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The first Asian American in the NBA...?

  • Blog Post by: Bao Phi
  • July 21, 2010 - 4:05 PM

 

 

Apologies for not maintaining this blog. This summer has been unexpectedly busy, and the full-time job along with family responsibilities have made it challenging to find the time. Especially given the tremendously important things going on in the world today – I’m not a quick writer, and it’s hard to write about these world events with the type of depth and care that they deserve. Trust me, and I will trust you, in that we are all reading, and thinking, and doing, to the best of our ability.
 
One thing I’ve been thinking about is basketball. I am a fair-weather basketball fan, playing pick-up games in my driveway in Phillips with friends, then at the local Y, then at my senior year lock-in, then on a very hot black top in the Saigon sun when I was there studying abroad in the mid-90’s. No, I was never really good, but I enjoyed playing. I’ve lived in Minneapolis all my life, so I remember when the ‘Wolves were formed, how it was big news that we got Stacey King from the Bulls, then came J.R. Rider – and then this young phenomenon named Kevin Garnett. The first NBA game I saw outside of a television was when Yao and the Rockets came to Target Center. I’ve always wanted to see more Asians be successful in all walks of life.
 
Recently I’ve been reading about this young up-and-coming star, Jeremy Lin. The young phenom guard from Harvard broke all types of records while he was there, and is hoping to play in the NBA. I’ve watched videos of him in awe, and followed his games with great interest. Sure, he’s not LeBron or KG, but then again neither are you. Jeremy Lin got skills.
 
At this point we could also make all types of jokes about Asian Americans and Harvard – but for real, who would have thought an Asian American would make a name for himself there through basketball?
 
As talk nears that he may in fact sign a contract with an NBA team, I’ve read more and more about him in the press. But one thing troubles me: the vast majority of journalists and bloggers are saying he’d be the first Asian born in America to play in the NBA. They’re incorrect: the first Asian American to play in the NBA was Wat Misaka – in 1947. And not only was he the first Asian American, he was the first person of color to play in the NBA.
 
This is especially perplexing since it’s not exactly a secret. There’s an independent film made about Mr. Misaka, and a story about him being a first round draft pick for the Knicks was printed in the New York Times last year.
 
Unfortunately, there seems to be a blind spot regarding Asian American trailblazers in pop culture. For instance, Ang Lee became the first person of color to win the Best Director Oscar for Brokeback Mountain. Hung Huynh was the first person of color to win Top Chef – this oversight might be more understandable if it weren’t for the fact that journalists touted the next year’s winner, Stephanie Izard, as the first woman to win.

This should go without saying, but just in case: I’m not saying Asian Americans need to compete with African Americans and/or white women regarding attention, our place in pop culture, or even hierarchies of oppression, of which I don’t believe in.

I do think that the lack of attention for Asian American trailblazers like Mr. Misaka, as well as Ang Lee and Hung Huynh and other Asian American women and men, go beyond mere oversight. There seems to be a belief, conscious and subconscious, internal and external, that Asian Americans don’t have any oppressions to overcome in order to be successful. It’s just one aspect of that old model minority stereotype: it’s assumed Asians don’t face racism, when the sad fact is, we do. Historically, and presently.   So of course it’s no big deal if a Japanese American was the first person of color to play in the NBA, though at the time the terrible mass internment of Japanese Americans was just ending. Of course no one cares about Ang Lee, though he won the top prize in an industry that is notoriously insensitive and racist to Asian Americans. 

And sadly, many of us internalize such ideas. I’ve met plenty of fellow Asians who don’t believe racism exists, even when it smacks them in the face. 
 
Those who would decry such claims as playing the race card are missing the point. These pioneers were successful despite racism – that’s an empowering story. But that is exactly why we should not  use their success to dismiss and cover up the unfortunate legacy of racism that Asian Americans have faced and still face.
 
In any case, here’s hoping that Asian Americans move forward into the historical consciousness as a people, in all of our complexity and contradiction. Here’s to hoping Jeremy Lin can fulfill his dreams of playing in the NBA, so that we Asian Americans can see someone like us just do it.

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