Asian Basketball in the West

June 26, 2002 was the day when Chinese Basketball sensation Yao Ming was drafted 1st overall in the National Basketball Association (NBA) to become only the third Chinese national to ever play in the NBA. Standing at 7 foot 6 inches, Yao was already famous before he even got drafted into the NBA. I remember watching him in 2002 as the Chinese team battled against my home country, Philippines, in the 2002 Busan Asian Games a few months before he got drafted. I was wondering during that game how effective his play will be in the NBA considering he was 7’6. Gameplay wise, Yao Ming’s play was really effective in the NBA. Given his height and his rare skills for someone that tall, almost no other center could stop him. Even the legendary Shaquille O’Neal had a hard time defending him. What struck me however was the things that happened off the court. Before they played against each other, Shaquille O’Neal taunted Yao Ming with the quote “Tell Yao Ming, Ching-chong-yang-wah-ah-soh”, apparently mocking the Chinese language. Shaquille apologized afterwards saying that he apologized if anybody was offended and he was just ‘joking around’. Given that Shaquille tries to be a comedian plenty of times, a lot of people just brushed it off. Still, a lot of people were offended by this – including me. There were also several Yao Ming commercials where they were poking fun at Yao’s inability to speak English at the time (credit card commercial) and Yao’s culture (the one with the live shrimp). A lot of people also downplayed Yao’s selection to the All-Star game. They claimed that the only reason that Yao Ming was an All-Star that year was because of international voting in which Chinese fans can vote. Yao also received some comments from professional basketball analysts for being ‘soft’, similar to the Asian stereotype that Asian men are not masculine. For comparison, NBA hall of famer Kareem Abdul-Jabar who etched his name on the NBA record books with the most points in NBA history, has strikingly similar playstyle with Yao Ming while also having the tall yet lanky physical appearance, was not ever referred to as ‘soft’ because of his playstyle. This series of sequences was probably the first time I was made aware of what racism is in the modern world as a Filipino kid living in Philippines during those times. It gave me a different view of the NBA players that I admired and to some extent – worshipped. Because of this, from that point forward, I did not view the same players as the way I did before whenever I watch NBA games. During the years that Yao Ming has played in the NBA, I thought the NBA world has died down in terms of the racist comments about Yao, then Jeremy Lin comes along.

In December 2011, after an injury to the New York Knicks starting guard, the Knicks got Jeremy as a backup point guard behind three other point guards. What comes after that is what is now dubbed as ‘Linsanity’. Jeremy Lin’s scoring average was unheard of for someone who was undrafted and while being a 4th backup point guard. Analysts were comparing him to the likes of legendary players like Michael Jordan, Allen Iverson, and John Stockton. However, the rise of Jeremy Lin or ‘Linsanity’ came with comments about his race. Floyd Mayweather, a professional American boxer and soon to be in Hall of Fame, commented that Jeremy Lin would not get all this ‘hype’ if he was not Asian, implying that he was only famous because he was Asian. He added that black NBA players would not get that much attention even if they performed the same way Jeremy Lin did. Jeremy Lin’s Harvard background also further reinforced the stereotype that Asians were good at math. Whenever I go on NBA discussion forums and read about articles whenever Jeremy Lin performed, I would always see posts that will say something about Asian being good at math. Sometimes I will even see pictures of Jeremy Lin playing full of math equations photoshopped in it. It seems that a lot of people think that it was okay to do these kind of things because of Orientalism. Despite this, what Yao Ming and Jeremy Lin has brought to the United States were not just basketball skills. They further helped  the globalization of Basketball by making people recognize that Asians are able to compete in the NBA at the highest level. Time will tell on how people would react at the next ‘Linsanity’.

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