What did I do in those lonely years before a basketball finally found its way into my hands? I don’t know, but sometimes I went with my brother to the field at Olympic View because my dad said we had to go practice soccer and we couldn’t come home until we were dripping with sweat. Naturally, we didn’t do that. Instead, we played on the swings and complained about the unfairness of things and just went to the water fountain and dumped water on our heads before heading home. Hey kids, when you cheat Dad, you cheat yourself.
But that’s not really the point of this story, now is it. I don’t remember basketball in the United States during those early years of my life. I remember Boomer Esiason and Tracy Albornoz, but basketball wasn’t really on the radar yet. In fact, I don’t remember basketball really truly until we moved to Japan. Where it happens I fell in love with many things I still cherish – Dragon Ball Z, rap, girls with streaks in their hair, camel toes. Anyway, basketball hit me pretty big during those three years and has stayed with me every since. For y’alls sake and brevity’s, here are a two memories which helped mold the foundation of my relationship with basketball:
One is the court at Shirley Lanham Elementary School. Nothing special about the court. Kinda run of the mill asphalt, 8 foot hoops, full court. We played there most days. Only taking breaks to run across the street to the laundry mat and buy skittles and RC cola. Now if you were to say otherwise, I couldn’t really argue with you, but as I remember it there was some electrifying basketball played on that court. Half court shots, no look passes, slam dunks. Memories are like that though aren’t they. Do you know the more you access a memory the less true it becomes because you infuse it with a bunch of other junk that has happened since then? I heard that on Radiolab but then I stopped listening to Radiolab because they’re racist.
What isn’t racist though, is that I would stay at the court and keep shooting around after everyone else had wandered home. From the outside I probably looked like some determined kid building a brick house but inside my head I was actually trying to conjure up an appearance by Michael Jordan. You know like he did for the kid in Michael Jordan’s Playground. “Michael Jordan got cut from his high school team”, the coach in the movie says. So I still had a few years before I could be cut from my freshmen team! And it was just that delusional thinking that keep me going. I wanted to go home because I was hungry and it was getting dark so I was scared. But maybe just maybe, if I just missed one more shot, Mike might find it in his heart to take time away from his run at a second consecutive championship and magically appear in Japan. He would come kiss me on the forehead thereby bestowing on me basketball skills unrivaled in Far East. No supposedly that didn’t happen. But I did get cut from my freshmen team. Anyway, I’m still waiting Mike. You’re retired now and running a shit team, so I’ll be at the gym tonight, still missing shots but still believing.
Another memory is playing those damn Japanese teams from off-base. We played them in all sports and called the matches “Friendlies”. But what it really was, was them kicking our military brat asses. They beat us in basketball, they beat us in baseball, they beat us in soccer. And we hated that shit. Hated that shit with a passion. So, as any lazy pre-teen would do, we reconciled that they only beat us because they played year round and we were busy doing other cool stuff instead of practicing.
One game in particular sticks out in my mind. I have no idea if we won. I can only assume we lost but all I remember is running and sliding and jumping all over the place. Jumping through the air to block shots with my whole body. Heaving shots at the backboard without regard for accuracy. It was like I had rabies to beat those Japanese kids. Sweating my little Hapa butt off in those sweat pants. Foaming at the mouth. In the end I was toast but I also had the time of my life. I felt dejected but the taste of sweat and the freedom of basketball had left their impression on me. It wasn’t so much the chance of victory that intrigued me (fortunately, because that would evade me the rest of my life) but the athletic possibilities that seemed to be the heart of the game.
Those “friendlies” meant so much more to me than any games against the other military brat teams. For one, just because they were significantly more competitive but also more profoundly because they put us face to face with these kids whose country we lived in but otherwise had no understanding of. Our interactions with them were alienated at best. Beyond these games, we had no healthy chances to meet them. They gave us the middle finger when we they weren’t clothes-lining us off our bikes and we ignored their culture except when we were consuming their cartoons. It was pretty disastrous set up. A set up that is inevitable under the circumstances of a military relationship. And a relationship which has no intention of cultural competency just global hegemony.
Looking back, I think my basketball infatuation was formed partly by the pure beauty of the game, partly by the successful marketing of MJ and partly by my rivalry with kids who looked more like my mom than I did. It’s a strange relationship growing up a mixed kid in the “foreign” country of your ancestors. Especially, without a role model or a community to help navigate the contradictions. Basketball, in its infinite wisdom, helped fill in those spaces of confusion with knock down, grind out games of putting a ball thru a hoop.
If I only knew of the rich Asian American basketball legacy I was sort of, not really, a part of:
(ps- Aden, my original post for this article was: Shawn Kemp was #40.)
While the complexity of race, ethnicity, and immigration may complicate the material and symbolic meanings of Asian American basketball leagues, they also give shape to the unique histories of each ethnic group living under the flattening designation of “Asian American.” The sport also offers insight into gendered racial stereotypes imposed upon and rejected by Asian American men and women. Accordingly, a look at a media icon like Jeremy Lin, while paying careful attention to Asian American leagues at the grassroots level, provides important clues into how sport participation allows these various communities create their place in the national fabric.