While we were looking at some NCAA stats on student athletes for a story last week, we came across a couple of numbers that made our eyes bulge: of the 5,380 men's basketball players in Division I basketball last season, only 15 were Asian-American. Fifteen.
That's 0.2 percent of all men's players. To put that in perspective, consider that about 6 percent of the country's population is Asian-American. (We should note here that the NCAA separates out Asian-Americans from Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders in its demographic data.)
It's often presented as a given that Asian-Americans are less involved in sports than others in this country, and every few years, someone writes a column about how we might soon see a boom in Asian-American sports stars. (Take this column by Richard Lapchick on ESPN way back in 2002.)
There's an argument to be made that Asian-Americans don't need to be proportionally represented in basketball. And sure, that's legit. But there's a difference between being underrepresented and being virtually nonexistent, and it's odd that the invisibility is in basketball — our most democratic popular sport, with relatively few obvious barriers to entry. No cleats. No ice rink. No pommel horse. Just a ball and a hoop.
And while Asian-Americans are vastly underrepresented among college basketball players, they were overrepresented in other sports, like fencing:
Other sports with above average participation (greater than the U.S. Asian-American population percentage of around 6%) were squash (8.2% for men and 10.0% for women), gymnastics for men (7.0%), and rifle shooting for women (6.3%).
So again: There were 20 Asian-American men playing Division I squash in 2012, more than there were in DI hoops, even as there were only 193 men who played Division I squash in the entire U.S. I submit to you that basketball and race are the two most important concerns in American life, and with another Final Four upon us, humor me in some back-of-the-envelope theorizing.
Might the paucity of Asian ball players be chalked up to the fact that Asian people are short? That's the first thing folks might say, and if there are any biases at play, it's a bias against the diminutive.
If it were simply about height, white men — who are a smidge taller than black men, according to the CDC — might outnumber black players in the college game, or at least be close to parity. But there are twice as many black men in DI ball as there are white guys. (Alas, there were no demographic data in that study about Asian-American men.)
And let's consider some data points from Interbasket, a website for fans of international basketball. In 2011, it published a chart ranking the average heights of 20-year-old men from different countries. The list found that men in Asian countries were generally shorter — India, Vietnam, Cambodia, Indonesia and the Philippines were all at the very bottom of the list, with average heights falling between 5-foot-3 and 5-foot-4. The height of men in Asian countries doesn't tell us much about men of Asian descent in this country. But consider that Nigeria was seventh from the bottom on that list, with an average height of 5 feet 5 inches. An Interbasket user decided to rank all of the active Nigerian players playing Division I college basketball in the U.S. in 2011, from best to worst, and he came up with a list that was 116 players long.
We couldn't find out the median or average height for college basketball players, but we did find a recruiting guide for the National Collegiate Scouting Association, which links middle-school students and high-schoolers to college sports recruiters. They gave a list of the ideal attributes that coaches should look for in Division I players by basketball position. The guide suggested that point guards, usually the smallest guys on the court, should be around 6 feet tall, while centers, usually the game's Goliaths, should be around 6 feet 9 inches.
In other words, anyone who plays DI basketball is going to be something of a physical outlier. Pointing to height across big populations tells us very little.
Might there be cultural factors at play? You know, maybe Asian folks just don't like basketball. I turned to Bo Noung — who runs Asianballers.net, a site about Asian basketball players — to tease this idea out some.
Noung's family moved from Cambodia to Atlanta in the 1980s, and he grew up hooping with black kids. Even though he was only 5-foot-10, he was jumping center in high school games — he got by on a ridiculous 40-inch vertical. (I asked him if he could still get up like that. "I'll be 37 this year, but I still do my thing," he said.)
But his parents were not having it. Even though he was a straight-A student, they thought the community he was growing up in — and its black sport — was a bad influence on him.
"My mom told me not to play sports," he said. "She told me straight up: You're not playing sports, you're not playing basketball. Just focus on school."
So he hid his basketball from his parents, who eventually found out and made him quit the team. It's still a sore spot. "I play basketball to this day against my parents' wishes," he said.
Noung said that in his experience, Asian-American parents were stricter about athletics than others. And he said that in the larger culture, our racial binaries mean that Tiger Woods — one of the most famous people of Asian heritage on the planet — is viewed simply as a black guy.
When I told Noung that there were 15 Asian players in college ball last year, he seemed surprised. "That's a high number to me," he said.
But consider the fact that basketball is a central component of the culture in many Asian-American communities, particularly on the West Coast. Take, for example, the enormously influential Japanese- and Chinese-American rec leagues in California. Colorlines' Jamilah King reported on how those leagues have been central to the organization of their communities since the early 20th century.
"For people my age, fourth-generation Japanese-Americans, [basketball] is in a weird way the main cultural hub and the one commonality that most Japanese-Americans have with each other," says Tadashi Nakamura, a filmmaker.
"It's not language, it's not religion. Japanese-American basketball leagues have become such institutions that you're raised in a basketball culture. You go to your older sister or older brother's games when you're little. Sometimes even your parents have played against each other."
Nakamura continued, bringing his point home: "I actually knew almost every Japanese-American guy at UCLA my freshman year because we'd played against each other in the basketball leagues."
The social benefits of basketball are also felt in the Chinese-American leagues. Cynthia Ting is a Chinese-American basketball player who grew up just south of San Francisco. Ting says she grew up as a shy kid and had a hard time coming out of her shell. "Asian league basketball has allowed me to form some of my closest friendships," Ting says.
One person's taboo is another person's communal pastime, because, as always, a group's "cultural inclinations" tend to defy simplicity. That goes doubly for "Asian-Americans," a title used to designate millions of folks whose roots reach back to dozens of different countries.
Clearly, there are lots of folks who grow up hoop-obsessed in California's popular Asian rec leagues. So why haven't those leagues been a pipeline for DI teams? Chalk some of this up to how basketball talent is scouted and recruited. Certain school leagues and AAU teams become known as hotbeds of hoops talent, and so that's where recruiters focus their attentions. Many big-city school systems have relatively few Asian-Americans. If there are Asian-American players out there who could thrive on the DI level, they're probably not where folks typically look for basketball talent. And it's possible they're missing what's in front of them.
Somehow we got this far without mentioning Jeremy Lin.
Lin is an outlier, and one of the reasons his story is so fascinating is that it flies in the face of these explanations.
Too short? Nope. At 6 feet 3 inches tall, he has prototypical point-guard height.
Familial/cultural aversion to sports? His dad was a basketball junkie, his mom attended all of his high school games, and both of his brothers played ball.
Was he off the radar? Lin was regularly featured in his local Bay Area newspaper in high school. As a senior he was named California's co-player of the year for his division — a year in which his high school, Palo Alto High, won the state championship.
But despite that impressive resume, not one of the 351 colleges with a Division I basketball program offered him a scholarship to play ball for them. He eventually decided to play ball at Harvard, which doesn't offer athletic scholarships. (He was a standout at Harvard, but received scant pro attention and went undrafted. We all know how that turned out.)
Lin has said repeatedly that the fact that he's Asian-American did not work to his advantage after his high school or college playing days. "Well, the obvious thing in my mind is that I was Asian-American," he told 60 Minutes' Charlie Rose. "I think that was a barrier."
The NBA's then-commissioner David Stern agreed when he was asked if Lin's racial background hurt him. "I think in the true sense the answer to that is yes," Stern told Rose. "In terms of looking at somebody ... I don't know whether he was discriminated against because he was at Harvard or because he was Asian."
It's always hard to prove counterfactuals. And there have been other players who have risen from obscurity to basketball fame, like Scottie Pippin and Dennis Rodman. But if scouts couldn't envision someone with Lin's height and resume as a scholarship-level athlete, one wonders how many other potential college standouts don't pass the eye test.
We tend to think of sports as a meritocracy, as a rare space where talent will always out. But sports looks just like the rest of the world when it comes to how talent is located and groomed. Over time, informal networks become the structure of recruiting, the gateway through which everyone must pass.
So what am I missing here? Are there any other reasons Asian-Americans might be next to invisible in college hoops? If you're Asian-American and played intercollegiate college hoops at any level, we'd love to hear about your experiences.