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.