The men’s basketball teams from Beijing University and the University of San Francisco play a friendly game that serves as the plot point of Lauren Yee’s novel The Great Leap. Yee’s father’s own experiences traveling to China to compete in these events also served as inspiration for the play.
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The cultural and historical relevance of The Great Leap, which is set against the backdrop of China during the post-cultural revolution, should be acknowledged, but so should the crucial role basketball plays in forming the identities of these characters and the Asian American community as a whole.
Basketball’s popularity in China
YMCA missionaries brought basketball to China more than a century ago, shortly after the sport’s inception in 1891. Today, basketball is a major part of Chinese culture. The Chinese Basketball Association estimates that 300 million Chinese individuals are basketball players. Furthermore, Helen Gao notes in The Atlantic that “college students, western-minded scholars, and Communist party members were the first groups that embraced basketball in China.”
Basketball was a favorite sport among Communist party members because of its ability to bring people together. During the Long March—the Red Army’s famous year-long retreat from the Nationalist army in the 1930s—Communist troops and officials would play the game to cheer themselves up and strengthen their bonds.
Games of Friendship with the United States
When it came to sporting events against other nations, Beijing used a “friendship first, competition second” approach throughout the 1950s. At times, this even included monetary sacrifices made in exchange for improved ties between the two nations.
The 1978 NBA Champions Washington Bullets were invited to play in China by Chairman Deng Xiaoping following US President Jimmy Carter’s easing of relations with China in the late 1970s. “These were games as much about the politics as they were about the sport,” according to Parker (3), who noted that the Bullets were the first NBA club invited to play in the nation.
Compared to many Western sports teams, Beijing saw a greater political function in sports. “Friendship first” was no longer endorsed by the government in the 1980s, and “patriotism first” became the dominant concept in athletics.
Tennis player Hu Na fled the Chinese national team in 1983 in order to seek political asylum in the US. China terminated all sports and cultural contacts with the United States after Hu Na was given political asylum.
Transition into the American Norm
Basketball has been a mainstay in China for more than a century, and because to the successes of a few prominent players, it has even made a successful transition into American culture.
Yao Ming was the first player from outside the United States to be chosen first overall in the National Basketball Association (NBA) Draft without having attended a college in the country. Ming was an NBA player for the Houston Rockets and a Chinese Basketball Association (CBA) team called the Shanghai Sharks. In addition to being a worldwide icon of basketball, Ming also paved the way for the NBA to grow into China and is credited with bridging the divide between the East and the West. This led to the “Yao Ming Phenomenon” in China and the “Ming Dynasty” in the United States.
Ming is but one of a number of influential individuals who helped to close the divide between the East and the West. The Milwaukee Bucks selected Yi Jialian with the sixth overall pick in the 2007 NBA Draft. The Atlanta Hawks selected Sung Tao as the first Asian player in the NBA draft in 1987. These are only a handful of the people who have had a significant influence on the expansion of basketball and the NBA in China.
Ten years after Ming was selected by the Houston Rockets in the NBA Draft, “Linsanity”—an additional phenomenon—began. As the first American of Chinese or Taiwanese heritage to play in the NBA, Jeremy Lin is most recognized for spearheading a successful comeback with the NBA’s New York Knicks in the 2011–2012 campaign. In 2019, Lin made history by being the first Asian American to win an NBA championship, which he achieved with the Toronto Raptors.
In addition to being a basketball superstar, Lin also became a role model for young Asian Americans who lacked much exposure in the media. In addition to becoming a movement within the basketball community, “Linsanity” offered Asian Americans a sense of inspiration, pride, and reclaimation as well as a cause to rejoice and a sense of belonging.
“Asian Americans have spent a lot of time looking for somebody who truly shatters the most conventional stereotype,” ESPN’s Pablo Torre stated. Asian Americans began to feel as though they were the movie’s primary character for the first time as a result of Linsanity.
Asian Americans in Greater Boston Play Basketball
Asian Americans have long been fans of basketball, dating back to the early 1900s when laborers from China and Japan relocated to urban areas, mostly on the West Coast. Asian American basketball leagues were founded with the goal of creating communities via basketball as well as recreational opportunities, leading to generations of basketball players.
These leagues have spread to the East Coast of the nation in addition to densely populated Asian American cities on the West Coast, such Los Angeles and San Francisco. We even have a few of these leagues in Boston.
With basketball, volleyball, 9Man, and outreach initiatives, the Boston Hurricanes aim to support the pan-Asian American community in the Greater Boston region and its neighboring areas.
When the Boston Hurricanes were first formed in 1970, they were just a bunch of young Asian Americans who were sponsored to compete in several 9Man basketball and volleyball competitions by Boston Chinatown businessmen. The group saw a period of social and cultural development and expansion throughout the 1990s as they attracted players and attention from non-Chinatown towns including Needham, Newton, and Wellesley.
The Boston Hurricanes are passionate about passing on the history and customs of their predecessors, who played before them, and they actively support educational programs that educate people about the organization’s background and the game.
Similar to this, the Boston Knights, who were established in 1961, began as a group of youthful Chinese American youths from Boston who took part in a volleyball match between teams from Boston and New York. The Kuo Ming Tang branch in Boston extended an invitation to the teenagers to utilize their building as a meeting and gathering place not long after it was established. From there, they were able to plan activities like basketball leagues, bowling tournaments, and community celebrations.
The Boston Knights sponsored casino nights, organized small-scale community dances, and taught Kung Fu and Lion Dance. All of the money raised from these activities went toward covering the yearly membership dues as well as rent, utilities, tournament entry fees, and player travel costs.
Their major objective is to raise community awareness while fostering good sportsmanship via healthy competition, with a concentration on Chinese adolescents in the Greater Boston region. Creating and promoting connections amongst young people of similar backgrounds is another goal they place a strong emphasis on. Their members have made connections with other Chinese people all around the country thanks to their sponsorship and involvement in sporting activities, which have brought them to Chinese communities across the nation.
The rich history of The Great Leap serves as an example of how this play is about more than simply basketball, even if the game in the script is made up.
Yee stated in an interview for The Slant’s June 1, 2018, edition, “basketball is just an incredibly apt metaphor for I think both politics and diplomacy as well as the personal struggles of these characters.” I once heard someone characterize the concept of basketball as individuals attempting to carve out enough personal space around themselves in order to make the shot. So every move they make, every pass they make, every shot they make—everything on the court—is intended to help you lose your defender long enough to make the shot. And that seems to share a commonality with the challenges encountered in everyday life.