Jumping Through Hoops

An adult Asian-American basketball league gains popularity, but rather than prove your skills, you have to prove your race.

On a partly cloudy Sunday, a throng of men in their twenties are shooting ball at Bushrod Recreation Center in North Oakland. Ten guys run the wood floor in team jerseys, while others prepare for upcoming games or wait to sub in. It’d be a pretty typical hoop scene, except that all the players are of Asian descent, while the refs, scorekeepers, and neighborhood kids who peek in to see what’s up are mostly African American.

The Asian-only Dream League launched in 2001 with nine teams at San Francisco’s Potrero Hill Rec Center and has expanded around the Bay Area. It now has 64 teams in three divisions, with 650 players ranging in age from 18 to 49. For many players, it’s an all-day affair. Some guys arrive hours before game time to check out the competition. Others play on multiple teams and travel between gyms. On this particular Sunday, Billy “BJ” Marshall, 25, arrived fresh from a game at East Oakland’s Ira Jinkins Rec Center — one of several courts the league rents out — for his Bushrod match. At six-one and 238 pounds, he’s one of the bigger guys.

Marshall is half African American, half Pacific Islander. When he signed up a year and a half ago, he had to go down to the courthouse to pick up an original copy of his birth certificate to prove he was at least one-quarter Asian, and present it to league founder Rich Twu.

Marshall expected as much. The race requirement is no secret; it’s stated clearly on the league’s Web site, DreamLeague.org. It’s exclusionary, to be sure. But based on the popularity of Twu’s pan-Asian league — Japanese leagues have been around for sixty-plus years, and the Bay Area also has Afghan and Filipino leagues — it’s fulfilling an unmet need. “In baseball they had the Negro leagues,” the 34-year-old founder explains. “The Negro leagues were just as good as the white leagues. They had to be as good to be accepted. They had to develop to such a high level in order to get the respect.”

Twu is quick to point out that there are no Asian Americans in the NBA, despite “import” players such as Yao Ming. Thirty-year-old power forward Andrew Park, who plays for Dream team Five Ten, says he was drawn to the league by a combination of comfort, playing time, competitiveness, and a lack of organizations like it when he was growing up. “A lot of courts in Oakland, Berkeley, or the Richmond area, you can go on the court and it’s the same ol’ thing,” says Park, who is six-one and two hundred pounds. “I’m a little bigger than the average Asian male. I may have an advantage. But if you’re a small Asian guy trying to get on the game, they may not let you on.”

Asian players just don’t get respect, he says. Off-court stereotypes of Asian men as short, weak, and meek all play out on the court. “I know a lot of guys like us from urban areas like Oakland, and those stereotypes really make us mad,” says Park, who grew up in Oakland and attended Skyline High. “That’s something that we can’t stand. ”Cause if we do [act like that], we get picked on every day, on the basketball court and in the street. We can’t be like that. It’s something we’ve been battling all our lives.”

Racial politics also can play out in subtler ways. As a power forward — a very physical position — in Hayward’s open league, Park he says he was always up against taller and heavier men, and when push came to shove, it always worked against him. The bigger guy felt he could punk the Asian guy, but if the Asian guy fouled hard, he always got called for it. It’s common knowledge that refs sometimes cut the bigger guy — think Shaq — slack on fouls, since he just can’t help fouling hard.

The stereotypes work both ways, though. When Marshall’s team, Kurruption, first signed up in the Dream League, there was a lot of tension. His team has three half-black, half-Asian guys. Marshall believes that when a team beats Kurruption, they can boast that they beat the “black team.” And whenever his team wins, it could be spun as unfair that African Americans are taking over the league. “You get a lot of comments on the sidelines, like ‘Oh, I thought this was supposed to be an Asian league,'” he says. “But that’s just ignorance if they assume I’m 100 percent black just off the color of my skin.”

Twu prefers to see his organization as a way for people of different races to get familiar with one another. The league hires young people, most of them African American, as scorekeepers. “It takes time to build a symbiotic relationship between these two communities — inner-city kids and Asian-American basketball players,” Twu says. “It starts with exposure, and just seeing each other every Sunday.”

That’s not quite the same as playing together, though. On another Sunday at Ira Jinkins, a young black guy was hanging out watching. Basketball in tow, he’d hoped to shoot some hoop, but the entire day was slotted with Dream League games. He seemed a little awestruck. Turning to a freelance reporter, he asked, “What is this? Can I play in it?” How do you tell someone he can’t play because of his age and race?

“A lot of times kids will come and say, ‘Hey, what is this? How can I get involved?'” confirms Paul Bates, a forty-year-old Oakland Parks and Rec supervisor who refs for the Dream League. Yet Bates, who is African American, insists the league has done nothing but good for the community. Most of the gyms were closed on Sundays before the league started renting them from the city, he says. And besides, the rec centers are open to all during the rest of the week, and most of the players are black. “While it’s primarily an Asian-American league, you still have some levels where African Americans can participate,” he adds. “Some are players, and others are employed. It’s not just about basketball. It’s more of a way for different cultures to come together in ways that they ordinarily wouldn’t.”

Bates also likes that the league hires youngsters. “Our whole vision is to mentor and employ kids from the streets, from the inner-city neighborhoods, and give them jobs they’re interested in,” says Twu, who gave up a job at Price Waterhouse Coopers to run his league full-time. He says the Dream League has six or so young people working part-time, and has employed more than thirty others over the past few years.

When asked point-blank about the race requirement, Twu takes a long pause, then responds that he has to draw the line somewhere. “Sometimes I feel that people may feel like we’re prejudiced against them,” he says. “You can group people differently. There’s women’s leagues, coed leagues, gay and lesbian leagues, corporate leagues. We just happen to be an Asian-American league.”

Some of the guys play elsewhere — in city leagues, open leagues, at Cal’s Recreational Sports Facility, or in a Filipino league, but many are weekend warriors — students or young professionals who just want a chance to play a game or two on weekends. “Here, the competition is still intense, but that environment is much more conducive for Asian players to do their thing in an environment that is relatively comfortable for them,” Park says.

Witness a Dream League game and you can feel the love in the sweaty air. The players respect the refs, give ’em high fives, laugh, make small talk. Even the kids who walk in off the streets to catch a glimpse give props when one of the players makes a buzzer-beater or a longshot three-pointer. They laugh and jeer when someone is blocked or misses an easy shot. Everyone seems in his element. Even rival players joke around and have fun. Everyone seems to know everyone else, and respect is doled out freely.

Race really isn’t the important thing here, says Marshall, adding that he doesn’t think the league’s requirements are discriminatory. “The important part is the friendly competition,” he says.

Then again, he has his birth certificate to show.

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