Ball is Life: The Inferiority Complex of Asian Americans in Basketball

Ball is Life: The Inferiority Complex of Asian Americans in Basketball

by Veryl Pow

Ball is life. For most, this popular refrain echoing across hardwood floors and concrete courts across the nation connotes a particular way of life, quantified in the number of hours spent in devotion to the love of the game. Among the most impassioned, this refrain assumes the added dimension of practicing until one’s breaking point, and then sweating and bleeding beyond that point, just for a shot to one day get paid for this love. For Asian Americans who repeat this chorus, though, merely acknowledging their obsession, self-definition, and self-expression through the game fails to capture the game’s construction along social, political, and racial lines. That is, if ball is life is existential for ballers of all colors, Asian American ballers exist in and experience the game through a racialized prism in which their lack of athleticism, ability, skill, and basketball IQ have been predetermined under the Model Minority construct. The model minority is something that myself and many other people of color have encountered. It is a racial stereotype, when viewed structurally, which forces Asians to perform a certain identity in exchange for a privileged status under white supremacy vis-a-vis other people of color. Thus, characteristics of a Model Minority, such as unathleticism and docility, go hand-in-hand with the notion of a ‘good’ law-abiding minority who pulls oneself up by the bootstraps, not by “naturally endowed” physical talent, but through an obedient and complacent existence. Playing basketball is not simply a matter of competing at a sport; playing basketball is about competing against the racist social constructions of unathleticism and docility/lack of toughness on the one hand, and in turn, the internalized notions of inferiority and self-doubt on the other. Being victorious, then, cannot be measured by any number of wins or points one scores, but by the gaining of self-confidence, mental strength, and discovery of one’s worth despite these constructions constantly pulling one down.

“The Asian American pick-up basketball experience goes something like this. I am picked last. My teammates complain to the opposing team that they are effectively playing 4 on 5 whenever the opponent scores. My teammates refuse to pass to me. On the rare occasions I do happen to have the ball, my teammates insist that I instantly pass them the rock instead of dribbling or shooting.”

Whenever I travel or relocate, one of the ways I familiarize myself and experience a new city and its people is through playing pick-up basketball at a local gym or outdoor court. Although conversations with local ballers reflect a parochial dialect, the perception of ballers towards me is a constant from city to city. Upon my asking to join a game, there is immediate suspicion, at times sprinkled with a few chuckles, followed by a genuine look of perplexity as the locals struggle for the right words to exclude my participation. “Oh, we’re waiting for our friends to come.” Oh, so can I play with y’all until they get here? “Nah man, we’re good.” I’m trying to run with y’all right now. “We’re teammates and practicing for our upcoming game.” I can play within your system and be a hard working practice player. This verbal dance usually lasts anywhere between an uncomfortable thirty seconds to two minutes, until my resolve forces them to abandon their passive aggression for a more direct approach (“No. We’re trying to win.” – implying that I’m the loser and unfit to play) or until they give in to my demand (in which case they amp up their machismo and physicality in hopes to dissuade me from playing a subsequent game). This pleasant pre-game routine foreshadows the truly satisfying in-game experience that follows…every single time.

The Asian American pick-up basketball experience goes something like this. I am picked last. My teammates complain to the opposing team that they are effectively playing 4 on 5 whenever the opponent scores. My teammates refuse to pass to me. On the rare occasions I do happen to have the ball, my teammates insist that I instantly pass them the rock instead of dribbling or shooting. When I make a smart basket cut to facilitate offball movement in our offense, my teammate with the ball complains that I’m clogging up the driving lane. When I get outrebounded or scored on, I’m reminded that I’m worthless. When I miss a shot, my teammates yell that I shouldn’t be shooting in the first place. When I commit a mistake or turn the ball over, my teammates give me dirty looks and don’t transition back on defense and allow the opponent to score, as if to remind the opponent that they are winning because I’m the liability. My defender sags off, gives me space, and dares me to shoot, because I won’t be able to make the shot. When I do make a basket, I’m lucky, and still unfit to receive passes from my teammates. The in-game experience is like the Kobayashi Maru, a no-win situation even if I make all the right moves. On days where my play successfully shatters and transcends preconceived notions of my ability, it never carries over to the ‘next time,’ when unfamiliar faces emerge to re-acclimatize me with my inadequacy.

Because pick-up basketball is a game played with different strangers each time, it’s unsurprising that so few Asian Americans consistently turn out to play. The renewed feeling of Kobayashi Maru each time one wants to play takes a very real stressful, demoralizing, and emotional toll. Thus, Asian Americans who enjoy basketball tend to shy away from a true pick-up basketball experience, instead opting to play amongst Asian American friends. The problem with self-selective segregation is that it reproduces the Model Minority construct, outwardly conveying that Asian Americans lack the physiological and mental capacity to compete with ‘real’ (black and white) ballers–that Asian Americans only play basketball as a casual, social experience and never as a serious, ball is life lifestyle. Compounding this problem is that most Asian Americans who fall in this category do play basketball as a casual experience, such that the level of competition and effort is visibly different from that of ‘true’ pick-up games running concurrently on adjacent courts. For Asian American ballers who wish to improve their game, the self-selective segregated in-house ballgame cannot and does not accomplish this goal, cyclically reinforcing the obscurity of those Asian American ballers.

The converse is invariably true: the minority of Asian American ballers who opt for a true pick-up basketball experience are the bravest, toughest, and smartest players on the court. They understand that every time they play the game, they are playing against themselves, their teammates, and their opponents. They must tell themselves, I’m as good as the next guy; this is exactly where I belong, and they must play like they truly believe it.Others pick up on the slightest inkling of self-doubt because inferiority is the norm and the expectation. They learn to tune out the insults and disrespectful behaviors of others, and they use that hatred to self-motivate and elevate their own level of play. They learn to reflect on their weaknesses after every game and work diligently to eliminate those weaknesses, because those areas are not perceived as isolated weaknesses (like it would for other players), but scrutinized as evidence for their total incapacity to play the game altogether. For the few Asian American ballers who stick it out, the reward is unparalleled. In the process of improving their game, they learn to control their body movements, act with deliberation and purpose, and read and exploit their opponents’ tendencies – they otherwise approach the game with superior intelligence.

Ball is life is a political statement against the Model Minority construct.”

I surprise a lot of players with my game nowadays. I often receive compliments as a ‘good’ player and for my style of play. People generally want to play with me. What these players don’t know is that I started balling at the age of 22. While this late start may have foreclosed a lot of opportunities in terms of playing organized basketball, it has given me an unparalleled understanding of, deep connection to, and mastery over my body and mind. Every time I heard opponents yell that I can’t “go left” (that I can’t dribble with my left hand or finish a left-handed layup), I was pushed to develop my left-hand. Every time I couldn’t drive past an athletic defender, I was impelled to read my defender’s body positioning, and develop a set of reactions with my footwork to exploit their superior athleticism or wingspan. Every time I was blocked, I was forced to train my body to perform a Euro-step, jump stop, or double-clutch layup. Every time my team blamed me for a loss, I was compelled to develop my court vision, anticipate the movements of my teammates, and time my pass to lead to an easy scoring opportunity. Basketball has made me incredibly intelligent and sharp because playing with brains and purpose equalizes the playing field when against superior athletes.

Whereas the vast majority of older players complain about losing their athleticism, I have only uncovered my untapped athleticism; my body constantly surprises my mind with new moves and ever-increasing explosiveness. Moreover, my engagement with basketball has given me the focus, perseverance, and self-confidence to embrace any challenge. Finally, as an Asian American who has and still constantly experiences both blatant acts of racism and microaggressions, the game offers the most effective therapy for confronting racism: instead of talking it out with a therapist and passively reenacting previous racist instances, I can proactively and productively liberate myself from the chains of the past by acting against the aforementioned stereotypes held by players on the court in the here and now. In so doing, I am not only equipped with a tool for moving past historical pains—I am equipped with a state of mind that will prepare me for inevitable acts of racism in the future. 

The next time you hear an Asian American baller say ball is life at a basketball court, understand that its meaning entails all that it traditionally is and so much more. Because the game occurs within the bounds of a racialized society, an Asian American’s participation in the game cannot be apolitical or race-neutral. Ball is life is a political statement against the Model Minority construct. It’s a testament to the personal commitment an Asian American makes towards breaking boundaries and to the arduous process such a commitment demands. Yeah, ball is life.