When Jeremy Lin shot (pardon the pun) to stardom with his unexpected scoring run with the New York Knickerbockers in 2012 many aficionados of basketball were surprised that an Asian American (Lin is of Taiwanese extraction) played this sport at such a high level. While “Linsanity” did not last, it fueled important questions about the relationship between a particular community and a sport that, at least at the collegiate and professional levels, does not feature many players of this specific ethnic background. While the NBA is not overcrowded with players of Asian descent, the sport is quite popular in places like China (not without controversy, however) and elsewhere in Asia.
What roles has the game played in the lives of individuals and communities of Asian Americans in the United States? The answer to that question can be found in Joel Franks’ wonderful monograph Asian American Basketball: A Century of Sport, Community and Culture
(McFarland, 2016). The historical record of the sport in Asian American communities, on both coasts, is extensive and of great significance. The sport permitted athletes of such backgrounds with an opportunity to travel and compete against teams of other ethnic groups. More importantly, it permitted both young men and women with a chance to challenge stereotypical notions held about Asian Americans. Franks’ work takes readers from cities such as Seattle and Boston, to the camps for Japanese Americans during World War II, to the hardwoods of high schools, colleges, and yes, even the NBA.
All told, the story is similar to works such as that by Ignacio Garcia (who writes about basketball and Mexican Americans in Texas) in that it demonstrates that communities of different backgrounds have utilized “American” games in ways to claim citizenship, space, and recognition within US society. In this regard, as Frank argues, this work continues the process of democratizing US sports history. There is more to this story than the black/white dichotomy (though it is, no doubt, critical). There have been “other” athletes participating in “our” games; and using them not only for recreation, but for their own communal and social purposes. This work adds yet one more layer to the story of American sport.
Jorge Iber is a professor of history at Texas Tech University.