two Son thinks that starting AAU in 7th grade was far too late – a sad statement on the professionalization of youth sports.  He still plays some pick-up games with friends, but his main focus now is on running, which he knows he can do successfully throughout high school and where he has a chance at being recruited.

It’s a big relief to me and The Wife, both from a financial and time standpoint, that there are no more AAU seasons to worry about.  That doesn’t mean I won’t miss some aspects about it.  Watching the games could be really fun and exciting.  I even got to coach part of a game! It was a good bonding time with Number Two Son, and we had a really good time traveling, exploring different places, and trying new restaurants.    Number Two Son says he really liked those aspects, but has no regrets about getting out.

Asian Americans – Loving Basketball in the Best Way?

The article points out that while basketball is really popular with Asian Americans, especially through community leagues, there are few D1 players.  I’d agree with popularity assertion. Basketball has long been an activity around which Asian Americans have built community.  I am amazed at the devotion that some players have to the Asian American teams like the San Jose NinjasUCLA bound Kelli Hayes, half Filipino and from a WCAL school, squeezed in two AAU teams and an Asian league.  The starting JV point guard at my sons’ school also does AAU and the Ninjas, as do Marissa Hing and other key players on Pinewood’s state championship girls team.  You can see them on the team pictures page.

In a way, I think that Asian Americans are loving basketball in the best way – by playing themselves.  You see a lot of Asian Americans playing pickup games at the local courts.  I have also seen adult Asian American leagues renting out time at local gym.  I remember the odd site of a team of tattooed Filipinos playing middle aged Chinese guys.  Seemed strange at the moment, but they were being active and loving the game.  In a country of with large rates of obesity, what these guys are doing is 100% better than sitting on the couch, watching some basketball game on TV, and proclaiming that they are fans of this team or that team.

So Does it Matter?

Back to the initial question – does it matter that there are so few division I Asian American basketball players?  I would have to say no.  Getting to that Division I level and being part of a system that undermines education is an expensive proposition with an extremely low probability of success.  Asian American families (probably the vast majority of families) are better off investing their time and money elsewhere unless they have the rare exceptional talent like Jeremy Lin.  I think a better question is this:  why is the passive watching of sports valued over so many more important matters?

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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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