The Great Leap and the Popularity of Basketball among Asian Americans

The Great Leap by Lauren Yee centers around a friendship game between Beijing University’s and the University of San Francisco’s men’s basketball teams. The play is also inspired by Yee’s father’s own experiences of traveling to China to participate in these games.

It is important to recognize not only the cultural and historical significance of The Great Leap as it is set against post-cultural revolution China, but also the integral role basketball plays in shaping the identities of these characters, and the Asian American community in a broader scope.

Popularity of Basketball in China

Introduced to China over a century ago by YMCA missionaries directly after the sport’s invention in 1891, basketball has a vast presence in Chinese society. According to the Chinese Basketball Association, around 300 million Chinese people play basketball. Additionally Helen Gao writes in The Atlantic that “the first groups that embraced basketball in China were college students, western-minded scholars, and members of the Communist party.” Members of the Communist party loved the game for its cohesive power, and Communist soldiers and officials would play basketball to lift their spirits and boost solidarity during the Long March (the Red Army’s storied year-long retreat in the 1930s to evade the Nationalist army).

Friendship Games with the United States

During the 1950s, Beijing adopted a “friendship first, competition second” policy when it came to sports games against foreign countries, sometimes even sacrificing metals for the goodwill of the relations between the countries.

After US President Jimmy Carter eased ties with China in the late 1970s, Chairman Deng Xiaoping extended an invitation to the 1978 NBA Champion Washington Bullets to play in China. The Bullets became the first NBA team invited to play in the country, and “these were games as much about the politics as they were about the sport” (Parker 3).

For Beijing, sports had a more political purpose than many Western sports teams. In the 1980s, “friendship first” was no longer advocated by the government, and the central idea of sports shifted from “friendship first” to “patriotism first.”

In 1983, tennis player Hu Na left the Chinese tennis team for political asylum in the United States. When the United States granted Hu Na political asylum, China canceled all cultural and sports exchanges with them.

Crossover into the American Mainstream

Ever since its introduction to the nation over a century ago, basketball has remained as a staple in China, and has even evolved into a crossover into American society with the accomplishments of a few notable figures.

Yao Ming was the first international player to be selected first overall in the National Basketball Association (NBA) Draft without having played college basketball in the United States. Ming played for the Shanghai Sharks of the Chinese Basketball Association (CBA) and the Houston Rockets for the NBA. Causing the “Yao Ming Phenomenon” in China and the “Ming Dynasty” in the United States, Ming became not only a global symbol of basketball, but also a trailblazer for expanding the NBA to China, and a person known for bridging the gap between the East and the West.

Ming is just one person that makes up a group of influencers that bridged the gap between the East and the West. Yi Jialian was the sixth pick in the 2007 NBA draft by the Milwaukee Bucks. In 1987, Sung Tao became the first Asian player drafted in the NBA by the Atlanta Hawks. These are only a few individuals who have made an enormous impact on the growth of the NBA and basketball in China.

Ten years after Ming’s NBA draft into the Houston Rockets came another phenomenon called “Linsanity.” Jeremy Lin became the first American of Chinese or Taiwanaese descent to ever play for the NBA, and is known for leading a winning turnaround with the New York Knicks of the NBA during the 2011-2012 season. Lin also became the first Asian American to win an NBA championship, having done so with the Toronto Raptors in 2019.

Lin became not only a star on the court, but also a role model for young Asian Americans who were not given a lot of representation in the public sphere. “Linsanity” not only became a movement for the world of basketball, but the term gave inspiration, pride, and reclamation for Asian Americans, and gave them something to celebrate about and find community in.

Pablo Torre of ESPN said “Asian Americans have spent a lot of time looking for somebody who truly shatters the most conventional stereotype. … Linsanity had the effect of making Asian Americans feel like maybe they were the main character in the movie for once.”

Basketball among Asian Americans in Greater Boston

The popularity of basketball among Asian Americans has gone back as far as the early 20th century, as Chinese and Japanese laborers moved to cities, mostly along the West Coast. Asian American basketball leagues intended to serve as both recreational outlets and spaces of building community, thus resulting in generations of folks who grew up playing basketball.

These leagues are not only along the West Coast in high density Asian American communities such as San Francisco and Los Angeles, but they also made their way across the country over to the East Coast. Some of these leagues are even in our own city of Boston.

The Boston Hurricanes seek to serve pan-Asian American communities in the Greater Boston area and its surrounding communities through basketball, volleyball, 9Man, and outreach programs.

Founded in 1970, the Boston Hurricanes began as a group of young Asian-Americans who were sponsored by the Boston Chinatown merchants to play in various 9Man volleyball and basketball tournaments. The 1990s became a period of social and cultural growth and expansion for the organization, as they gained players and recognition from communities outside of Chinatown, such as Needham, Newton, and Wellesley.

The Boston Hurricanes also promote educational opportunities for people to know the organization’s history and sport, and they have a commitment of passion down the history and traditions of those who played before them from generation to generation.

In a similar vein, the Boston Knights (founded in 1961) started as a group of young Chinese American teenagers from Boston who participated in a volleyball tournament featuring teams from New York and Boston. Shortly after it was founded, the Boston branch of the Kuo Ming Tang offered the teens the use of their facility as a meeting and gathering space. From there, they were able to organize events such as community parties, bowling, and basketball leagues.

The Boston Knights held Kung Fu and Lion Dance classes, sponsored casino nights, and hosted small community dances. In addition to the annual membership dues, all of the funds that were generated from these events went towards paying for rent, utilities, tournament entry fees, and players’ travel expenses. 

Centering their focus on the Chinese youth of the Greater Boston area, their main goal is to heighten community awareness while promoting healthy sportsmanship through healthy competition. Another objective they emphasize is developing and fostering friendships among youth of similar heritage. Their sponsorship and participation in athletic events have taken them to Chinese communities across the country, and their members have connected with fellow Chinese folks from all over.

While the game in the play’s script is fictional, the rich history behind The Great Leap exemplifies how this play is about more than just basketball.

“Basketball is just an incredibly apt metaphor for I think both politics and diplomacy and also the personal struggles of these characters,” Yee said in an interview for the June 1, 2018 issue of The Slant. “Somebody described the philosophy of basketball to me as people trying to create enough personal space around them for them to make the shot. That everyone on the court — every pass, every shot, every everything, is in service of you trying to lose your defender long enough to make the shot. And that feels like it has something in common with the struggles of real life.”

Please explore the sources below to learn more information about Asian American basketball leagues, the history of friendship games between the United States and China, and the impact of Yao Ming and Jeremy Lin in the world of basketball.

This post was curated by Marieska Luzada, Press and Digital Marketing Intern.