Sunday, August 11, 2013

Dear Crystal,

You'll probably never read this. I hope that one day this reaches you and you do. You probably don't even remember who I am. Honestly, I don't even remember if your name starts with a C or a K. But you're the one person in my life I never got to thank who deserves my genuine gratitude. And it eats away at me like a cancer because thank you's come a dime a dozen. It rolls off my tongue like a personal introduction. Thanks for taking my money and serving me. Thanks for the compliment. Thanks for your help. Thanks for driving. Thanks for spending time with me. Thanks for listening to me. Thanks for kissing me. Thanks for last night. Thanks for everything. And, of course, the occasional thanks for nothing. I say thank you so much, probably above the average of 5,000 per year, that those who know me should question my sincerity when I do say it. But I'll never forget what you did on my behalf on the first day of middle school in Virginia, the act to which I owe the thank you, because no one else, not a single soul, stepped up in a similar way to you in all of my three years there.

I remember it vividly. I moved to the city just one day before. No friends, no foes, didn't know nobody. We had a pep assembly that day, in large part to inculcate school spirit and introduce middle school to us incoming sixth graders, but the only new-blood to get 'hazed' would be me. Because I didn't know anyone and by nature was introverted, I sat alone high up in the nosebleed section of the bleechers. Before the band got going and the cheerleaders got cheering, three boys aggressively approached my position yelling out racial slurs and, when they arrived, pushed me around and continued their taunts. Fucking chink, youse go backa to China. Ching chongy ching chong. One got behind where I sat and put me in a choke-hold. That was the second time I cried in public, and right on cue, kids from the lower sections of the bleacher turned their heads and laughed. I remember looking at a teacher in the lower section, telekinetically crying for help, only to see a chuckle on her face.

Before that day, I never cursed in public, let alone directly at someone else. You'd probably laugh at this statement if we so much as even conversed today, because the one thing I utter more than thank you is an obscenity. I've got no fucking respect for goddamned social norms, pardon my French, s'il vous plait. But during that moment of that day that is now forever engraved in my memory, I managed to mutter a fuck you and to give them my middle finger while fighting the choke-hold and battling my tears. What the fuck did you just say to us? Do you want to fucking die? While this happened and everyone in the lower sections laughed at the entertaining skit, you intervened and told them to stop. Did you hear what he just said to us? He said 'fuck you,' so he deserves what's coming. You unflinchingly responded along the lines that they deserved the fuck you and that they'd better leave now. They listened and left with haste. I'm honestly tearing up as I'm writing this to you right now, because like I said, you were the only person in my entire three years who stood up for me, who stood up against racism while I experienced it. While it's pathetic that no one else came close to my assistance, I'm glad you came through because I know it was the unpopular option and put you on the spot that very moment in front of the entire section of the gym. Because we were in different classes, I don't even remember interacting with you for the rest of middle school, but I wish that we became friends and more importantly, I wish that I had the chance to tell you how much your brave act meant to me.

You see, the remainder of middle school was hell for me. It's funny, now that I live in the Pacific Northwest, I frequently encounter people who adamantly dismiss my experience living "in the South." They tell me that it's barely the South and that it's not really Confederate. I distinctly recall, in one of my initial weeks in Virginia, that one of the big news items was a cross burning in a black man's front yard. These Northwesterners are something else, I tell you. Mostly passive aggressive fucks, in contrast to the racists from our childhood state. To a degree, I appreciate the racist honesty of Virginians than the affected "anti-racist" mannerisms of Northwesterners. I would've been a confused motherfucker if I spent my whole life here, blind to institutional racism and forgiving of the occasional epithet.

Virginia genuinely fucked with my head. My neighborhood in Virginia taught me how to internalize racism to survive. Down my street lived a popular kid from our school, Josh O'Grady. If you don't remember his face, I'm sure you recall the name. He had his posse of cool kids constantly around him. There was Mike, who practiced WWF finishing moves on me. The Undertaker's Tombstone. The Stone Cold Stunner. I grew up loving the WWF, but once this kid turned it into my existential reality, I ceased watching it immediately. Then there was Geoff or Jeff. I was older than him by two years, but he used to kick my ass every day and push me into a berry bush afterwards. I now have a few good friends who love picking and eating wild berries at first sight, but they have no idea what these berries convey to me. Weakness and insecurity. Oh, and how about big Mason. He made up the chant that everyone on the block used to sing when they saw me. Veer-o, Queer-o, Where'd he get his ear-o? What the fuck did this even mean? Yet somehow, this nonsensical saying was something I embraced, like Aladdin's call for Genie, because I knew that beyond the hurt of the call lay the fact that I had a group of boys to hang out with that day. My friends were kids who called me chink. Moving to the Northwest, I heard every other epithet or stereotype for Asian except the word chink, which surprised me. Apparently there were limits to the racial jokes that the Northwest employed. But while in Virginia, I accepted being a chink, laughed along like Sambo (hey, that's me!), and hung out with the chink-callers when they accepted me as a tenth wheel.

My parents didn't help much either. I used to be angry at them for validating my response of internalizing racism. But, I realize like any immigrant trying to get by, they had to survive in this nightmare any way possible. I hated being Chinese though. We would be in Chinese restaurants in Virginia and I would tell them to speak in English. Fucking crazy. Shhh, be quiet; white people never talk this loud. Fuck, Crystal, I'm tearing up again recalling all of this because I'm ashamed. Josh O'Grady used to make fun of me for anything he could conjure up, including living in the worst house in the neighborhood. But because he was popular, I used to imitate him. He had this head nod thing he would do because of his asthmatic condition (if my memory holds up), and I would imitate his head nod gesture thinking it was cool. One evening, his father rings our doorbell. Both my parents answer. His father tells my parents that I was quoting Jewish racial epithets from a novel assigned to us by our English teacher. I believe the book was Agatha Christie's And Then There Were None and the epithets, whatever they were, were mild enough to be included in our seventh grade reading curriculum. His family was Jewish. I remember doing this as my only weapon to get back at my predator, and when I do this one thing, I get busted. My parents apologize on my behalf and tell me to apologize to Josh the very next morning at the bus stop. They explain to me that they worked so hard to foster a good relationship with the neighbors, which, by the way, is funny considering that they were never invited to any neighborhood events. But being the obedient kid I was, I apologize to him the very next morning. Asian supermarkets were a rarity in Virginia, and I remember we would get these special brand of Japanese rice crackers that I grew up on only when we visited my hometown of Toronto every few years or so. My parents gave away our remaining stash of Japanese rice crackers to the O'Grady's that next night.

This fucked up mentality of hating myself stayed with me through high school even when the geography changed to the "Asian friendly" Pacific Northwest. I remember during Christmastime of my freshman year of high school, an attractive girl from my French class, who was a junior then, gave me a teddy bear and told me she thought I was cute. I threw the teddy bear back at her and, instead of saying my customary thank you, I ran away from the situation knowing that I was ugly. Girls throughout my middle school in Virginia laughed at me to my face, often spreading rumors about another girl by accusing her of liking me. The ultimate diss. So throughout high school, I didn't ask anyone out and I shut others out. In my senior year high school yearbook, another attractive girl wrote that she had the biggest crush on me during her junior and senior years. And as I read it, I took it as some cruel, malicious joke transported from my past. Today, even as I've overcome a lot of my insecurities and self-deprecating internalizations, aspects from the past continue to haunt me.

We don't know each other, but I hope you get to read all this. You may never have thought about what my middle school experience was like or its extended impact, so here's that perspective. As a middle schooler, kids tend to run with the pack, but you broke from it. I don't know where you are or what you do, but I hope as hell that you still break from the pack and stand up for what's right. I'm all about breaking stereotypes now. Back then, you showed me that not everyone had to be racist in a racist society. Thank you, or rather your middle school self, for being who you were and being defiant in the situation.


Sunday, August 4, 2013

Are Coaches Necessary? Centralism vs. Democracy in Competitive Sports

As standardized education spreads at a breakneck pace across the nation to anoint a new generation of robotic workers for the digital age, progressives resist with freedom schools and community campaigns against standardized tests and the gutting of public schools and their budgets. To be sure, these fights to restore creativity, critical thinking, the Socratic method of questioning anything and everything, and, in a word, democracy in education, are integral to redefining education in terms of personal growth and learning through experience and debate. Of course, these fights point to the greater irony of America's critiques of East Asian education models being too rigid, fact-based, and formulaic--petty excuses to mask the fact that Asian students (future workers of China, Japan, South Korea, and India) will soon be at the helm of the global economy, and by extension, that Asian capitalism is the new America. All for the purpose to allow American dreamers to continue dreaming sweetly at night.

Like many political revolutionaries, I myself am schooled by Paulo Friere, author of Pedagogy of the Oppressed (1970). How one is educated is inherently political, he writes, and in a capitalist or colonial society, schools reflect the political agenda of those in power. Students in these societies are likened to a bank in which teachers deposit facts, ideas, and agendas that inhibit creativity and resistance while fostering complacency to an oppressive status quo. Friere flips the script on this traditional banking model of education and advocates for a dialectical education process where students teach teachers and vice versa. As an example, in the context of at-risk youth, it is key for the young to educate the older teachers who likely come from the outside (if not geographically then generationally), for the goal of education is for the youth to empower themselves, control their community, and overcome the system that produces their state of risk in the first place. This can only be done if teachers are willing to be taught and advise as needed, and if students accept the role of empowerment and are willing to learn through experience and struggle. Democracy in the classroom translates to democracy on the streets. Our public schools preach the rhetoric, but deliver authority figures who choke out creativity and breathe in standardization. I'd say it's ironic or hypocritical, but I think the best adjective to describe such contradictions is simply, it's American. In the words of J. Cole, Look at this nation//that's a crooked smile even braces can't straighten.

So if democratizing a classroom and unshackling it from standardization is the ideal, then what of democracy in competitive sports? What if players on a team mutinied against their coach and declared democracy on the floor? Or perhaps more moderately and in direct application of Friere, what if coaching became a mutual process in which athletes also coached the coach?

This summer, I assisted in coaching a high-level AAU boys' basketball squad. At least one player on my team, our center, will be a future D1 college basketball player, and his dominance in games both inside the key and beyond the arc allowed us to compete with talent above our own. Towards the end of the AAU season, immediately after we defeated another high-level AAU team, our head coach (the same high school varsity coach referred here) pulled me aside and snickered, So Veryl, do you think coaches make a difference? For someone who usually hits hard with words, this question was an unusually passive aggressive way to doubly insult my coaching ability and praise his own. Exactly one week prior, I had lost to the same opponent. Our coach was conspicuously absent that game. Actually, we didn't just lose that game, the opponents imposed their will, crushed our spirits, and made us disbelieve in our ability to play the game. We left the court like it was a funeral service, solemn and silent, doing the walk of shame. Recently deceased, Veryl and his basketball team, 2013-2013. Cries were heard from all over the city. How tragic, they were oh so young.

I want to establish, first and foremost, that coaches in any respectable program are the ultimate authority, the final word. Unlike Kanye's delusional mind, coaches are gods in flesh. What coach says, players execute. Fail to do so once in practice, it's a barrage of insults questioning your intelligence. Fail to do so twice in practice or if another player makes the same mistake, the barrage turns into an onslaught. They are pulled out of the drill, someone else gets subbed in who better get it right. If they fail, then the "midget with glasses", Veryl, gets to play and run with the big boys while those triers and not doers sit out the rest of the drill. The failure to execute a play or perform your hardest during a game is another matter. Coach has no qualms about benching star players for extended periods of time or the entire game if they don't transition back on defense or cut to the basket hard. Winning is NOT an individual effort. It doesn't take star players to win if our team outplays, outhustles, and outruns our opponent. If all five players on the floor commit to locking down the paint, pressuring the ball, playing the middle on defense ready to help stop drives, then our offense will flow from our defensive intensity and win us the game. During the regular high school season, we shut down the star future-D1 players in our conference like Zach Lavine and Tucker Haymond because our five guys on the floor stopped them, had their eye on them at all times, not just the one defender 'assigned' to them. If you think the natural conclusion to draw about winning is that it is a team effort, then either I have understated the point of this paragraph or you've been internalizing one too many cliches from an ESPN color commentator. Make no mistake, coaching is the difference and the key to winning.

If players buy into a coach's philosophy--in our program, effort and attitude at all times--and if the coach keeps players honest by rewarding those who execute this philosophy regardless of talent, then the team will upset teams appraised higher by analysts and statisticians who look solely at individual stats and team personnel to determine the outcome of matches. In contrast to our program, which devalues star players and emphasizes team effort, many other programs live and die by their star players' individual performance. This may work against another team with similar minimalist or non-philosophy, but against a team that plays team defense with integrity and intensity, they will often lose because their star players get shut down. And for those star-power driven teams, since offense runs through their stars, when they are shut down, then team offense stagnates. Just look at the Miami Heat's road to the finals this year, and how the Indiana series was so tough for them because Miami ran the majority of plays through one or two individuals, leaving the rest of the team frozen like statues beyond the arc. More importantly, coaches of these superstars tend to give them a carte blanche to shoot themselves out of a slump or to solely play a one way game and not worry about defense. At the State Tournament this year in the Tacoma Dome, I saw the star-endowed teams of Seattle Prep and Lakeside, whose coaches allowed their superstars total control on the court, lose to teams that were more disciplined and better coached.

A coach's personnel decisions are crucial to the game's outcome. Better coached teams are unafraid to sit out their star players when needed because coaches know it's harder to defend a team of five players who move on the floor, set screens for each other, and patiently look for a good shot. The 3A Champions this year, Rainier Beach, defeated Lakeside not only because they played much more cohesively, but equally as important, their superstar, Louisville-commit Shaqquan Aaron, who has a tendency to play loosely on defense, did not play at all during the second half or overtime. I will be in the minority in saying this, but I truly felt that the Miami Heat upset the San Antonio Spurs during the NBA Finals this year. Up 3 games to 2 in a best of 7 series, San Antonio Coach Popovich made unforgivable personnel decisions that cost them the title. Overplaying superstar Manu Ginobli and rising star Danny Green (who started the series with unbelievable three-point shooting but ended the series completely cold) and underplaying Kawhai Leonard and Boris Diaw, role players who were smart and secure with the basketball, especially during the final stretches of the game. Taking out Tim Duncan in the final seconds of regulation in Game 6 who had the size to potentially get a defensive rebound; instead allowing a second-chance opportunity by Miami that led to an unbelievable game-tying shot by Ray Allen. Taking out Tony Parker in final seconds of Game 7 and allowing Manu Ginobli to not only handle the ball, but drive the ball on his weak side, leading to a turnover and basket at the other end that all but closed out the Spurs. Perhaps in the case of San Antonio, without a coach in Games 6 and 7, the players would've decided to keep Parker and Duncan on the floor, thus winning the championship. But, this hypothetical scenario is an exception to the rule that good coaching involves smart substitutions and no loyalties to superstars. Because of their professional distance to players, coaches are ultimately poised to make the tough decisions to bench a star for the greater good of the team.

The aforementioned aspects of coaching--the philosophy and personnel decisions--come second and third to coaching strategy. Games at the highest level are duels between coaches. Players are pawns in a bigger chess match, and when the pawns do not run the play exactly as the coach called out and envisioned, then they are substituted with another on the bench. Some programs are defined by their strategy. Syracuse's 2-3 Zone. VCU's relentless full-court press. But most coaches have dozens of plays in their arsenal and a few aces up their sleeve for guaranteed buckets. They have thought and rethought how to attack certain defenses, how and where to utilize screens to get their best shooter open, and how to stifle an opponent's offense before they get going. Some coaches change defensive formation in the middle of the opponent's same offensive possession. Others change it up after every made basket. But the key is change and adaptation at a moment's notice. The skill and brains required for the task is extremely difficult and requires immediate decision making by an authoritative voice. Additionally, unlike chess players whose pieces from game to game remain the same, coaches have the challenge of creating, tailoring, and ultimately innovating their strategy to best fit their players from season to season. A "timeless, tried-and-true" response to situations created by the opponent, without regard to your own personnel, is not enough of an adaptation to win the duel. In its purest form, when players are executing a coach's strategy perfectly, coaching is art. Watching Mike Krzyzewski (Duke) duel Tom Izzo (Michigan State) is like watching Mozart duel Salieri, Alexandre Cabanel duel Claude Monet, or Biggie duel Pac.

On the subject of duels and strategy, winning in sports is like winning in war. The few moments that are enshrined in leftist history, where popular democratic militias were created such as in the Paris or Shanghai Communes, do not make good case studies for democracy in wartime since these militias were severely shorthanded in size. Nonetheless, without authority in situations of crisis and the ability to make immediate decisions that are enforced by the militia, parity in army size will not make much of a difference in the outcome. Currently, many progressives, in critique of the hierarchical structure that has plagued traditional revolutionary organizations, are making a big push for horizontalism--the dispersing of knowledge and the fostering of leadership among all members. On a sports team, it's ideal to have players understand why they're doing something (i.e. why they run a particular play against a zone defense) and be able to help teammates out when those teammates are clueless. But in times of crisis, in the heat of the moment, it's far more important to have players doing the right thing and being in the right spots even if they don't understand why they're doing it.

The game of basketball is so counter-intuitive to everything for which a political revolutionary stands. And it's so ironic, or to invoke an earlier phrase, so American, that I love basketball so much. If you ever go to a public court at a park and spectate a pick up game, you'll discover pure chaos. It's so ugly that sometimes I don't even recognize that 'basketball' is the game that is being attempted. Even in glorified pick up games featuring NBA players, such as the summer Pro-Am League in Seattle, there is no sense of urgency, intensity, effort, or defense. Players don't run plays and those who believe that they are heroes play selfish hero ball; the other players implicitly consent to extended conditioning sessions where they run up and down the court without touching the ball.

In basketball, structure and organization is beautiful. Even an unpredictable offensive strategy like a motion offense has rules within it, basket cuts that are imperative after each pass, and reactions players make based on reads on the defense. It's undeniable that the beautiful all starts with centralized leadership, the coach, who makes his players understand and respect the system and in turn, become the best players that they can possibly be. But not everything is counter-intuitive. Like all things with a centralized leadership, too much power can be abused and athletes pick up life lessons and perspectives, and not just the sport, from their coach. Some of these problems will be alleviated as society changes through struggle and newer democratic and liberating values are normalized. But in a competitive culture requiring quick planning and quicker action, coaches are as indispensable as the hoop itself.