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By Pranav Iyer

Table of Contents

I. Intro

II. Birth of Asian American Basketball

III. Generational Differences

IV. Power of Representation (featuring Natalie Nakase, Jamie Hagiya, Carol Jue and Crossover Basketball)

V. Subconscious Bias

VI. Rise of the Chosen One

VII. The Aftermath

VIII. Is There Hope?

I. INTRO

February 4th, 2012. A day before the Super Bowl rematch between the Giants and Patriots. The day of the Western Conference Finals preview featuring the golden era Thunder and the Durant-Westbrook-Harden three-headed monster. Yet somehow, the most newsworthy event to happen that day, not just in the world of sports, was a matchup between two of the leagues lowliest franchises, the New Jersey Nets and the New York Knicks.

Iman Shumpert was injured. Baron Davis had to prolong his debut due to an elbow infection and back pains. The Knicks were playing the final game in their first back-to-back-to-back since March 16th, 1999. And they had dropped 11 of their previous 13 games. Given the circumstances, Knicks’ head coach Mike D’Antoni, in “desperation,” gave Jeremy Shu-How Lin the nod with 3:35 left in the first quarter just days before the end of his contract.

“Honestly, I’m just getting chills thinking about it,” Lin’s AAU teammate Thomas Fang said.

And so ensued what is now known as Linsanity. In his first three, four and five starts, he scored more than any other player has since the NBA-ABA merger. He dropped 38 points on Kobe on Friday night primetime at MSG. He hit the game winning three against the Raptors, strutting away in the most Lin-like way possible. And he increased traffic to the Knicks official online store by 3000 percent. All in a matter of a couple of weeks.

Jeremy Lin became the face of the world during this period of history. He captivated the hearts of millions because of his rags to riches story and his charming personality, but even more so because of his Asian American heritage. He was the first fully Asian American player to shine in the national spotlight at the highest level of basketball. And that was the moment that gave so many Asian Americans around the country validation, representation and hope.

He was supposed to completely change the narrative of Asian American basketball and pave the path for more to follow. But more than seven years later, many have forgotten the name and we have still yet to see another Asian American crack the NBA.

“I anticipated there to be a large Asian American boom when it came to professional sports,” Cary Chow, the first Chinese-American SportsCenter anchor said. “I thought seeing Jeremy Lin would open the doors to other parents and other kids thinking that this is possible for them. And this is where I'm a little disappointed because there hasn't been that huge boom that I had initially anticipated.”

So was Linsanity nothing more than a passing craze? The short answer is no. But Asian American basketball is so much bigger than just Jeremy Lin. While he has been the face of the community when it comes to national attention, the roots of Asian American participation and presence in basketball go way deeper and there have been hugely important cases of representation before him. Lin is a first in many ways but his road to achieve basketball stardom has been in the making for over a hundred years.

II. BIRTH OF ASIAN AMERICAN BASKETBALL

Following the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, the flow of Japanese immigrants into the states increased with the intention to replace Chinese immigrant workers. From then until the early 1920s, over 400,000 Japanese emigrated from Japan to reside in the US and US controlled lands, primarily along the Pacific coast and Hawaii.

Much of the immigrant population came to the states to pursue agricultural work. But Toyosaku Komai, who came from Japan’s Yamanashi prefecture to Los Angeles, wasn’t interested in just fitting into an assigned role. He wanted to pursue something greater for his community.

“He was one of those Japanese who was interested in not so much assimilating,” Toyosaku’s grandson Chris stated, “but really interacting with the greater society.”

Toyosaku ended up becoming a major investor and eventually the publisher of what became the family business, the Rafu Shimpo. The Rafu began in 1903 and developed into the premiere voice for the Japanese American community in Southern California. It is currently the largest English-Japanese daily newspaper in the United States.

During this time, the sport of basketball was introduced to JA communities across California. And due to the increase of JA press, such as the Rafu, the Japanese Amateur Athletic Union started to sponsor basketball, as scores and stories were featured in newspapers. The sport began to flourish amongst the JA communities from 1934 until its abrupt end in 1941.

On December 7th, 1941 the infamous Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor occurred, which sparked American involvement in World War II. Immediately following this event, key leaders of the JA communities were taken away from their families and cities, Toyosaku being one of them.

“Basically, they tried to cut the head off of the community,” Chris said, “take all the leaders away, which worked to some degree.”

110,000 to 111,000 Japanese Americans were placed into internment camps from 1942 to 1946 running, causing JA communities to rally together more so than ever. Following the war and release from the camps, Akira Komai, who was Toyosaku’s son and Chris’ uncle, took over the Rafu. Soon after, he embarked on furthering his father’s mission of creating a Japanese American voice.

In 1947, Akira formed the Nisei Athletic Union, bringing together the community through basketball. While JA leagues first appeared in the 1920s, leagues like the NAU began to pop up more so in the post WWII era where segreation and discrimination towards Japanese Americans was rampant and Japanese American identity was heightened.

Akira Komai formed the Nissei Athletic Union in 1947 as a way to celebrate Japanese American identity and culture as well as give opportunity to a community that faced heavy discrimination.

Many of these JA leagues hoped to exemplify three deeply rooted traditional Japanese core values through the expression of basketball: shikataganai (仕方がない), meaning nothing can be done about certain situations, gaman (我慢), meaning enduring the seemingly unbearable with patience and dignity, and ganbaru (頑張る), meaning to do your best.

With JA basketball reaching its peak in the 70s and 80s, these leagues served in a special way to the Sansei (third generation) community by giving them a greater sense of identity, according to Chris. But as the generations continued to pass, Japanese American culture, like any other immigrant culture began to become increasingly muddled into the cultural melting pot of greater American society. And today, more so than ever, JA basketball is one of the biggest aspects of the community that serves to preserve the culture.

“This infrastructure is one of the last infrastructures of the Japanese American community here in Southern California,” Nikkei Basketball Heritage Association President Jerry Nakafuji said. “It's really the only sense of community many young Japanese Americans today that are playing really have because there is no longer, in terms of geography, communities that are a hundred percent Japanese American, like Little Tokyo for example, back in the 40s or the 30s.”

Community legend and current LA Clippers assistant coach Natalie Nakase leads a JA basketball event in southern California. Although JA basketball participation has decreased in recent years with the rise of club basketball, there are still over 14,000 people involved in JA basketball leagues in southern California today.

Overtime, numerous other Asian American leagues outside the JA context were created, such as Chinese American, Filipino American and South Asian American leagues. And today, many of the JA leagues are more accurately described as catering to the overall Asian American basketball community, rather than solely the JA community.

III. GENERATIONAL DIFFERENCES

With many generations of Japanese Americans having come through these leagues, the acceptance and encouragement of basketball within the community is starkly different from what is often seen in first generation Asian immigrant families. But surprisingly, basketball is not “foreign” or unpopular in many Asian countries. In fact, it is the most commonly played sport in the Philippines, Taiwan and China, a country with an estimated 300 million participants. That is roughly equivalent to the entire American population.

Despite the high participating numbers in Asia, the collegiate and professional infrastructure isn’t set up nearly the same as it is in the states, according to Derek King, a guard for the Macau Black Bears of the ASEAN Basketball League. King, who had the experience of growing up in both China and America, pointed out that in addition to the funding for higher level basketball in Asia being significantly lower, those who wish to pursue a career in sports are often times funneled into academies from an earlier age, separating themselves from the broader culture. The silver lining beneath this all is that it has caused basketball to be viewed as not much more than a hobby, pastime or form of exercise in the overarching Asian culture.

Derek King played his final years of collegiate ball at Cal before signing a professional deal with the China-based Macau Black Bears in 2018.

As of 2010, nearly 75 percent of the Asian American population was foreign born. And among all of the second generation, the median age was just 17, meaning that the majority of today’s Asian American families consist of first and second generation members. Many of these second generation boys and girls growing up in American society and learning American culture start to develop hoop dreams, but are faced with the contrasting teaching from family that basketball is but a game, said Justin Young, a small forward for the Thang Long Warriors of the Vietnamese Basketball Association.

“Sports was more of a hobby in my family and throughout the community,” Young said. “No one really ever gave sport, especially the game of basketball, a thought of being a career.”

This contrast may be even more so exemplified within the Indian American subgroup, according to Thangaraj. In his reasoning, he referred to the ancient Indian caste system, specifically the Brahmin caste. Brahmins are regarded as being part of the highest socioeconomic class in India and make up between 50 and 65 percent of all Indian American Hindus populating the US. Thangaraj said that along with their high levels of intellectual capital, they often bring with them the deeply rooted traditional and religious belief of sport or physical activity being an inferior practice.

“When we see such a large prevalence of upper caste,” Thangaraj said, “especially Brahmins in the US, you can kind of have an idea of the ways in which the cultural norms back home have also traveled here to a certain extent where sport has not been seen as the site of affirming your Indianness in the same way as intellectual and professional success.”

Although not from Brahmin lineage, former San Francisco State forward Jashan Kahlon has seen first hand the shunning of several career aspirations, including his own, within the South Asian community.

“A big problem with the South Asian community is it's within ourselves,” Kahlon said. “‘A lot of times we don't support our own, with first generation kids that are trying to be athletes or even [in] a more broad spectrum, any type of dreams that we pursue."

Kahlon recalls being constantly reminded by others in his community that he should not be wasting time pursuing basketball and instead, should be focused strictly on academics. He has on many occasions been compared to his fellow South Asian family and friends who were pursuing more “prestigious” ventures, such as medical school or engineering. It was not until after achieving collegiate success in basketball that Kahlon said he and his older brother AJ began receiving praise and approval from their community.

“Now we get a lot of love from our community because we're known to be the two brothers that played at San Francisco State,” Kahlon said. “But before we even got there, before we had this college scholarship, when we were putting in the work, we wouldn't get that love. Everyone would just look at us like we weren't going to do anything with our lives.”

IV. POWER OF REPRESENTATION

Kahlon and many others agree that the root of all these problems is in the numbers. Roughly 21 percent of physicians and surgeons and 14 percent of tech in America is comprised of Asians. But just 0.2 percent of NBA players and less than 0.5 percent of NCAA Division I basketball players are of Asian descent.

“It's like a foreign concept unless there's other people doing it,” former Division I hooper Sai Tummala said.

Crossover Community

There have only been a handful of South Asians to have ever played at the higher levels of basketball. One of the earlier examples of success came from Christy Thomaskutty, a guard for Tulane University in the 90s. At the time of her graduation, she ranked fifth all-time in career three-point field goals and is one of the greatest players in program history. On the men's’ side, Indian Canadian Pasha Bains “may be the finest Indian-origin basketball player ever” according to Indian basketball blogger Karan Madhok. He was a high flying guard at Clemson University at the turn of the century, becoming one of the first Indians to play under the spotlight. But much of the South Asian American basketball community had little to no knowledge of players like Thomaskutty and Madhok until more recent years, according to desi hoops advocate Shaun Jayachandran.

This lack of public representation is what has developed into a further convincing point within the South Asian American community as to why a career in basketball is unattainable. At the same time, it has given desi hoopers of this generation a sense that they have to do it on their own, Tummala said.

“It's one thing to have the passion,” Tummala said. “It's another to be able to get the right guidance.”

Former University of Maryland guard Varun Ram harnessed this sense of isolation and turned it into an empowering factor that gave him a unique sense of identity. In addition to being Indian American, Ram was also faced with the struggle of being a greatly undersized player, listed at just 5’9’’ and 155 pounds. Ram said that he used each of these characteristics, that made most view him as inadequate for collegiate hoops, instead as added fuel to allow him to pursue his dreams full-fledged.

Despite a standout high school career, Ram received zero Division I offers. But after a long arduous journey through prep school and the Division III Trinity College, Ram finally found his way onto the Maryland Terrapins roster as a walk on. A year later, he was gifted a scholarship and in 2015, he made national headlines after having the game sealing block in the first round of the NCAA Tournament against Valparaiso.

But it was only until his second to last ever collegiate game in March of 2016 against Tumalla’s Hawaii Warriors that he would face off against another Indian American. At the time, Tummala and Ram were believed to be two out of the five Indian American males playing Division I hoops.

Nearly 5,000 miles separated Ram’s and Tummala’s respective schools. Yet, it was not the first time they had crossed paths.

Jayachandran created the grassroots program Crossover Basketball in 2012 to use basketball as a driving tool to improve education in marginalized communities in India. The first year they had 45 kids participate in their free two-week program in Chennai. Today, they have nearly 300 kids participating and a coaching staff that consists of many of the finest Indian American players.

“Crossover has also become this really interesting ground of Indian American hoops,” Jayachandran said. “If you're an Indian American hoop or ball lover, it seems like you've heard of Crossover.”

This is where Tummala, Ram and several other Indian American hoopers have met and formed this fraternity of Indian American basketball talent. For them, this was so much different than just meeting another high level basketball player. It was the first time many of them could connect with other basketball players on such a personal level.

“You really build a different bond with them because you guys are all going through the same thing, the same struggles, the same successes,” said Fiba 3x3 player and Chaminade’s all-time three point leader Kiran Shastri. “But the more important thing is the bigger picture that we're all trying to do for people that look like us, that didn't have the same opportunities.”

Brown University point guard Shayna Mehta was first introduced to Crossover during a game her freshman year against league rival Harvard. Jayachandran was in attendance and noticed history being made right in front of his eyes. Mehta was facing up against Sai Tummala’s sister Shilpa in the first ever Division I bout between two Indian American girls. Jayachandran was “geeked out” seeing the two on the floor at the same time and shared the news with his friend and Indian American SportsCenter anchor Kevin Negandhi while at the game. Following the game, Jayachandran, Shilpa and Mehta convened. And a year later, they were all in Chennai together and Shilpa and Mehta had become best friends, all through the sport of basketball.

Sai Tummala (second from top left), Shilpa Tummala (bottom left), Shayna Mehta (bottom middle) and Kiran Lakhian (second from top right) are among the few Indian Americans to have played Division I basketball. Shaun Jayachandran (top right) is the founder of Crossover Basketball and has rallied together much of the top Indian American basketball talent each year to coach the youth during camps in Chennai.

Through these players’ work with Crossover and the success that they were having in the sport, they began to notice the impact they had within the Indian American community. Ram started being approached by young desi hoopers who informed him that his success both athletically and academically convinced their parents to allow them to pursue basketball. The Tummalas noticed the change within their hometown Indian American communities in Arizona, where people now see them as inspirations instead of siblings with questionable aspirations. Shayna Mehta and her younger sister Nina, who formed the first duo of Indian Americans siblings to play together at the Division I level this season, openly voice their pride about being desi hoopers through their shared Instagram and Twitter accounts under the name “brown splash sisters.”

Nina (left) and Shayna (right) formed the first Indian American sibling duo to play Division I basketball together. Shayna finished her career (2015-2019) in the top three in Brown women's basketball history in eight different statistical categories.

Together, this group of tight knit Crossover coaches have been able to serve as the role models that they never had growing up through their public presence and activism for their community.

“Representation matters greatly because it elevates our soul,” Jayachandran said. “It lifts our spirits. It makes you see somebody who might be going home and eating masala dosa tonight.”

The Linsanity before Linsanity

It is clear that JA basketball in Southern California has made significant strides for the community in the sport from increased participation to cultural acceptance and integration of the game. It is estimated that around 14,000 JAs play in the Southern California leagues. Yet, for most of its history, it has failed to produce proportional amounts of collegiate and professional level talent.

Part of this has to do with the purpose of these leagues. They are implemented as a way of JA cultural expression and to teach the youth the Japanese way of life through moral and value teachings, not necessarily as a means to create the next great basketball talent, Nakafuji reiterated.

But on the women’s side, this lack of representation at the higher levels has flipped script over the past two decades. Chris Komai says a large part of this can be accredited to two athletes who today are household names within the JA community, Natalie Nakase and Jamie Hagiya.

JA basketball was always the focal part of Nakase’s upbringing, as it had been a staple in her family spanning across several generations. She along with her sisters all played in the South East Youth Organization. As she progressed through her adolescent years, Nakase became the areas most prolific player, earning herself Orange County Player of the Year honors from both the LA Times and the Orange County Register. The 5’ 1¾’’ feisty point guard turned down a scholarship offer at UC Irvine for a walk-on opportunity at her dream school, UCLA.

And it was while at UCLA, that Nakase says she realized the impact that she was having on her community. The amount of support she received from her JA fanbase during her three year run was unmatched. Leaders of the JA community even organized designated games at Pauley Pavillion to be “support Natalie Nakase nights.”

One of the kids that would cheer on Nakase was Allison Taka. She was yet another girl playing JA basketball. She loved the friends she made and the sense of belonging that she felt while playing in these leagues. But as a young 11 year old, she never really fathomed the possibility of herself playing college basketball, as a Japanese American. That is until she was “starstruck” by Nakase.

“I would go to games and I remember just [thinking],” Taka said, “‘There's someone who looks like me who's on the team. Maybe that could be me one day.’ And if it wasn't for her, I don't know if I would have even thought that it was a possibility. It was because I saw her that it just planted a seed that maybe one day I could do that.”

A year after Nakase’s graduation in 2003, Jamie Hagiya began her to-be illustrious basketball career. She went on to finish her college career second in three pointers and fourth in assists in USC history and then had professional overseas stints as well as a tryout with her local WNBA team, the Los Angeles Sparks.

Hagiya originally grew up in Torrance, where she participated in the South Bay Friends of Richard, Orange Coast Optimist and Yonsei leagues. And like Taka, she too greatly appreciated the impact Nakase’s presence had on solidifying belief in herself.

While at USC, Hagiya said that from her very first home game, the stands would be full of Asian Americans to the point where her teammates would jokingly state that she had brought all of “Little Tokyo” with her. Her deep appreciation came not only from the support she received but what the leagues offered to her for so many years to promote her growth. On the flip side, she also recognized the overwhelming burden she was carrying.

“There was definitely times where I felt like I was letting them down if I didn't play well or had a bad game,” Hagiya reflected. “It wasn't just on me or my team. It was my university and the entire Japanese American community, which was kind of tough.”

Jamie Hagiya serving at a Japanese American basketball event. Hagiya said her success in the sport was accompanied by support from her community and a responsibility of mentorship for the next generation.

Nakase began the preliminary phases of her coaching career through AAU upon graduation while, at the same time, training for her opportunity at a professional career. Taka heard of this opportunity from one of her friends and jumped all over it.

“You could have told me she was coaching anywhere,” Taka said. “I would have dropped everything to go. I had no plans of playing club. I just wanted to get coached by Natalie.”

Nakase became so much more than just the celebrity crush and inspiration from afar that she was to Taka during her early years. The two developed a mentor-mentee relationship that exists with great effect to this day. And following perfectly behind Nakase’s footsteps, Taka found herself a full scholarship to play at UCLA. A dream that she said was made possible by Nakase’s persistent belief in her.

Jamie Hagiya (left), Allison Taka (middle) and Natalie Nakase (right) were three of the most prominent examples of success to come out of the Southern California Japanese American leagues in the early 2000s.

“That to me was a proud moment because I saw her grow and I saw her do things that maybe at some point she didn't know was going to happen for her,” Nakase said. “And she was able to get through all of the non believers and all the people that didn't think she was going to make it.”

Nakase, who began her professional career in 2005 by becoming the first Asian American to play in the National Women’s Basketball League, took her talents overseas to Germany in 2007. Meanwhile, Taka was creating a legacy of her own at UCLA, serving as an inspiration to the JA youth, much like Hagiya and Nakase had been to her.

“There was a young Venice Team sitting near the sidelines and they started cheering for me when I walked out,” Taka reflected on a moment from her days playing for UCLA at Pauley Pavilion. “And it was really touching because I remember I was in their shoes ten years earlier in my Venice Jersey cheering for college players. And it made me realize I was almost doing what Natalie did for me and it felt like a really big responsibility because I knew how important she was to me and my life and my goal setting.”

It turned out that Nakase’s coaching stint became much more than just a part time thing while she trained for her next playing opportunity. Ensuing a second major knee injury in Germany, she decided to completely shift her focus over to coaching. Soon after, she became the first ever female coach in what was then Japan’s top professional men’s league, the bj League.

The following summer, she returned home and by way of connections she made while in Japan, Spurs head coach Greg Popovich agreed upon an opportunity to volunteer under his coaching staff during the 2012 Summer League.

With experience under her belt, Nakase finally got her big break in a way that she said made “everything come full circle.” Taka told her about a coaching clinic that was taking place at the Los Angeles Clippers facility and invited her to attend it with her. While at the clinic, Nakase made it a point to express her interest in coaching along with detail her past in a conversation with then Clippers head coach Vinny Del Negro. That same night, she attempted to formulate the perfect to email to said to Del Negro.

Two weeks later she became a video intern, where she had the chance to “pick the brains” of NBA superstars like Chris Paul, Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan and learn under the guidance of Doc Rivers. When she took the intern position, she had written down a letter to herself with a clear goal. She wanted to become an NBA coach within six years.

In her sixth year with the Clippers, that wish was granted. Nakase had been doubted over and over in her career, whether it had been because of her ethnicity, gender or height. But by the time she was offered a coaching position by the Clipper's D-League affiliate, Agua Caliente, the question was no longer about her ability, that was often scrutinized because of her physical appearance, but instead about how much she could offer to the program because of her expertise. She time and time again emphasized that “basketball is basketball” regardless of any other circumstances.

“It wasn't about earning respect,” Nakase said. “It was more just allowing them to see that this is what I love to do.”

This past season, she got promoted to assistant coach for the LA Clippers, making her just the fourth woman to coach in the NBA regular season. But bigger than the positions and the accolades, she has continued to become more and more of an inspiration to Japanese American girls in the community she grew up in.

“She's really making people see [that] you don't have to look a certain way or be a certain way to have an impact,” Taka said, “And it's just so much fun to see seven foot NBA players looking down at her while she's telling them something and respecting her opinion and wanting to learn from her.”

Jamie Hagiya (left), Allison Taka (middle) and Natalie Nakase (right) at the Play for Japan fundraiser that Nakase helped to organize in 2011 after the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami. As part of the fundraiser, there was a celebrity game that featured Japanese American basketball talent as well as NBA star Earl Watson.

Nakase, Hagiya and Taka all actively participate in advocating for and giving back to the leagues and the community that gave them the platform to succeed. And as a collective, they have played a significant role in creating a “stronger pipeline” for athletes coming out of the Southern California JA leagues to have success at the collegiate level, according to CSUF sociology professor Christina Chin.

During the 1999-2000 season, Nakase’s first year at UCLA, one percent of NCAA women's basketball players were of Asian descent. In the 2017-2018 season, that number was nearly identical at 1.1 percent. But despite these statistics, today, roughly one player from every two JA teams will go on to play collegiate basketball, a very statistically significant number. After Nakase, Taka and Hagiya, numerous other female JA players have gone on to play in the NCAA, at UCLA and USC as well as across the rest of the PAC-12 and Big West, among other prominent leagues.

Their impact is one of the few within the scope of Asian American basketball that has really been able to be quantified. And it is an effect that continues to magnify as more and more examples pop up and advocate for the community in which they came from.

The Jue Effect

At a small school in Orange County, this movement has been seen in full effect. For the past 16 years, Chapman University has been the stomping grounds of Carol Jue. She is one of the most prolific coaches in Division III history, not to mention the only Chinese-American head coach in all of the NCAA.

Jue was formerly a member of the Imperials Purple, a team that dominated the Japanese American basketball circuit in the 70s and 80s. She played at CSULA and Claremont McKenna College and after a short career in business, Jue was passionate about coming back to what she loved. She had short coaching stints at both of her alma maters and then was granted the head coaching position at Chapman in 2003. She has not looked back since. Jue has posted 16 straight winning seasons, nine playoff berths and has earned three straight coaching staff of the year honors.

Beyond her accolades though, she has fielded what is believed to be the most Asian American populated team in collegiate basketball every year since at least 2008. During the 2017-2018 season, nine out of the 15 player roster came from JA leagues. To put this in perspective, this percent makeup is nearly 55 times greater than the Asian representation seen in NCAA women’s basketball on a national scale. In 2009, she was honored by the Chinese Historical Society of Southern California alongside legends such as tennis great Michael Chang and college football offensive guru Norm Chow for her impact on the Asian American community.

Jue stated that she has received backlash in the past by those claiming she only sought after Asian American players. But she believes that she is just giving often overshadowed players opportunity to prove their worth.

“She knew that in our leagues there were so many good players who just got overlooked because we're Asian and we don't have the build, the height,” current Chapman guard Camryn Hamaguchi said. “She's not going to look for Asian girls, but she wants to get Asian girls opportunity to play.”

In addition to giving Asian American players a stage at the college level, Jue has also allowed them to be in an environment where they are welcomed, both Hamaguchi and All-American Jaryn Fajardo agree. Hamaguchi stated that she had been friends with or known many of her teammates before college through the JA leagues and their similar upbringings allow them to relate in a way that she does not believe she would have experienced had she played elsewhere.

Fajardo had for long looked in awe at Hagiya, as they both competed in the same JA program and attended the same high school. Now, she has joined Hagiya in the long and growing list of athletes to have shifted the narrative of how female Asian American hoopers and JA leagues within Southern California are perceived by their own as well as college coaches and recruiters.

Being brought up in the South Bay FOR League and attending South High School, Jaryn Fajardo followed closely in the footsteps of Jamie Hagiya. The Chapman guard finished her career (2015-2019) as a Division III All-Star and the lone player in program history to tally 1000 points, 500 rebounds, 400 assists and 200 steals.

“Within these leagues, we have a historical legacy of players,” says Chin, who has for years, studied many of the JA leagues. “When you have those role models and you can see yourself in that space, I think that actually does a lot in terms of creating more pathways for youth to think and want to pursue sports more seriously. And there's also a lot of institutional support too. There's a network of coaches and recruiters that know about the Japanese American leagues, that they know that there are players that have done really well in these [leagues].”

V. SUBCONSCIOUS BIAS

But for the majority of the Asian American basketball community, this luxury when it comes to recruiting is very sparsely the case. As a matter of fact, it is a driving reason as to why Asian American leagues exist in today’s day and age even when legal segregation has been for long outlawed, according to Chin. With the lack of representation, there is a constant perpetuation of the public’s belief of what being Asian American means and very rarely is basketball associated with that to an extent greater than being just a fan.

“People slot you into these stereotypes in America and until they see an example that breaks it, you can't really tell people it's not true,” David Fung, who has created numerous videos with Lin through his Youtube channel Fung Bros, stated. “People are going to believe stereotypes because that's the way the human brain works, is painting pictures in broad strokes until there's a broad stroke that runs counter to their thinking.”

Tumulla stated that because of the lack of public understanding of Asian American culture, there are assumptions made by coaches regarding academic prowess and athletic inadequacy. His biggest challenge was being able to prove he was more than a smart Indian American kid who happened to play basketball, but someone who had immense passion and physical capability for the sport. During Thangaraj’s research of South Asian American basketball for his book Desi Hoop Dreams, he noticed this same sort of approach by recruiters to the top South Asian players in Chicago.

“They couldn't see the spectacular act,” Thangaraj said. “They were too caught up with the actual South Asian image rather than the ballplayer in action. And so that was one of the main difficulties for these young men. They sought to be understood on basketball terms and not on these racist terms.”

Both Shastri and King, two overseas professional hoopers, have attempted to go inside of the recruiters' minds and break down their understanding. Neither attribute malicious intent for their decisions of not selecting qualified Asian American talent, but instead say it is more of a subconscious bias that is a result of societal-based assumptions and the search for players that “fit the mold.”

“You kind of feel isolated,” Shastri said regarding the inequalities in recruiting. “You're not sure who do you turn to for help in that situation. But sometimes you need one person to take a chance on you.”

King bluntly stated that if he had the same build, same skill, same name, but was African American, his whole recruiting process would have been different. He is not alone in making this claim, however. Lin, himself, is famously accredited for saying that he would have received a DI scholarship had he been black.

Lin’s story may be the most publicly accepted case of racial injustice in college recruiting since the Civil Rights Movement era. A high school athlete with among the most accolades of anyone to have played in Silicon Valley. A 17 year-old who singlehandedly willed his team to a state champion. The Northern California Player of the Year and a first team all-state selection. Yet, zero Division I scholarships.

Both Lin and his high school head coach Pete Diepenbrock did not originally consider the possibility that race was a factor. But looking back on it, they believe without a reasonable doubt that it actually was the case.

“Having to send in his own tapes, it's virtually unheard of if you're the [NorCal] player of the year, you're all this, all that,” Linsanity producer Brian Yang said. “And I always feel like the evaluators are not inherently racist. But when it comes to race, and especially when it comes to the Asian American voice, because there's so seldomly any representation of us, you just don't see it in the public eye.”

VI. RISE OF THE CHOSEN ONE

Lin’s journey to and through the NBA during his early years was also filled with constant skepticism and disregard. As a junior at Harvard, he was the lone player in the nation to be top ten in their conference in scoring, rebounds, assists, steals, blocks, field goal percentage, free throw percentage and three point percentage. As a senior, he was a unanimous first team All-Ivy League selection, a finalist for the Bob Cousy Award, a recognition given to the nation’s best point guard, and named as one of the 12 most versatile players in college basketball by ESPN.

Still, the pattern continued. 60 picks went by and Lin’s phone remained silent. Even when Lin was eventually signed by his hometown Golden State Warriors, it was believed by many to be a publicity stunt more than anything to take advantage of the large Asian American Bay Area fan base.

But being cut by two teams in a 16 day time frame to imploding his will on each and every team for the duration of February 2012 was exactly the way Lin’s story needed to unfold in order to put himself and the rest of Asian American basketball on the map.

Had Lin never stepped onto a court again after his Linsanity run, his impact would have still been forever unparalleled. Similarly to how JA basketball leagues have brought together the JA community for decades on decades, Linsanity bonded the entire Asian American community together, Komai said, and finally gave them something to root for in the greater American public universe.

“I had seen Kobe do it for years, but I never really felt a personal connection, cultural connection to that,” said Little Tokyo’s Terasaki Budokan gymnasium director and JA basketball advocate Ryan Lee. “But seeing an Asian American guy go in and do what he did was something that was very special.”

“I was thrilled that it wasn't just for the Asian community that people of all races were seeing this incredible underdog story of a guy who was sleeping on a couch and all of a sudden is dropping 38 on Kobe,” Cary Chow, who wrote about Lin’s role in representation, said. “Seeing that everyone was rooting for this guy and breaking down these color barriers."

As many know the storied career of newly inducted NBA Hall-of-Famer Yao Ming, this is not the first case of an Asian having success in the NBA. But Thangaraj believes while his impact was significant, it was neither relatable nor replicable.

As a Chinese-born player, he became an international ambassador for basketball in China. Ming and the NBA worked together to bring attention to the league and the sport overseas and even built grassroots programs to help find the next great Chinese basketball players. But back in the states, Ming became someone Asian Americans could not quite understand and another stereotype that they had to deal with. Ming was a 7’6’’ 310 pound behemoth. His birth and rise to fame had actually been had been a long time coming for Communist officials desiring Chinese international presence in sports, as his well above average sized family had been kept tabs on for two generations. All this put together just made Ming not someone who young Asian American kids could attain to be like, Thangaraj said.

On the flip side, Lin was a seemingly normal looking guy who had a very familiar background to many Asian American kids around the country. A Bay Area raised kid who had a very typical Asian American upbringing. In fact, Lin’s former coach Diepenbrock claimed that he had no intention of playing college basketball until the summer before his senior year. His plan was to join his older brother Josh and take the academic route into UCLA.

The perfect score on the SAT math subject test. The academic proficiency to get him to and through Harvard. The reserved and slightly dorky demeanor. They were all things that Thangaraj said allowed Asian Americans to envision themselves in Lin’s place.

“That relatability allows our desires for Asian American athletes to seem much more real,” Thangaraj said. “It penetrates our own skins in ways in which it did not do with Yao Ming.”

It was not just Lin’s cultural upbringing that allowed many to relate to him. It was also the obstacles along his basketball journey that he had to overcome due in part to how he looked that really hit home for players like Hagiya.

“I definitely identified with how he felt and felt like that's my story and that's how I felt the whole time growing up,” Hagiya said.

Hagiya’s tryout with the Sparks happened in 2012. She actually credits that opportunity to Linsanity because she stated that the WNBA saw the impact that Lin had on the NBA as an Asian American and wanted to replicate that in their league.

This institutionalized struggle based on perception that Hagiya referred to is what Ram believes has begun to change for the better due to Lin’s fame.

“[He] almost created a new mold and open people's eyes to the fact that you can look a little bit differently and still be successful, especially in basketball,” Ram said.

It not only changed the perception of recruiters but also of Asian parents to a small extent, Jayachandran said. Lin’s ability to make it to the highest levels of excellence both athletically in the NBA and academically at Harvard has helped change the common belief that you must sacrifice one for the other to more of a thinking that the two can exist harmoniously.

VII. THE AFTERMATH

For a while after his eruption into public consciousness, Lin was not exactly embracing his Asian American identity, his former coach Diepenbrock said. It seemed to him that his ethnicity was all he was known for. From the racially-based headlines such as The Lin Dynasty and A Chink in the Armor to all of the media’s questions about his ethnicity and heritage, Lin just wanted to be known for what he was doing on the court.

Even in his AAU days, his teammate Thomas Fang says that they rarely discussed topics about racial identity despite being the two Asian kids out of hundreds at national tournaments.

“From the Asian perspective, I don't think we really talked about it or really identified [with] it because we didn't really want it to be an issue,” former Cal walk-on Fang said.

Jeremy Lin (second from bottom left) and Thomas Fang (second from top right) pose for a team picture while playing for the Metro Mirage, a Bay Area-based AAU program. The two were among the scarce number of Asian Americans to play AAU basketball in the early 2000s, according to Fang.

This, according to Fang, upset people within the Asian American community. Finally, one of their own made it but did not want to carry that label.

“I used to run from it, because that’s all anybody ever wanted to ask about,” Lin told the South China Morning Post. "Oh, he’s Asian, he’s Asian, he’s Asian.”

Over time, however, that thinking has changed as Lin has become an advocate for Asian basketball and Asian American issues.

“As time has gone on and he's seen what an impact he has had on younger Asian Americans and even older Asian Americans, he realizes that [he] shouldn't shun, that [he] shouldn't run from that,” Linsanity producer Yang said. "[He’s used] this opportunity to shed light on topics and a community that's often overlooked, stereotyped.”

Lin makes an annual Asia trip in the summer where he travels through Taiwan and China helping to promote youth basketball and spread the Christian gospel, as he has for long been a man of faith. Back in the states, it is unknown as to whether he has actively been working to further Asian American basketball. But something that is certain is his passion for changing the national Asian American narrative.

He has used social media as a platform to speak about Asian Americanness, for example through his collaborations with other Asian American Youtube channels like Wong Fu Productions, NigaHiga and The FungBros. May was Asian Pacific American Heritage Month and to celebrate the occasion, he showcased other Asian American celebrities and entrepreneurs and displayed their achievements through Instagram posts of his pregame outfits.

“I can’t express how freakin proud I am to be Asian American!” Lin stated in a May 5 Instagram post. “There are still so many fields where Asians are underrepresented and it makes me so happy to see Asian Americans pursuing their dreams and killin it in design, fashion, and other industries.”

By uplifting other Asian Americans that are so frequently misportrayed or underrepresented in media, Yang and Fung understand the power that has to allow for more representation in all fields, including basketball. He believes that if support does not come from within the community, then there is not hope for success of minorities on a national scale.

“In order to break out into the public mainstream, you have to get out of the silos,” Yang said. “Because in order for it to really work on a mainstream [level], you need to break out of the community. But the community is where it starts and is where you, from the ground floor, build it up and get that groundswell support that then spills over. If we're not supporting from within, it's going to be very difficult to get the validation from the outside.”

VIII. IS THERE HOPE?

Since Lin we have seen limited instances of Asian presence in NBA. In 2015, Sim Bhullar became the first player of Indian descent to play and score in an NBA game and Satnam Singh became the first to be drafted. Both were over seven feet tall and their cases seemed more like a search for the Indian Yao Ming, Jayachandran stated. Singh played all but one season in the D-League, while Bhullar lasted just three games in the NBA. And frankly, neither were ever adeptly prepared for NBA success according to most experts, making them out to be more of a ploy to increase the league's popularity in the second most populated country in the world. Much like what was seen with Ming, their impact was far greater in their native country than amongst the Indian American community.

“We did ourselves as a community a disservice by buying into the hype that you have to be a seven foot two plus person to play,” Jayachandran said. “It took away from the fact that everybody can play.”

There have been programs implemented to help advance Asian American basketball, such as the various aforementioned ethnic leagues. And although their role is not to necessarily to produce the next great Asian American basketball phenom, Taka agrees that the fact that they have served to implement basketball into Asian American culture helps greatly in giving players the foundation and cultural acceptance for them to then go on and have success at higher levels.

With the recruiting biases that many of these athletes have experienced, Mike Mon has tried to circumvent that. He is the founder of the Asian Basketball Champions of North America, a yearly tournament created to congregate Asian Americans hoopers of all types from around the country to come to one central spot and compete. As part of the event, he has also created a combine-type event where he invites professional scouts. Mon said that dozens of players who have participated in the ABCNA have gone to play overseas and that credibility attracts scouts to seek out talent that often gets passed on.

But despite all of the external factors inhibiting Asian American representation in basketball, the majority of those interviewed believe the greatest key to more opportunity is within themselves, within their own communities. It has to be the families looking past their set-in-stone cultural beliefs and encouraging the youth to pursue their not-so-typical passions, Young said.

“That's probably the hardest thing to do is to change someone's mindset on basketball as a career path,” VBA star Young said. “That's one of the biggest hurdles that we would have to leap over in order for some big change to happen."

Luckily, this is something that Thangaraj believes will shift as cultural integration for Asian Americans furthers as generational lineage in America continues to increase.

As we are today in 2019, the peak of Lin’s effect on Asian American basketball has long surpassed. But Mon believes we have yet to even see what that impact will materialize into. His understanding is that when a phenomenon like Linsanity occurs, it is not until the next generation that the magnitude of the effect is truly revealed. It was the young kids and young parents who were affected the most by Linsanity back in 2012, he believes, and in due time he said that will show itself in the numbers.

As we continue to see examples like Filipino American Kihei Clark winning a national championship as the starting point guard for Virginia, Vietnamese American Johnny Juzang signing to the national blue blood Kentucky, and Indian American Gokul Natesan having an All American collegiate career and becoming a professional All-Star in Australia, Jayachandran is confident that eventually, it will get to a point where the public will see Asian Americans competing at the highest level against each other and there won’t be a need to blink an eye.

“There's kids who are starting to play and we're starting to hear their names,” Jayachandran said. “And it's exciting that I'm not going to know everybody. I get really geeked out that I can't keep track because that's what you want. You want it to become much more normalized so that in another ten years, it's just normal representation and nobody's questioning it.”

"You want it to become much more normalized so that in another ten years, it's just normal representation and nobody's questioning it," Jayachandran said.

Authors Note: As a former Indian American college football player myself, I understand how negatively and incorrectly Asian Americans are perceived in sports. So with this story, it was my intention to break down common stigmas about Asian Americans in the context of basketball and show how there is so much complexity as to why there is so little representation at the highest levels of the sport. As Jayachandran eluded to, it is the hope and belief of many that one day, the terms "Asian American" and "basketball" can coexist without people raising an eyebrow. Oh, and a huge congratulations to Jeremy Lin for becoming the first Asian American to win an NBA championship!

Contact Pranav Iyer at iyer.pranav4@gmail.com

Find him on Twitter @pranav_iyer4 and on Instagram @iyerisland4

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