Now, to be fair, until last night I hadn't blatantly got got in some time. Sure, every now and then when I play at LA Fitness someone who's never played against me won't think I'm about to hoop on him, then he gets real surprised when I can actually play. But that's about it.
I get enough basketball reps in at the gyms I play at to be a recognizable figure in a sea of unrestrained ego and testosterone. Point blank, they know I can hoop. If it sounds like I'm being cocky, well, I probably am being cocky. But it wasn't until second or third year of college that I started to get this way about basketball. And you know what? My play elevated tenfold as a result. Believing you are the best guy on that court--not wanting to believe, but in-your-blood-in-your-soul truly BELIEVING--that changes the game up forever. It's the point of no return. I started to do things I could never EVER, not in a million lifetimes, do in high school. Things like splitting the defense off a pick-and-roll, making off balance flip-in layups consistently, hitting threes in people's faces. Euro stepping! Euro stepping like a fucking G! All because I know like the earth is round that I'm the best player on the court (even when it's clear I'm not).
Of course, it's not always like that. When I'm playing against really good guys I often relinquish that swagger. Not because I'm not just as good as they are, but because I let the mote of self-doubt in even just a tiny bit. A tangible drop in emotion follows, and doubtless my play begins to suffer. All of a sudden the ceiling is feet lower from before; the opportunity to now explode for a breakout game is almost nigh. This was the plague that haunted me in my formative years. Not once in my seven years of playing organized ball did I ever say to myself, "I'm easily the best guy in this gym." Not once did I have that thought. Not once did I even think to think that thought. Instead it was always "When I get in there I just want to play great defense and not mess up on offense." What predictably followed: I became a fantastic defender, one of the best in the league, but offensively I was miserable.
I've done the complete one-eighty. Nowadays I think I'm the best guy in the gym probably nine times out of ten. Last night was one of those nine times.
NYC Urban is supposedly the best intramural basketball league in the city. There are thirty-plus different divisions, based on and separated by sex and skill level. I found the league online; there was to be a tryout for people who weren't already on a team. When I showed up to the gym at 7:00 p.m. there were about fifty other guys there.
The night was supposed to proceed like this:
1) We get split up into random teams of five. That means about ten different groups.
2) The guys in charge announce that WE--not they--are responsible for forming our own teams. (The teams we're on now won't be our intramural teams; they're just for this particular scrimmage.)
3) Two groups play half-court against each other for a couple minutes, while the sidelined groups watch. The idea is that you get to assess the other players, and start "recruiting" for your own team, based on skill level, hustle, demeanor, etc.
4) When you've formed your team, you go to the signup table to finalize registration.
From the moment the tryout started it was awkward. Super awkward. It felt like we were speed dating with shorts and sneakers; after alliances began forming, those still without a team would linger near, hoping to be recruited. It got especially awkward when guys who really sucked asked to join your team. ("Uh... ask that guy.") During the scrimmages, everyone was out to prove he was the fucking shit. This meant no passing whatsoever; just one bad shot after the other. When it was my turn to play I decided on a different route to "wow": don't even look to shoot. Just pass, screen, rebound, and be moving at all times. But when you do get the ball, showcase one or two fancy moves so everyone watching will immediately understand that you can handle the ball.
Boom. Perfect execution.
Afterward I was immediately approached by this guy I had been talking to earlier, who played in college. He asked if I had a team, and if not, did I want to join his team. It seems that busting out that one fancy dribble, for no utilitarian purpose at all, was the way to go.
Within minutes we had a core five guys on our squad. We all agreed in wanting to play in the highest division. Now it was only a matter of finding three or so other players.
"How about that tall ass dude?" One of our core five pointed to a six-sevenish guy standing idle at half court, chatting with Rick, one of the Urban guys in charge of the tryout.
"Yeah," I said. "He played just a second ago. He's good."
"Why don't you ask him if he's got a team?"
"Sure," I said, expelling a small chuckle. "I'll do it but I think you're probably better suited to recruit, you know, appearance-wise."
The unfortunate truth is that my new teammate's a six-three well-built black guy, and I'm five-ten Asian, skinny as shit. But I walked the sidelines to half-court anyway, and went right up to our six-seven prospect, interrupting the conversation he was having with Rick, the Urban guy in charge.
"Excuse me," I said. "I'm wondering if you've got a team already."
"Yeah," said the prospect.
Okay, fair enough.
Rick then interjected, pointing to another big guy currently engaged in the scrimmage. "He [the prospect] is playing with the guy in maroon."
"Okay," I said. "I was gonna see if he wanted to get on our team."
"He's playing in the highest division though," said the assuming Rick, speaking for the prospect like an overprotective agent.
I nodded my head in obvious understanding. "I figured."
"That's where the guys who are most skilled usually play at."
VRRRPPPP. Wait a minute. Wait just one second. Hold the fucking phone.
There was a split-second silence, in which time I let my appall grow and fester to the size of a hot air balloon. I knew exactly what Rick was saying subtextually. His every word in that last bit oozed of condescension. No way I'm letting that shit slide. Rick had seen me play for maybe three minutes--the overwhelming majority of that time in which I was without the ball. In other words, there was no way he could've really assessed my play. Nah. I was getting got, and getting got good. Asian while hooping.
"You don't think I can play, do you?"
The confrontational tone caught Rick off guard. "Oh," he said, an enormous pause ensuing after the word. "No, it's not that. It's just, you know, the best players play in the best division."
I laughed aloud this time. "Yes, you said that already. I understand the concept. What makes you think I'm not gonna play in the best division?"
His face betrayed that unquestionable "give me a break" look.
I repeated myself: "You don't think I can hoop."
He laughed in awkward admission.
"My team's over there," I said, pointing to my four guys standing on the other side of the court. "We'll be playing in the highest division."
"But you have to be really good--"
"I want you to watch for me this season, okay? I'm gonna fucking hoop. Look for me."
And I left.
By the night's end my team hadn't found any other quality players, so we disbanded and agreed to finish recruiting next week, when the second round of tryouts are to transpire. We talked for a tiny bit, about this, about that, about the other. But I wasn't paying much attention. My mind was still with Rick; I was obsessed with our earlier exchange. That smug, superior, condescending way he said, "That's where the guys who are most skilled usually play at."
The gym started to clear out. I changed into my street clothes, then, on my way out I passed Rick, who was now in conversation with a couple other Urban guys. I took a few more strides--then suddenly, another VRRPPPP. I put the breaks on, and without thinking I marched right up to Rick at center court.
"My name," I said to him, extending my hand forward, interrupting him in mid-speech, "is Steven. Steven Lo."
We shook hands. He began to laugh.
"Remember this face."
"STEVEN-LO," I spelled out a final time, slow and intentional, so that the name would be seered like a TV jingle into his skull. Turning my back, I began to exit, the tune of my every step accompanied by a very real, very honest swagger.
In the grand scheme of things Hooping while Asian isn't by itself worth much. "Driving while black" is a hundred times more grave, as it speaks directly to the three-branched oppression African-Americans have to endure daily: political, economical, and social. For Asian-Americans, the plight is almost exclusively social, though you could make the argument that it's political too, being that we have very little representation in U.S. government. But, as we are statistically the most successful minority group in the U.S. (link: Rise of the Tiger Nation), the viewpoint goes that we should have very little to complain about.
Still, oppression is oppression no matter how you slice it. There's a reason behind Jackie Chan's "Rush Hour" character never getting the girl at the end.
Behind a predominantly white cast in "Avatar: The Last Airbender," when clearly the main characters are supposed to be Asian.
Behind the choice to cast the white Jim Sturgess as the star of "21," a movie based on real life, on an Asian MIT student who made hundreds of thousands counting cards in Vegas.
Behind the caricaturized effiminate Asian gangster in "The Hangover."
Behind the unspeakable success of PSY's "Gagnam Style." (Read this article and it will blow your mind: PSY and the Acceptable Asian Man.)
Behind Jeremy Lin's getting passed under the radar at every level of basketball, till the stars aligned and he shone like the fucking sun.
Behind this slap-in-the-face ridiculous picture:
Meet the asexual nerd whose style is so torturously misinformed that he's still rocking his grandpa's glasses from the '80s. What the fuck? We're in the age of the bold hipster frames, and the people in charge of this ad made him wear these? I thought they're promoting Windows 8, not the throwback Windows '95.
My point to all of the above is this: the social oppression is readily apparent. You have to be blind, deaf and living in a cave not to see it. Media shapes society's perception, and in turn society shapes that same media. It is a vicious circle, perpetual and ceaseless up till now. A couple years ago I was talking with a white friend and the question came up, "If you could be any other race, which would you pick?" I asked him facetiously, full well knowing how he would respond, if he would choose Asian. His instantaneous, automatic response: "Fuck no!" And then, realizing I myself am Asian, he tried to cushion the blow: "Sorry, dude. No offense." This is society shaping his perception, shaping his society, shaping his perception again, and so on and so forth.
The key, then, to beat the zone: first, understand that the defense is playing a zone. In another word: AWARENESS. In this case, understand that your beliefs about Asian-Americans didn't spring from a vacuum; they've been informed and sculpted over and over and over again by media affecting society affecting media affecting society affecting media affecting society, ad infinitum.
Second key to beat the zone: deconstruct that motherfucker. Attack the gaps that the zone invariably produces. Which means change your strategy to fit what the defense gives you. Now that you know the other team is playing zone, stop exchanging spots with your teammates for the sake of movement. No doubt that can be effective in man-to-man, but you're best option now is to attack the gaps. Swing the ball quickly, and get it into the high post. Pull back from your stereotyping people. Think intelligently about what it means to live in a consumerist society. Deconstruct the motives that limited Jackie Chan's on-screen sexual involvement to a peck more innocent than you would give to your mother. Change your strategy, your behavior based on your newfound awareness.
That's it. That's the whole game plan.
Now go forth, ye human kinfolk, into the world. (I feel like I'm standing at the pulpit right now, preaching to the congregation.) And the next time you're guarding an Asian on the basketball court, I strongly recommend that you get in that proper defensive stance ASAP.
After all, you don't want to be the guy who gets got by an Asian, do you?
Didn't think so.
P.S. Holla at me, Rick.