Sports
11:00 am
Thu March 1, 2012

Asian American Basketball Leagues About Survival

Transcript

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. Coming up, if you have elementary school or even preschool types in your house, then you might have heard his voice as Tyrone on the Nickelodeon show "The Backyardigans." But now Jordan Coleman is a teenager, and as he became aware that some teens were experiencing violence in their dating lives, he decided to make a film about it, and he's going to tell us more about it in a few minutes.

But first, because you are not living under a rock, you have no doubt heard about Linsanity. We are talking, of course, about Jeremy Lin's rise from a virtual unknown who'd been cut from two NBA teams to a star player for the New York Knicks, and that's caught the attention of many fans, but especially Asian-Americans.

But you may be surprised to know that Asian-American basketball leagues have been around for nearly a century and thousands of players participate. Here to tell us more about that is Jamilah King. She is the news editor at Colorlines.com, and she wrote a recent piece about this called "The Asian-American Basketball Leagues That Helped Create Linsanity."

Jamilah, thanks so much for joining us.

JAMILAH KING: Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: Tell us how these leagues came about.

KING: Well, these leagues began early in the 20th century, as Chinese and Japanese laborers moved to cities, especially along the West Coast. And so in cities like San Francisco, Los Angeles and also in Sacramento, you had hubs develop, and they were really meant as recreational outlets and ways to build community in very dense urban enclaves.

Some of the reasons of why basketball in particular grew is because it was cheap. So you could have one ball, you could have a basketball court that was much smaller in space than a baseball field or a football field, and up to 11 players could play at once.

MARTIN: Well, was this also kind of a way to be more American, if I can put it that way? I mean, many people, of course, know about the history of Japanese-Americans being interned at camps - I mean, Japanese nationals as well as Japanese-Americans being interned at camps during World War II and that, you know, was this one of the ways that kids both entertained themselves and also kind of got to feel like they were part of the mainstream?

KING: Well, certainly, during World War II, basketball played a huge role in just helping people get over the crushing monotony of being interned. And so you also had the concurrent phenomenon of the U.S. essentially cutting off immigration from Asian countries.

And so you did have a lot - you had generations of folks who grew up playing basketball. It was a sport that was honed in America, and that was certainly part of the identity.

MARTIN: Did you play?

KING: I did play. I played in San Francisco growing up, and San Francisco is a very strong Asian-American community. And so that's how I was - I'm a black woman, but I had several friends who played in these leagues. And so growing up, you know, you had people who played on the school teams and then, when the season was over, you had folks who also participated in Asian-American leagues.

MARTIN: So we don't know whether Jeremy Lin himself played in one of these leagues, but he did grow up on the West Coast. So he certainly had game. Right?

KING: Certainly. I mean, he was one of the best high school players in 2004. He led his high school team in Palo Alto to a state championship. So he's definitely been a talented player for many, many years.

MARTIN: One of the subjects in your article is Jamie Hagiya, and she's a former University of Southern California player and WNBA hopeful. And she got her start as a child on an Asian-American team. Are the leagues always coed?

KING: So there are several coed leagues. I think that one of the really unique things about these leagues, dating back to the early 20th century, were that women always played an instrumental role. And so they've always been a way for women to challenge traditional notions of what's feminine.

And so you had women early in the '30s and the '40s who showed that it was OK to run and jump and get sweaty and be athletic. And that sort of set this tone for women like Jamie Hagiya and several others to come years later.

MARTIN: Now, this isn't exactly - I don't know about you, but when I'm playing basketball, I don't generally discuss issues of identity and, you know, my American-ness and my inclusion into the American mainstream. But, having said that, you know, every group feels that it's pigeonholed.

KING: Right.

MARTIN: And I wonder whether this is also a way for Asian-American kids to get away from the stereotype that they're only about their grades and math and being nerds and stuff like this. Is it kind of an outlet away from all that?

KING: I think, in some ways, it is. You know, I think it's often said that, in sports, there's no room for politics. And one of the things that I think these leagues show is that it's impossible to separate the games that we play from the people who play them and the history that comes with that.

And so you have folks who play in these leagues who probably won't go on to play in the pros, but the history of sports in America isn't just about spectatorship. It's about survival.

MARTIN: Why don't we hear more about these leagues on the East Coast? Were there any such leagues on the East Coast or was this pretty much a West Coast thing?

KING: So there are leagues on the East Coast. There are leagues that exist in New York City and New York State, also. But they've really become institutions on the West Coast. They've been institutions for, you know, almost a century, and they've played really, really big roles in helping families and communities come together - folks who may not necessarily be living close to each other anymore. They may be living, you know, far out in the suburbs of Southern California, but these leagues provide a way for youths to come, and even, you know, moms and dads to come and play and, you know, really build community. You have generations of families who've played against one another and are able to build community that way.

MARTIN: Does anybody question whether these leagues should still exist? I mean, sometimes when you have institutions that are geared toward one ethnic group or another, you know, even though a lot of the times these institutions arose because these people were excluded from other outlets and other things, that some people say, well, why do you still need that? Like the HBCUs, for example, historically black colleges and universities. Every now and again, people say, well, why do you still need those? Does anybody say that about these leagues?

KING: Yeah. I think it's entered the conversation, certainly. But I think that they've become such institutions and so many athletes have participated in them over the years that there's a lot of faith in them. There is a lot of investment - emotional and otherwise - into these leagues.

MARTIN: So, Jamilah, before we let you go, as you mentioned, you grew up on the West Coast. But you're now in New York, which is ground zero for Linsanity. Having grown up with these Asian-American leagues, what do you make of all the drama, all the hazarai around Jeremy Lin and his star status exploding onto the scene? What do you make of it?

KING: You know, I think that Jeremy Lin's story is an extraordinary one. But it's not the only one. I think that there are people who played in Asian-American leagues, who played in them for decades, and they're not just basketball fans because of Jeremy Lin. Certainly, they root for him, but, you know, basketball has played a central role in Asian-American communities for many, many decades, and I think that's starting to come to the surface with his success.

MARTIN: Jamilah, you know I have to ask you: Do you have game?

KING: Of course I have game.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: OK. We'll have to test it out sometime. Jamilah King is the news editor at Colorlines.com. That's an online publication. Her recent article, "The Asian-American Basketball Leagues That Helped Create Linsanity" was featured on Colorlines, and she was with us from our studios in New York.

Jamilah, thank you.

KING: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.

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