Friday, August 18, 2017

Disrupting The Old Boy Network at Collins Court: Lessons of Survival by Intersectional Bodies

With a few of the regulars of the old boy network

Every Tuesday and Thursday morning at approximately 10:30 A.M., members of an old boy network congregate for an exclusive pick up game at Collins Court, UCLA's indoor basketball gym. Though many community and student bystanders attempt to join this game, they are all unequivocally denied access. Exclusivity means what it sounds - and in this case, the boundaries are sharply drawn to parallel social markers of success and belonging.

Two categories of participants play in this game. The first category comprises of mostly white, older-aged men who have reached the upper echelon of meritorious success - current and former faculty members at UCLA (one of whom has been playing at Collins Court for 45 years!), retired senior partners in big law, and former upper-level corporate administrators. The second category comprises of mostly black, young and middle-aged basketball "talent" - an imposing center who uses his size to dominate the paint, shoot-first guards who are training for the G League (formerly known as the NBA Development League), and long-range specialists who routinely make NBA-ranged three-pointers. The constitution of this Collins Court vanguard by black and white men directly reifies stereotypical constructions of entitlement and racial meaning in American society, while simultaneously reinforces barriers that prevent nonconforming racial and gender identities from participation.

Amidst this context, Binny and I have accomplished no small feat. Against all odds, we have made it and have been participating for the greater part of a year in this old boy network. It's not just that the network opened its doors to include just any East Asian man or any woman, which would have resembled a traditional affirmative action plan designed to admit "the most qualified" and "assimilationist" among minorities.  Instead, far from being token representatives of "qualified" or conforming minorities, Binny and I live out our experiences on the court as complex, intersectional bodies. As a result, the microaggressions and oppressions we face on the court are unique from what other East Asian men and other women face respectively.

Intersectional Identities

Jeremy Lin's breakthrough in the NBA simultaneously ruptures the rigid black-white boundary but paradoxically essentializes East Asian male identity in basketball. East Asian men who routinely join in high-level, interracial pick-up games at Collins Court are "masculine" in appearance and personality: physically strong, athletically built like football players, and arrogant. I, an East Asian, glasses-wearing man with a slender build, am regularly perceived by other men - especially other ASIAN men - to be non-gender conforming on the basketball court, so much so that I have been explicitly called "gay" or denied participation from pick up games implicitly because of my appearance. In other words, I am NOT raced East Asian on the basketball court, and because my presence queers a formulaic understanding of racial identity, I do not belong on the hardwood floor.

Unlike the droves of East Asian men who play ball at Collins Court - imperfectly resembling the high numbers of Asian students admitted into UCLA each year - women are, in general, grossly underrepresented, and, at any given session, not represented at all. Thus, on one level, Binny experiences the sex discrimination of any other woman who courageously sets foot on Collins Court: getting picked last or not picked at all, not receiving any passes from teammates, or being subject to explicit comments on the basis of sex (she's just a girl, how can you let her score on you!). As South Asian, Binny further experiences uniquely racialized sexual harassment from men who act differently towards other women - including raging men angrily telling her who the fuck do you think you are?, men explicitly asking her to come over to Netflix and chill, and South Asian men patronizingly patting her on the head.

Because neither of us neatly fall into one single compartmental social identity, our inclusion in the old boy network is aesthetically peculiar but politically significant. Externally, our presence at the exclusion of other black and white men on the one hand, or more qualified, conforming Asians or women on the other, disrupts rigid categories designed to police the game of basketball. It signals to other higher credentialed, envious bystanders who wish to participate in this exclusive game that it is precisely because of our intersectional identities, and the accompanying unique struggles we face, that Binny and I DO belong and that we CAN compete anywhere. Internally, participating in this exclusive game has allowed us to tremendously grow as human beings, recognize our limitless drive and self-worth, and discover our capacity to change how others perceive us.

The Lessons We Carry for Life

If, through the world-class instruction at UCLA, Binny and I learned book smarts (and it's debatable that law school taught me even this), Collins Court instilled street smarts - lessons of survival and success that we will carry on for life. For me, these lessons have been brought into sharp focus through participation in the biweekly exclusive games with the old boy network.

If my journey into basketball could be reduced to one single mantra, it would be this: When life presents you an opportunity, seize it. Years ago, without having any prior knowledge of even the most basic rules of basketball, when I was offered a job coaching the freshman-sophomore team at a major high school in Seattle, I ignored my fear of the unknown and said yes. That simple answer would propel my life from the mediocrity of the familiar to a life of ambition and adventure. In analogous fashion, my invitation to participate in the exclusive game came on a whim: one Tuesday morning at Collins Court, I invited a middle-aged black man, Virgil, to a game of half-court basketball, to which he enthusiastically accepted. Unbeknownst to me, Virgil was a member of the old boy network. As other regulars of the network trickled onto Collins Court later that morning, Virgil introduced me to them and asked me to stay. Having been rejected in successive weeks before by the same members to whom I was now being introduced, I cast aside my fear of inadequacy and said yes. In the eight or so months since I've joined the exclusive game, Virgil has not once reappeared. Had I not seized the opportunity then, I would have still been standing on the sidelines dreaming of a way to get in.

The initial months of playing in the exclusive game were among the most mentally challenging basketball sessions of my short basketball playing career, which, up to that point, had mostly consisted of pick-up games highlighted by a handful of appearances in UCLA intramural and Los Angeles lawyer leagues. The challenges came in two ways. First, the stereotypical constructions of Asian American identity were amplified because I was the only Asian American man in the old boy network. Second, the exclusivity of the game guaranteed a unique form of team basketball to which I had not been accustomed. The haphazard style of pick-up or amateur league games was replaced by a rhythmic sensibility in which every ball and offball movement carried specific meaning. The mix between the two ostensibly clashing categories of regular members - older white men who tended to be methodical on the one hand, and younger black men who tended to be quick and athletic on the other - created a uniquely competitive, hybrid game where individual skills synergistically complimented a team's composition. For the first time, I was forced to play within a system, and if I could not adapt, I would be constructively pushed out of the old boy network.

With Virgil nowhere in sight to advocate for my participation in subsequent weeks, intimidation to constructively evict me began immediately. During these initial months, I was constantly yelled at by a majority of regulars of the old boy network. Some of the ridicule was a familiar refrain from the ordinary racialized insults I experienced in pick-up games: we lost because of him (it took a few months before members referred to me by name). Yet, the majority of condescending remarks made to me - even if they were made because of my race - contained invaluable insights that ultimately facilitated my development into a smarter and better basketball player. Comments like you are not the first, second, or even third scoring option on our team. You should not be taking the final shot! made me acutely aware of my team's composition and how, as a guard, I would be most effective by anticipating where my teammates are on the floor. Similarly, comments ordering me to basket cut instead of standing around for a shot have made me much more difficult to defend and aware of proper spacing within a free-flowing motion offense. Through listening to the content of berating remarks, instead of dwelling on the emotion behind them, I have come to appreciate the value of education from the unlikeliest of sources. This lesson restated is profoundly anti-identity politics because it recognizes that anyone, regardless of social power, might impart wisdom and knowledge so long as I remain open to receiving it.

Once I respected the process, and developed as a team player who picked his spots wisely, I noticed that my biggest critics began to reward me during games, and respect and compliment me after games. When I sprinted down the floor and correctly filled the lane as had been instructed, I would now be the frequent recipient of cross-court and fast-break passes that resulted in easy lay-ups. Similarly, after being yelled at for weeks by a center, I finally ingrained a basket cut after passing into the post every time I played on his team. This now led to the center frequently rewarding me with a return pass for an easy backdoor lay-up. Because I looked for my teammates more than creating my own shot, my teammates increasingly entrusted me with ballhandling responsibilities. The respect that my critics have shown me over time has given me the confidence in my capacity to change how others perceive me. Moreover, while I have incorporated a baseline level of rules from their game, I have recognized my agency to introduce my own creativity into the process, routinely integrating step-back jumpers and strong finishes to the basket, thereby enhancing the game while still retaining their respect. Cumulatively, the synthesis between my respect for their rules and the addition of my individual style has very visibly challenged their stereotypes of the unathletic, docile Asian American, as I am no longer target of their condescension. Additionally, because I do not conform to the essentialized East Asian male identity on the basketball court, winning the respect of members of the old boy network arguably exposes the very futility of racial categories and invites the possibility for more intersectional bodies to participate - both in the exclusive game, and in other high-level, interracial pick-up games.

The greatest life lesson that I learned from participating in the exclusive game is to never succumb to the victim mentality. I may not be able to escape the omnipresent social dynamics pervading the court, but I sure as hell don't need to fall prey to them. Had I allowed myself to fall victim to abstract structural analysis, I would have robbed myself of the unspeakable pleasure I derive from the act of playing basketball, and the aforementioned growth I have achieved as a player and a human being.

Finally, though I ultimately discovered my inner strength, it is doubtless that love and solidarity allowed me to persevere through the most difficult challenges presented by the old boy network. During those initial months, I frequently sat down on the baseline following a game feeling depressed from the chorus of insults I received from members of both teams. The loss of confidence transferred over to other aspects of life, silencing me and increasing my vulnerability in ordinary interactions and classroom discussions. These feelings were often accompanied by larger existential questions: if basketball is no longer enjoyable, what am I doing at UCLA? (Somehow I had tricked my mind into thinking that law school was only secondary, and that ball, quite literally, is life). The genuine love and solidarity I shared with Binny, over sweat, blood, and waterworks - as we collectively vented our frustrations, strategized, and overcame these challenges - has made this experience in the old boy network endurable, and in the end, the most remarkable accomplishment of my past three years at UCLA.

Monday, April 18, 2016

The Women of Collins Court: Patriarchy and Racism in UCLA Pick-Up Basketball

I envy those who can so easily put on for their city. I am always hesitant to answer the question, where are you from?, mostly because home has always been about people, not places. Last summer, New Orleans changed this calculus. The warmth, hospitality, and laid back personality of locals; the rich, vibrant music and Mardi Gras Indian culture rooted in solidarity and struggle; the unrestrained freedom to celebrate and express oneself - all felt like home. It was as if the entire city, much like a close friend, embraced me for who I was, replete with imperfections.

As much as I enjoyed improvising my leisure time in the spirit of New Orleans jazz, the thing I miss the most about New Orleans was the one regular activity built into my daily schedule: basketball at Loyola University. Each day, I scrimmaged with the Loyola University Women's Basketball team, which had just ended the 2014-15 season with an impressive 27-4 regular season record and its first ever Southern States Athletic Conference (SSAC) Championship title. I became acclimated with Loyola's outgoing point guard Janeica Neely, as I was always matched up against her. Unbeknownst to me then, she came off a strong season averaging 19.1 points per game and was named MVP of the SSAC Championships. At 5'5", she is one of the few players I've ever guarded where I have a height advantage, albeit ever so slightly. I'll always remember two things about her game because these were exceptional moments in my life when I felt completely powerless to stop another individual taking advantage of me. First, each time she brought the ball down court, she executed a hesitation move, which momentarily froze me, and then proceeded to cross me over and go straight to the net. Alternatively, if she didn't blow by me after a hesitation move, she broke me down with an impeccable step back jump shot that always went in. Whenever I decided to counter her step back by leaving my feet to block her shot, she would anticipate my anticipation of her, manage to retain her live dribble after stepping back, and explode past me for a floater or lay up while I was still mid-air. I think I developed my habit of saying fuck my life - which I'm told I say quite often now during basketball - from these two maneuvers of Janeica alone.


Collins Court, UCLA's indoor basketball gym, houses only three full courts to service a student population of over 40,000. As such, from mid-afternoon until closing, pick up games tend to get rough, competitive, and occasionally violent, as teams play to win in order to remain on the court. During these busy stretches, losing teams might wait upwards of two hours for an opportunity to play another game. In this climate where victory is the sole measurement of success, gender constructions of women as soft, gentle, weak, slow, unathletic, and unintelligent are deployed to effectively exclude women from participation. Moreover, the rampant misogynistic practice of men verbally demasculating other men further constitutes Collins Court as a male-oriented space. Unsurprisingly, I have gone for days at a time without seeing a single woman playing basketball.  Far from being an exhaustive list, this post, then, begins to recognize and celebrate the handful of UCLA women who choose to live defiantly and fight against the overwhelming gendered and racist mechanisms operating against them at Collins Court.

I am reminded of Janeica's fierce competitive spirit in Rachel, an undergraduate at UCLA who lives on the hardwood floor. Due to the confluence of race (East Asian), sex (woman), height (5'5"), and size (she's tiny), she appears physically unintimidating and seemingly out-of-place. To the extent that I face racist social constructions of unathleticism due to the Model Minority stereotype, she faces additional barriers arising from race and gender (Asian women are docile, subservient, unassertive). When I first started noticing her around the court earlier this year, no one wanted to play with her. That she has since found a way to compete with all levels of competition has been nothing short of her perseverance and sheer will to succeed, despite the external pressures against her. Rachel plays with a genuine intensity that so few players in pick up basketball possess. Even with a shorter wingspan, defensively, she plays with active hands and gets a remarkable number of steals and tips. When she steals the ball, whereas many other amateurs would slow things down in fear of mishandling the ball or getting blocked by a recovering defender, she's fearless in pushing the ball forward and scoring off the break. Over the past few months, she's transformed from being a spot up shooter on the perimeter (she is an assassin from three-point range) to developing confidence in taking the ball into the teeth of the defense for a higher percentage shot, or, when contested, making a smart play for others. Her growth in observable toughness and skill is a personal reminder that there is immense power in resisting a victim mentality.

I can't say enough about Binny, a deadly mid-range jump shooter who has bailed me out so many times whenever I have a rough game. Her basketball instincts developed out of the necessity to make each shot attempt count, lest she be invisiblized or verbally discredited by her male teammates on the basketball court. Thus, her offensive game is very clean and her every movement is calculated. Unlike most players who selfishly dominate the ball and thereby stagnate their team's offense, Binny makes quick swing passes to her open teammate and routinely facilitates scoring for her team. She also moves extremely intelligently without the ball to position herself both within the passing vision of the ballhandler and where her shot is most likely to go in. When I drive north-south into the teeth of the defense, she always rotates to my east-west to an open mid-range spot where she knows - and where I too now know - that her shot will go in. Moreover, like Steph Curry, she has the quickest shot release I've yet seen at UCLA. I can specifically recall a few instances when she proved me wrong by scoring from shots that I thought would have been blocked had she had a split second slower shot release. She is deeply analytical and extremely hard on herself when she has a bad game - two sentiments that have helped her survive and compete in a sport that fails to recognize the worth of South Asian women. Her drive to reflect and train on her weaknesses, both in basketball as in life, inspires me to do the same.

The person who has taught me most about playing ball is Katelyn, a former forward for Occidental College. At 6'1", her ability to shoot beyond the arc allows her to spread the floor well. We've developed a nice pick and roll dynamic, which has expanded my game and made me a more intelligent player because I am forced to make quick decisions based on reading our two defenders. Her versatility in scoring allows her to either pop for a shot or roll to the net with equally high efficiency. She is an incredibly intelligent player and understands positioning very well. When her defender camps in the paint, she'll make him pay by spotting up for an open three-point shot. As the defender adjusts to contest the three-point shot, she'll quickly basket cut, receive the pass, and finish strong at the rim. A former coach herself, she has scrutinized and worked with me on my individual game, from the fundamentals of squaring up to shoot, to looking ahead to pass while starting a break. She has chewed me up for shooting terrible shots, and as a result, I have become a more selfless and balanced offensive player. More than anyone else, because of her attention to detail and her relentless criticism towards me, I have become a more intentional, smarter, and better all-around basketball player.

Finally, there's CarCar, an absolute scoring machine and one of my favorite teammates to have because she plays the full duration of the game on both ends of the floor. She has taught me, through her personal example, that every second on the floor is valuable and that defensive intensity is as significant as offensive possessions. Cara is an efficient jump shooter from any range, and like Katniss, when she catches fire, her shots will be automatic for the game. As great a shooter as she is, she's even deadlier in the post. She epitomizes patience and intelligence when she posts up. She has a brilliant grasp of footwork fundamentals and executes the pump fake to perfection. She'll comfortably play her back to the basket, get her defender to bite on a pump fake, and go under the defender for a finish. She is living proof that intelligence and poise is routinely a deadlier combination than speed and strength. She is one of the few amateur athletes who is an absolute joy to watch play as it is to play with her, because she'll kick ass even if she is ostensibly outmatched.

I am so remarkably inspired by the personal resolve, mental toughness, and training regimen that each of these women undertake to actively challenge internalized and externalized patriarchy and, for a few on this list, patriarchy compounded with racism. Their act of showing up to the gendered and racialized space of Collins Court, let alone demanding to play, is courageous, bold, and trailblazing. That they not only show up to play, but put it all out on the floor when they do, demands utmost respect and commendation, given a setting where most men play haphazardly, unintentionally, brutishly, and selfishly. That is all to say that as these women actively break down the contours of acceptability, they simultaneously elevate the game of basketball.

Sunday, July 26, 2015

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

Image from
Ball is life. For most, this popular refrain echoed 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. 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.

Whenever I travel or relocate, one of the ways I familiarize 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 say 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 will never carry over to the ‘next time,’ when unfamiliar faces emerge to reacclimatize me with my inadequacy.

Because pick-up basketball is a game played with different strangers each time, it’s unsurprising so few Asian Americans consistently turn out to play. The renewed feeling of Kobayashi Maru each time one wants to play basketball 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, because 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 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 weaknesses are not perceived as isolated areas of 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.

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 would hear opponents yell aloud 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 would get blocked, I was forced to develop my athleticism through training my body to perform a Euro-step, jump stop, or double-clutch layup. Every time my team would blame me for a loss, I was compelled to develop my court vision and anticipate the movements of my teammates, such that I would time my pass to lead to an easy scoring opportunity. Basketball has made me incredibly intelligent and sharp, because playing with brains and purpose equalize 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 – and 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, but more powerfully, 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, but 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, 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.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

The Essence of Basketball

Something special happens inside our gym. Only those privileged to be a part of our program sense it, and among them, even fewer grasp its essence. Every game night, most opponents and their respective coaches misunderstand what occurs during the course of the game. They think it's about basketball. Accordingly, they play or coach a game. Similarly, parents from both sides pay admission to watch the fruit of their loins ripen into athletes competing in a physical game. Eager for their child's success, quantified by the stats line, they yell for their child to TAKE THE SHOT, SON! and then berate myself or someone from our coaching staff for benching their child for, coincidentally I'm sure, following parental directive in taking the shot. Our players who take that shot are those who fail to grasp the essence behind that special something that occurs inside our gym.

Coaches aren't necessarily immune to this sort of thinking or rather, misunderstanding--this fetishism over a game. Back when it all began for me, three years ago, I thought that I had signed up to coach the game of basketball. Everything and everyone around me suggested that this was so. As one loss stretched to two, three, four, five losses in a row, my players questioned my knowledge of the game. Why do we only have one offense? Once their questions couldn't be answered convincingly, the questioning turned into advising. Against an even-front zone, we can't run this offense. Five games into the young season, I didn't even know what an even-front zone meant, and here my players were telling me, their joke of a coach, that I needed to know the game before I could teach it. Unsurprisingly, none of my players respected me as a coach (certainly, none of them referred to me as such), and my physical image, especially then, didn't help my case either. Their coach looked like and approached the game as a stereotypical Model Minority would. To their credit, they stuck with me, though I suppose the alternative would have been worse for them. Better to have a token coach then none at all, if only so that we can complete our abysmal season.

Other coaches in our program questioned the head coach for hiring me. I was, in all matters with respect to the game, substantially worse than the previous coach whom I replaced who, despite his college-level playing experience with the game, just couldn't get it done as a coach. He had, I'm told, something like two wins that entire previous season. Consequently, the remaining assistant coaches believed that the new hire should, to the benefit of our program, have even more knowledge and experience with the game. These coaches made my first year more difficult than it already was. Maybe it was their way to encourage me to resign after the season, but doing so reinforced my players' disrespect towards me. Whenever an assistant attended my practices, he took over, ignored or overruled my suggestions, and taught the game with unflinching confidence and authority that made me seem, next to him, invisible. He would constantly make it known to me that I'd have to step up my knowledge of the game, somehow some way, giving me glib remarks like This stuff is simple. When you see it, you'll understand it rather than taking his time to slowly break down a drill or play beforehand for my comprehension.

Parents of my players, though, took it to a whole new level. Unsatisfied with me feeling like I was in purgatory, they crucified me and brought me hell for my inability to coach the game of basketball. After about the eighth or ninth loss of the season, in an away game against Mercer Island in which we were slaughtered by at least thirty, a mother decided that she had enough of me coaching her son and refused to allow her son to ride home on the team bus so long as I, in her words, could not figure out how to counter the opposing team's strategy. (MI exclusively ran a 1-3-1 zone defense, a defense that I had never encountered before). Citing my lack of knowledge of the game as evidence, she attempted to get me fired through the school administration and, when she couldn't, rallied other parents to heckle me at home games to make sure that each loss my team incurred would doubly sting for me.

Much to her and other parents' chagrin, instead of quitting, I acknowledged my ignorance of the game and was determined to learn, understand, and begin mastery over basketball that following summer. Accordingly, I ravenously devoured from the buffet of coaching manuals and DVDs, Youtube practice footage from various high school and college programs, varsity practices, game film, and televised games- basically anything and everything I could get my hands on. The more basketball I indulged, the more the game slowed down for me and the faster I could react to any given situation. The more I saw the X's and O's from other resources, the more confidence I gained towards drawing my own plays. And to everyone's surprise, I came back the following season looking more like a knowledgeable basketball coach and less a seasonal baby sitter.

All the pressures around me convinced me that understanding the game of basketball would result in victories and that victories were, for a coach and his program, the most important thing about basketball. The thing was, though we won a few more games in my second and third season, the margin of win totals was not a marked improvement from year one and certainly did not parallel the significant amount of knowledge of the game that I gained from year to year. So, in the weeks preceding the spring and summer seasons of my third year, I reflected on my current approach to coaching and why supreme self-confidence in my knowledge of the game did not translate into drastically greater amount of victories for our team.

And then it hit me. An overwhelming majority of my pre-game, post-game, post-practice speeches were about basketball. Sure I'd throw in an anecdote with a lesson about seizing the opportunity or playing hard, but they had never been the focal points of my teachings. They were merely motivational speeches designed to hype my players up to win the game. Other times, instead of personal stories, I would color my speeches with metaphors and humor towards the same end of achieving victory. We're gonna fucking press them today, and I don't want a half-assed press, but we're gonna instill fucking fear every time they touch the ball. When they inbound the ball, I want Matt to fucking harass him like Freddy Kreuger, and then James will fucking rush him from behind like he's Jason. They won't be entering a basketball game, they will be entering our slaughterhouse. Your hands are your claws and knives, and the two of you will trap the ball handler so hard he feels like he's in a Jigsaw contraption, shits his pants and turns the ball over. Every time. At the end of the day, because I wanted to win games so bad, and felt that this was the external expectation of me and the measure of my success, my eyes were on the prize and the breadth of my messaging reflected that vision. I failed to see that basketball was more than a game. In my approach to the game, I de-humanized my players and took away their agency in the process. By making it solely about the X's and O's, they were my pawns and I was the chessmaster. Clearly, my approach was not working and I was getting too caught up in the bullshit of obsessing over the W.

I reflected on what basketball meant to me and why, in only three years of exposure, I loved it so much. The answer was not to be found in the game, but in the journey. Basketball had liberated me from my own insecurities and lack of self-worth from being trapped in stereotypical roles constructed by a racist system, but doing so required that I had to embrace the challenge, not back down from intimidation, learn from failure, enhance my mental capacity and reflexes, believe in myself, and find a way to persevere despite the odds. When I really sat down to think about it, basketball wasn't just a game to me, it was a medium for self-growth and a metaphor for life.

Heading into the spring and summer, I changed my core messaging to my players from basketball to the life values I discovered through basketball. I told them, the point is not the points; the point is the process. Neither the stats nor outcome ultimately mattered, but the process of how we represented ourselves was what really mattered. My promise to them was that if we could buy into this new understanding of the game, the results would speak for themselves. When my players began to see that I wasn't just changing my emphasis to extract a quick victory, but that it genuinely came from my heart and that these values were about more than the game but would inform their relationship to the world, they started playing the game for themselves and their growth as human beings, instead of playing for me or for the W. They started to exert themselves harder than I had seen that preceding winter, exemplify discipline and patience with their shot selection, trust in each other to help defensively or be at the right spot offensively, and find a way to battle and win games even if we were down by a heavy deficit.

When I started de-prioritizing basketball and prioritizing the essence of basketball--the meaning of life--the results indeed spoke for themselves. We surprised a lot of opponents, who were bigger, stronger, faster, more athletic, and more skilled, by means of our fearlessness, discipline, focus, and trust and accountability with each other. We finished second place in two tournaments, won our pool in another AAU tournament, and had a seven-game win streak. I began receiving compliments from referees and opposing coaches for my vibrant, high-energy coaching style. While these accomplishments are nice experiences, they ultimately symbolize, and perhaps mask, the fact that for those who really get it, the secret of basketball, as a legend once put it, is that it is not about basketball.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Spock's Sacrifice

"Logic clearly dictates that the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few." -Spock, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982)
The signs were there. It was only a matter of time before it was made official. First came the call to the floor signaling a substitution with six minutes left in the game. Then, the very next match, he rode the pine the entire second half. Coach, I'm ready. I know you are. Please coach, let me in the game. Dee is struggling. But he's done better than you, I think in response. His teammate rushes to me when there is a quick break on the floor. Coach, we need Tod in the game. Dee can't score, we need a scorer on the floor. Hiding my uncertainty and feigning a calm demeanor, I refuse to budge.

If he ignored the omens then, the very following week of practices should have hit him with frightening clarity. Zero minutes assigned during scrimmaging. Third string on drills designed to improve guard play. My 5'3" point guard never looked his size until now, head down, seated with back sulking in the corner of the gym.

It's official the next weekend. As they had methodically done for each of the forty games together during our combined winter high school and spring AAU seasons, with 1:30 left on the clock prior to the game, my players rush to the bench from their warm-up lay up lines. Okay, here's who's starting. Randy, Noah, Mike, Klay, Nat. We may be outmatched because our [AAU] opponents recruit stars from all around, but we are from one school, one mind, and one unit. We play as the better team. Set the tone from the start. Play harder than them, outhustle, outrebound, fight for every possession. Slow their offense down and be in help position. Don't let them get in the paint. Make them fear our defense. Let's go. Tod looks at me in disbelief as if I were the Grim Reaper. He stopped listening after the omission of his name, and treats me with a blank, ghostly stare. While I talk, I return his stare with my own quick, assured glance as if to presumptuously acknowledge, yes I seriously removed you from the starting rotation.

In the moments before tip-off, my mind questions my decision to replace the point guard who started for me in each of our previous forty outings; the point guard who singlehandedly got us back from huge deficits and won us games; the point guard with whom I achieved my most conference wins as a high school coach. My memory races back to January 21st, away game against Bothell. We are down 13 at the half. Bothell's students roar in approval as they anticipate a similar dominating showing for their varsity squad in the game to follow. In one of the most spectacular moments of individual performance during a game that I coached, Tod scores 18 in the second half for a game-high 29 points to lift our team to a comeback victory. After the game, the Bothell coach approaches him incredulously, then collects himself and remarks I'll be watching for you over the next few years.

While this game stood out for the end result, Tod's scoring touch came regularly throughout the winter and, in fact, came to be expected. After a 28 point performance against Redmond one week before the Bothell game, I designed a play strictly for him to score a quick lay up off a post hand off (which he exploited in the Bothell game), or, if that primary option did not work, an open three pointer from a down screen off the same play. For his lack of size, Tod was an exceptional scorer, especially behind the three point line. His shot release was anything but natural and, from my distance, always looked like a struggle; instead of snapping his wrist and producing a high-arcing backspun shot, he had to shot-put the ball with the force of his entire arm. But his straightaway three-point shot would go in approximately half the time, and, in a game where amassing points is key, finesse is not the factor to scoring.

In the game of basketball, there are off-game shooting slumps; and then there are why-is-this-kid-even-wearing-a-jersey, Black Tuesday slumps. Prior to actually witnessing Tod's plummet, I only believed that the first category, game-to-game slumps, existed. Sure, even the greatest shooters have their off-nights or few in a stretch of games. The latter category, of which Tod embodied, was an issue of confidence. The short-lived miraculous presence of Tod during the winter high school season turned into the never-ending calamitous presence of Tod during the spring AAU season. In about eight spring games, he had successfully scored one 3 pointer in around 30 tries. Despite his broken shot, his instincts told him to continue to shoot himself out of the slump, so he attempted and missed horrible shots outside of his comfortable range. He began missing lay-ups. He made horrible decisions and turned the ball over a quarter of the time off the first pass. Defensively, he could not keep up with the size or speed of any point guard we faced in tournaments. Even in practices, he seemed like a liability, refusing to listen and only sinking deeper into his mental abyss. It was unbearable to watch, as if a loved one with whom you conversed on a daily basis suddenly ended up in a coma. I kept on asking myself how this was even possible and why this had to happen to me, of all coaches, as if my localized team wasn't disadvantaged enough without losing our best scorer.

With Tod out of the starting line up, we end up blowing out our opponent for our first win in a remarkably tough league of teams composed of recruited players from all around the region (as a comparison, our team is the only unsponsored team in this league). Instead of feeling accomplished from my keen substitution patterns, my pregame skepticism turns into postgame anxiety. I can't help but feel responsible for the slump Tod is in. At the very least, my deliberate lack of practicing and playing him has crushed whatever last inkling of confidence he has suppressed inside. And on the other end of the spectrum, my conscious overvaluing of his offensive capabilities and simultaneous overlooking of his weaknesses, particularly on the defensive end, during the winter season has made him unable to compete this spring against better competition when his offensive ability is stripped from him.

I approach him as practice ends and place my hand on his shoulder. He looks at me and it takes a minute before words leave my mouth. I don't know what I can possibly say to inspire confidence and shoulder the burden of responsibility for his struggles. The humanity in me wanted to reach out to him because I care for his development, but I failed to do so with a clear purpose and plan. Without that clear purpose, the cold, Vulcan logic of coaching took over. I end up saying something uninspired along the lines of Tod, you're a great player. I want to play you more but you gotta focus on defense now that you're struggling offensively. Great defense will lead to offense. In spite of my words, he shakes my hand and thanks me.

The measure of a great coach is in the mantra by which they are remembered to have coined. (Just joking...sort of.) In my journey to the coaching hall of fame, I recently coined my own saying for my team. The point is not the points, the point is in the process. If I live out the quote, then I must consciously reclaim and reintegrate my humanity in the cold Vulcan coaching process and value the progression of all my athletes. In the end, the results will flow from the expansion of the roots.

Monday, February 17, 2014

Beware of Veryl the Bully

It's 4:30pm. We're en route to Juanita High School for Game 2 of the KingCo 4A Varsity Tournament. The four coaches occupy the first four seats on the team bus. The cheerleaders are sandwiched between the coaches and the team. The bus is eerily quiet. You could feel the focus in the air. Like guerrilla fighters approaching a colossal military force, fate unknown but purpose clear, we are up against the only team to defeat Garfield High School this season, the perennial superpower in our conference that produced NBA phenom Brandon Roy and most recently, Tony Wroten. Undeterred by the mission ahead, the team is fired up from the post-practice talk I delivered a day before. In it, I mention the undisputed, unanimous perception of our team from the students at the alternative high school where I teach: we're weak, we're shit, and we're losers. I mention that each game day, when I wear our team's athletic garb to the alternative school, my students come down extra hard on me. Who you guys playing today? *Insert school here* will fuck you up by double digits. Intent on where my story is heading, I redirect the team to our recent game against Garfield, in which we lost by only two points. That game shut up a lot my students, who expected nothing less than a blowout. Fuck external perception, we know what we're capable of and what we will accomplish. I tell the team that I'm proud that we're not composed of superstars, that we have to rely on each other and our bench to pull out each victory, and that we're the hardest working, blue-collar team in the league. Our 'star' (loosely used here) point guard who, just days before, was awarded a First Team All-League honor, pulls me aside afterwards and tells me I hyped him up. He's ready to play the big game right now. Another coach creeps from behind and pushes me off-balance while approvingly shouts, fucking Veryl. Getting us all pumped. Motivational speaking. One of the tools that I developed and refined through coaching.

4:35pm. Still not so much a word muttered. For most, the focus is at once intoxicating and infectious, like a meditative journey experienced in collectivity. I'm silent for another reason. I'm pensive. Just thirty-five minutes before, I was confronted by two parents of a player at my level with perhaps an ugly truth about myself. They accuse me of the polar opposite in skills that I picked up through coaching: bullying. They didn't outright label it as such, but the implication was clear. The conversation lasts for nearly half an hour. Just before we walk onto the bus, I talk to two coaches about it.

4:40pm. The silence is finally broken. They should put up a poster at the school with your picture that says, "Beware of Bullying," says the same coach who complimented me the day before. This generates a few laughs from the nearby cheerleaders.

Veryl the bully, the head coach echoes with a huge grin and a dreamy stare, as if recalling a pleasant memory.

I've learned from the best, I retort in a smart-ass kind of way. Coaching has taught me to become an asshole. I reciprocate the grin.

I get a lot of shit from parents. But it comes with the territory. Or so the head coach says. In the three years of coaching, I've received the most parental complaints this current season--the year when I'm most confident in what I'm doing and attaining the most conference wins. You don't win enough games, parents question your knowledge and hint at a replacement. A player gets injured, parents blame the hyper-intensity of practices and lack of education towards players regarding sports-related injuries. You don't assign minutes to a player, parents challenge the integrity or fairness of your rotation. After a while, complaints sound like a broken record. They have to, or you begin to doubt yourself, which reflects on your performance and reverberates back negatively to the team. Fortunately, since I teach at-risk youth who experience trauma or systematic and individualized violence for eight hours each day before I coach, these parental complaints sound like what they are. Yet, to completely write off these complaints runs the risk of missing a chance for critical reflection and self-improvement.

Given my own history of being bullied, conceptually I hate bullying. Given that some studies show, however slight the statistical significance, that those who were bullied in their childhood are prone to becoming bullies themselves, perhaps working in a profession where militarism is a prized value subconsciously increases my propensity to bully. After all, it's so easy to get away with what you say when you monopolize the power through controlling playing time and a player's status within the program.

Though the parents' accusation rested on a false premise--that I exclusively singled out their son--it made me reflect on how I currently interact with my players and what type of coach I aspire to be. If I want to embody a coach who values each player as a human being with potential to become leaders in their own right, I would need to temper some of my spontaneous quips to my players. I would neither have remained with the program nor become the coach I am today if the head coach repeatedly harassed me for my inconsequential knowledge of the game during my first season. Why should the dynamic be any different between coaches and players, especially since I'm coming from a theoretical framework that values athletes for more than their bodies, but also for their mental capacity as coaches on the floor? I want them to appreciate the game as a symphony from a conductor's point of view, and not as a second violinist obsessed with correctly playing each note from the sheet of music on their stand.

My fault is that I'm quick-witted with my tongue. As basketball runs on horsepower, I am quickly yelling in reaction to what happens on the floor. There's no time to censor my reaction and my words, because the moment it takes to think of what I should say to mitigate the emotional damage, another action will happen and I would fail to react to something new. In games, I might yell out I can't play this kid loud enough for the entire gym to hear after a player commits a mistake, bench him, and then turn to him with a mean mug and yell out Why did I take you out of the game? If he answers I don't know, I will most certainly come up with a smart ass remark along the lines of I know you don't know, that's why you did it before explaining to him calmly what the correct course of action should have been. I am not adverse to yelling at a player during games for two reasons: 1. I do not want the player committing the same mistake again when I put him back in and he should know that I'm serious as it seriously impacts the outcome of the match, and 2. I do not want his teammates to commit the same mistake as him. Calling players out for their shit is an effective way to get them to play smarter and harder.

Practices, though, potentially bring out my 'worst' because I am afforded the time to make an example out of a player who commits a mistake. I certainly need to change my approach in this area. I am haunted by one particular practice from earlier this season where what I said had a prolonged effect on the player. I introduced a new drill to the team. After most of my players demonstrated and executed the drill satisfactorily, one of the last players to participate in the drill stepped on the floor not knowing what to do. This player happened to be someone who goofed off and neglected to pay attention regularly in practices, so I put him on the spot...once again. Are you shitting me? Over half the team just did the drill, and you don't know what to do? He nervously stuttered and I heard him start to say, I'm s.... I cut him off and interrupted before he could finish his sentence. He may have wanted to apologize (I'm sorry), but I ran with the s sound to poke fun at him. You're what? STUPID? Or perhaps you wanted to say 'I'm SLOW' since you don't understand what's going on. At that point, he courageously attempted to repeat his original sentence. No I was going to say I'm s.... I cut him off again and, with disregard to his feeling, brazenly continued, What were you going to say? I only hear the 's' sound! Were you going to say you're SMART? That wouldn't make SENSE. If you were, then you actually mean you're SARCASTIC. The whole team laughed at how clever the whole sequence was, but I overdid it. One of the next practices, when the same player once again failed to demonstrate knowledge of what was taught, he told me that he did not know what to do because he was stupid. He said it with a straight face, as if he were citing a truth. I pulled him aside after practice to apologize for what I said before, but the damage was already done. When it came to basketball, he internalized his incompetence thanks to me.

It's 8:30pm. We board the bus to return home from Juanita after losing a hard-fought game. The playoffs are double elimination, so we live to fight another day. Atypical of most players who congregate together at the back of the bus, our 'star' point guard decides to sit in front beside me. We look at each other during the ride home but don't exchange a single word. We respect each other's silence. We pay our dues to the powerful process of reflection, in hopes that tomorrow will yield a better outcome. My mind wanders back to the interaction with the parents from earlier that day and the grander implications it held. I tell myself that if my players cannot experience joy in the game because of the way in which I interact with them, then I fail to get the best out of my players and together, as a team, we will not succeed. As the bus pulls into our school's parking lot, bringing us back to reality, I look to the players at the rear of the bus arising from the trance of deep meditation. I am comforted by how small I am in relation to the whole of the team, and in fact, changing for the better and growing are interwoven into the very fabric of each and every one of our DNA.