By: Abe Chong
Last year, sportswriter Vincent Thomas authored a fascinating ESPN story that detailed a phenomenon called “black protectionism,” a phrased originated by criminal law professor Katheryn Russell-Brown in the aftermath of the O.J. Simpson trial. In short, black protectionism describes how the collective black community generally defends famous black people who are accused of crimes or ethical wrongdoing. Lebron James, Michael Vick and Allen Iverson are mentioned as sports-specific examples who were defended or quickly forgiven by their community.
As an ethnic minority, that’s something I can relate to. In fact, Asian-Americans kind of have our collective community reaction for Asian athletes: it’s triggered when an Asian simply is good at their professional sport. When that happens, we completely flip out and puke out a bunch of Facebook wall posts and gChat status updates. I call it “Asian adulationism.” It most definitely applied to Yao Ming.
There really aren’t enough superstar Asians in the U.S. sports world for us to idolize, so it’s a kind of a big deal here in Riceland USA when one does well. And if an Asian sports star ever did get in trouble, I’d probably make up a bunch of excuses for him too. I’m secretly hoping for it: a tatted up, D-list dating, posse’d out, bad boy Asian superstar on the front pages. It’d be like we were breaking the street cred color barrier.
Although Yao Ming wasn’t a bad boy or Asian-American, he still played in the coolest, flashiest professional sports league in the world: the NBA. Not only that, he was at one point the best center — the most physical position — in the league. I personally loved the fact that he was a giant, dorky FOB (google it or ask an Asian if you don’t know this term) who routinely dominated on national television while rocking wicked bedhead.
It’s a big blow for Team NBA Asia, a group so small that I need to bring up some of the most obscure players ever. Yao is by far the brightest star on this team, but hopefully it won’t stay that way for long. Here’s a shout out to all my other fellow yellows who made it to the NBA, because even if they were scrubs that never sniffed playing time, we still rooted for them:
Wang Zhizhi was the first Chinese player in the NBA, and he left the league with per-game averages of 4.4 points in 9.2 minutes. He was a seven-foot softie who liked to shoot threes, and the Bay Area even tried to hold Wang Zhizhi Day when he first played the Warriors as a rookie with the Dallas Mavericks. Fail. He’s probably the worst NBA player to have had his own day, but at least he hit two big shots in a playoff game for the Mavs in 2002. So there’s that.
The second Chinese NBA player, Mengke Bateer, gets a mention because of his completely awesome nickname: Dinosaur. Science has proven time and time again the awesome-ness of dinos. Unfortunately, the nickname was not created because the big man played like a thunderous lizard in the paint — it’s because he was huge and ridiculously slow. Fun fact: he’s from Mongolia, which explains his weird name, even by Asian standards.
Ha Seung-Jin holds a special place for me since he’s Korean. The 7-3 big man was even slower than Bateer, extremely clumsy and as athletic as mold. His biggest accomplishment was fighting Nenzad Sinanovic — a fellow international nobody and Blazers teammate — in practice. Oregonian columnist John Canzano goes further in detail in a 2008 interview, stating that Ha started screaming “I’ll sue! I’ll sue!” after getting clocked by Sinanovic a few times. Thanks for setting back our street cred ten years man.
Then there’s Yi Jianlian, who intrigued the Asian NBA fans because he was an athletic seven-footer who liked to dunk and actually seemed pretty hip. A 2007 article by the New York Times titled “The N.B.A and China Hope They’ve Found the Next Yao” described Yi as a young man “listening to hip hop…wearing Seven jeans and Sean John shirts and growing up playing pickup basketball…” All of which is cool except for the fact that under no circumstances can an Asian dude really pull off a Sean John shirt. Yi still really hasn’t seemed to adjust to the physicality of the NBA, or maybe he’s just not as good as hyped.
Of course Bay Area product Jeremy Lin needs to be acknowledged. Amongst Asian-Americans, Lin created the biggest stir. He’s a point guard — the coolest position in the NBA — and a fully homegrown product of ‘Merica. The Harvard kid exploded for some big games in college, and then made a stir in the summer leagues as an undrafted rookie. Lin’s Youtube clip of him going head to head against John Wall in the Vegas summer league has been immortalized by Asians around the country, spurring me to be one of the seven people in the country to pre-order his Warriors jersey.
It’s just too bad that he’s failed to capture the title of The Great Yellow Hope: The Warriors sent the hometown hero down to the D-League a few times and he’s been collecting DNP-CDs like they’re going out of style. Let’s hope he bounces back.
Last but not least, Yuta Tabuse, a 5-9 Japanese point guard, gets props simply because he’s kind of a legend for hardcore Asian fans. Described as a ball-handling wizard — one of the most badass things a player can be — Tabuse toiled endlessly on summer league teams, pre-season practice squads, and D-League teams for years. He had his moment when he made the Suns’ opening night roster in 2004 and scored seven points in his first NBA game. He now plays in Japan, but here’s to a little guy who fought the good fight.