All my life I've wondered exactly how Bruce Lee, the world's greatest martial artist (at least in film), could be Asian, but there had never been a dominant, cat-quick, ninja-like point guard, akin to Allen Iverson, or Brandon Jennings--thin, wiry, yet strong and fluid, and SO quick you couldn't stop him.
As an Asian American who played a lot of basketball, and having grown up in Los Angeles--where there are pretty good Japanese-American basketball leagues--it was never clear to me why this was. Not even at the college level, although there have been more sightings of possible candidates on the courts than usual in the last few years.
In fact, the premier Asian talent in basketball is Yao Ming, then Yi Jianling, followed from afar by Sun Yue, who is the shortest of them all at 6'9". The influx of height definitely changed one of the most prevalent stereotypes about Asians--that we are short. (Even I theorized that Yao et al had been bioengineered by a selective breeding process devised by the Chinese government, something which has yet to be proven. Today I take the realistic tack that if there are 1 billion and counting individuals in China, then .001% of the population should fall into the 7 foot category.)
Aside from these tall guys though, there has not been a Bruce Lee-level talent who has made it at the highest levels of basketball.
Some will point to Rex Walters, a first round draft pick out of Kansas a few decades ago. Or even Raymond Townsend, or back in the day, Wat Misaka, the "first" Asian American in the NBA. (Check out this link to a documentary film about his life.) Heck our people are even claiming Nate Robinson's 1/8th Filipino heritage makes him the first Asian-American dunk champ.
But it's not what I'm talking about here, which is a the lack of a tradition of great NBA-caliber Asian point guards. See, PG's can be in the 6-foot to 6'5" range, and there are a lot of Asian guys who are that tall.
PG's also need discipline, skill, speed and quickness, traits that you'll see at every single martial arts tournament.
While it's believed that Asians can't jump, they are also fabled with ninja like verticals, so, what's the truth?
I summoned Rick Noji to answer this question. This is a 5'8" Japanese-American guy, growing up in Seattle, who, strangely, I remember having more than his fair share of grey hairs as a senior at Franklin High.
Back in the 1980s, Noji won not only the Washington State championship in the high jump, (once posting a 7'4" jump), but he also won the 200 meter sprint (21.2 seconds) and the long jump (23'4") in his high school career.
Later, as a professional he jumped 7'7"- which was about two feet over his head. (That's actually what your average ninja does..)
Here's his bio.
Of course, basketball needs more than simple athleticism, often requiring a focused perfectionist's ability to learn the details of the game. Hmmm. Know any Asians like that? I do, and I hate them all. They're the guys I had to compete with to get into a good school.
Reasonable to think that the gym rat requirement would be met.
Good coaching and opportunity to play?
Maybe this is the hardest part--to get a great coach to believe that an Asian player has the same talent and abilities as kids from races with more proven track records. But you know what? That's not a reasonable argument. Every coach in AAU Athletics is looking for some kid who can help his team that got overlooked by those dominant, well known teams continually crushing them by double digits.
Parents? Maybe, not encouraging their kids to play basketball at the highest levels?
Yeah. Surely there are some. Surely many Asian parents wouldn't want their kids to be involved in sports at all if they've decided that their child's path to success lies in academics. Certainly, Asian parents have been stereotyped for pressuring their child to succeed academically, with cram schools, language schools, tutors, etc.
But then there are other Asian parents who do put their kids in sports, so, consider it a small filter. Yes, Asian parents will emphasize academics over sports, particularly as a career, so the sample size is smaller.
Still, if this leaves us with 500,000 Asian kids growing up in the United States alone, whose parents put them in sports and are willing to give them the support (driving, getting them good coaching, etc.) to develop to their fullest potential, there should by now be more than one Jeremy Lin in the NBA as a spider quick point guard.
Maybe, just maybe, Asian kids aren't raised to be leaders of kids of other races, though. And a point guard has to accomplish this, every day, every play on the court.
Maybe that's why we haven't yet seen an Asian Quarterback--or president.
In fact, there are very few Asian Americans I have seen visibly leading individuals of other ethnicities. Bruce Lee, Guy Kawasaki, Dale Minami, a few senators, that governor in Washington. So, yeah, there are a few. But there should be more. For the skills, the intelligence, the discipline, and the spirit that Asians have in abundance, their placement in positions of leadership should be higher.
But the instructed humility, the discomfort with pushing an envelope, all time honored parts of the Asian heritage, as well, leaves it to envelope pushers like Lin and Lee to drag the rest of us behind them.
I hope that Lin is as much an inspiration to all of you as he is to me, who never did accomplish my goal of being that first in the line of many lightning-quick point guards of the Asian persuasion. Lin is now the talk the nation, if not the world. And rightly so, after a career-high 38 points in leading the New York Knicks past the Los Angeles Lakers 92-85 on Friday night.
I already got my son, Miles, in three basketball camps this summer.
Josh Parr is a senior human relations consultant for the multicultural community development.
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