Blog Action Day: “I Look at all the Ugliness in Sports and Wonder”

At five, I fell in love with basketball.

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At eight, I wondered why more people didn’t love basketball as much as I did.  Growing up in Canada and being a NBA fan is rough.   I was the only kid in my entire school that followed basketball.  It was hockey over everything.  Since this was before the internet or League Pass, the only tool I had to follow the NBA was box scores in the newspaper, which only showed scores and standings, and the ten minutes Sportscentre spent on basketball highlights.  The only time I watched games was nationally televised games on NBC.  I would tape Bulls games and watch them over and over.  As much as I pushed basketball on my friends it never stuck, they didn’t care and didn’t have an interest in starting.  Growing up I was that kid who loved basketball and that became my identity.  I became defensive about the sport and the more people resisted against it, the more I took it personally.  I was an emotional and shy kid who just wanted my game to be accepted but what I really wanted was for me to be.

At fourteen I asked my parents why they named me Irving.  My dad explained to me that he wanted me to be a winner so they named me after Earvin Magic Johnson.  I was floored when my dad told me.  I was in grade nine, and I had a project for a religion class about your family.  It is interesting to think about because the perception my dad has of Magic and the perception I have of him are completely different.  My dad knows him as Magic Johnson, the Hall of Famer, the head of Showtime, and the best point guard ever.  For me, Magic is the best point guard of all time, one of the best five players ever but I only know him as a legend.  I have Youtube clips, and documentaries.  I’ve never seen him play.  I know Magic as an advocate for AIDS/HIV research, the owner of the Dodgers, and the most successful retired pro athlete ever.  I’ve never talked to my dad about when Magic announced his retirement.  I wonder if he wished he named me Michael or Isiah instead.  I want to ask him if he remembers where he was when he heard the news.

At sixteen my parents make comments about my friend circle.  I realize for the first time in my life my parents stereotype certain cultures and backgrounds.  It triggers a reverse racism in me.  Nothing could have prepared me for this moment.  I wanted to ask my parents, “Who are you right now?”  It was as if they transformed in front of me and I didn’t like anything about them.  I was confused, angry, and disappointed.  It was the first moment when I felt like they let me down.  It was one of those things – once it happens you can never forget and you start to notice things you didn’t before.  Maybe an awkward glance, or a pause in a conversation, or a shift in body language.  It is something I’m still trying to figure out.  Sometimes I see it and wonder if it’s nothing or if it’s something else, something deeper.  I’m not going to lie, what lies deeper, under the surface, it scares the shit out of me.

At seventeen I move to California to go to play at a Junior College.  My perception of sports culture is rocked and I don’t like it.  You can paint me as naive or call me an idealist but I thought when I went down to play college ball it would be like my high school experience.  What happened was my first real taste of reality.  Our team was a mess of ego.  Everyone wanted something, more shots, more minutes, more touches, more everything.  It wasn’t about the team anymore and wins and losses, it was about what you did to stand out.  To be honest, it felt like a poison.  This mentality kills teams and I’ll admit it, it spread to me and as soon as you feel entitled, it’s game over.  I lasted a year down there before leaving because I didn’t like who I was becoming and I didn’t like what basketball was turning into.  It wasn’t about basketball anymore, it was about everything else that came with it.

At twenty during a pick up game, another player says to me, “For an Asian, you can ball.”  I walk out of the gym.  I remember my friends wanting me to stay and keep playing and that the guy wasn’t serious but I couldn’t handle it.  I had to leave.  It wasn’t something that was acceptable, in all my twenty years it was the only time my race has been brought up, at least explicitly, on a basketball court.  I cried when I got home, I felt worthless.  I asked why did it matter that I was Asian?  It wasn’t the race part that upset me, it was all of the racial subtext that came with it; in basketball terms, I’m un-athletic, I can’t handle pressure, I’m too nice, I can’t play.

At twenty-two, Linsanity happens.  I hated Linsanity when it first started.  I thought it was over hyped, over covered, and over saturated.  I appreciated the story but my attitude was that Jeremy Lin still isn’t a top fifteen point guard in the league.  Looking back now it wasn’t that I hated Lin, I hated the idea of him.  I felt like it brought the NBA attention, that it didn’t need.  Yes, it is a great story but I didn’t feel like the Knicks needed a bunch of fans jumping on their bandwagon because of Lin.  I hate the fact people paint Lin as this “Great Yellow Hope.”  My favourite part of Linsanity was when Miami killed it.  I like the fact they brought him down from Earth because people were treating him as if he was some type of legend.  Michael, Magic, Bird, Kareem, and Russell are legends.  Lin is a great underdog story and he was a comet.  However, let’s not forget everything else in the NBA.

A month ago, I look at all the ugliness in sports and wonder why I still love it.

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ME: When I was five I wanted to be black.  Since all of my favourite basketball players were black, I wanted to be black as well.  I remember I would say this at school and when we would draw pictures of our families, I’d colour myself in black.

YOU: Why does that matter? Who noticed? Who was bugged?

ME: The first parent teacher interview my parents went to this was the topic of discussion.  I was five, I didn’t have any concept of race.  It was nothing against my parents, Michael Jordan was black and I wanted to be like him.

YOU: If you wanted to be like Jordan, why didn’t you draw yourself jumping? Wearing his jersey or sneakers? Dunking? Dribbling? Accepting awards? Running businesses? Why was it his skin colour, his blackness, that you thought would make you like Jordan? If Jordan was white, would you have even considered colouring your skin? Was it his race that made Jordan Jordan?

ME: My friends laugh when I tell this story today and joke that nothing has changed and I still want to be black.  I laugh along with them because it’s a funny story.  Yet, when I think about it now , how my parents and teacher reacted – as if there was something wrong with me – they just didn’t understand, it was never a race thing.  It was a basketball thing.  I just wanted to be like my hero.

YOU: Fair, but all things have histories. Basketball’s history is intricately intertwined with racism and race. Can you want to be like a hero who is heroic because of basketball, with it’s constant historical footprint, without also acknowledging, even absorbing, some of that history? Can anything ever just be a basketball thing, said so innocently, so exclusively?

ME: My experience from when I was five has made me realize that racism in sports has nothing to do with the sport itself.  Racism doesn’t fit inside a court or a rink or a field because once the game gets going the only thing that matters is if you can play or not.

YOU: But who decides what “you can play” means? Can everyone always play? How can something that measures success by aged, colonial yardsticks be innocent or uncomplicated? Can an athletic performance ever be separate from the history that creates and sustains the sport? How do we know what a sport it without turning to its history? How can we know what an athlete is without consulting our lived, corporeal, historical encyclopedia of athleticism? Maybe racism doesn’t fit inside the court, but it makes a court a court?

ME: Whatever we project onto to the field is an extension of ourselves.  Certain people in not just sports but pop culture transcend race.  Is it fair?  Of course not but that’s the world we live in.

YOU: Who gets to decide who transcends race, or what that looks like, or how you even do that? Can anyone transcend race? Is to transcend to be outside or race? Or is it hierarchical, are they above? Or within race, just differently? How can we learn from athletes who disrupt race? What do their stories teach us about our own stories and futures as athletes?

ME: It would be easy to shrug our shoulders and continue with the way things are or we can look around and question if there’s something we can do.  Are sports in a better place than it was in the sixties?  No question but the fact that it is still a talking point means we have a long way to go.

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Dear Future Kids,

I look at all the ugliness in sports and wonder why I love it.  Instead of wondering about tomorrow, I wonder about ten years from now when I’ll have you.  Do I want you to play sports?  Are there certain sports I’ll try and steer you away from?  Asking myself these questions I realize I want you to decide for yourself if you want to walk down that path.  If you do, I want you to know, I will support you hundred percent.  My biggest worry – besides an injury – is if I can step aside and not be an overbearing sports parent.  I have my reasons for loving sports but I don’t want to impose my reasons onto you.  I want you to discover your own reasons.  I ask myself, “Why I love sports,” more often than I would I would like.  I’m older now, and the more you love sports, the more sports becomes less about sports and everything else.  It becomes about capitalism, commercialization, off court scandals, wondering if Player X is using PEDs, placing unfair expectations of eighteen year old kids, and watching your favourite players age not so gracefully after they retire.

How do I expose you to these kind of things?  How far do I push you?  How far do I want to push you?  When will you be ready for certain ideas and view points?

I don’t have an answer to these questions and I’m sure most parents don’t.  Even if these conversations terrify me, I  hope you decide to give sports a try.  There’s nothing better than discovering a passion, when you’re a kid that love is pure.  All you see is the game, you don’t need to take a peek behind the curtain, all the magic is in front of you.  Why would I want to deprive you of that feeling?  Because once it grabs a hold of you no matter what happens, it will never let you go.

So what happens when the other stuff begins to intrude into the magic?  What happens when you realize not everyone has the same pure view of the game as you, whether it is strategy, or philosophy of the game is played, or even race and sexual orientation.  The only thing I can do at that point is nudge and point you in the right direction using anecdotes and stories which resonate with me.  I want you to understand that sports is a metaphor for life, that the lessons you learn on the court can be applied off of it.  I want you to understand that most players have their own agendas and that’s okay but remember individual success never trumps team success.  I want you to understand why it was a big deal when Jason Collins came out and hopefully when you’re playing sports will be in a better place than it is now.  I want you to know that we live in an age where pro athletes are guilty until proven innocent and hopefully sports will be in a better place than it is now.  I want you to be able to watch your favourite athletes and say, “One day that’ll be me,” but understand that being a pro athlete isn’t the end all, be all.  I want sports to be in a better place than it is today in terms of all the ugliness above and for you to not take the improvements for granted.

I hope you ask me the difficult questions and I not only hope I have the answers but you make the right decisions.

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Why does it matter to everyone so much which sport I play? I’m an athlete. That’s what matters. Who cares that I’m 12 or a girl or short or even if I have 2 heads. I play sports. Hockey, ringette – why does everyone always double check with me? When I say hockey, I actually mean hockey. You might have seen it. Puck, ice, sticks, helmets, goalies, refs. It’s a thing. Girls can do it to. Why does everyone care so much that a girl plays hockey? Why is it so weird, so novel? And why do I care so much as to correct them that no, it’s hockey. Not ringette. Is it because hockey matches more the historical Greek athlete statue guy: a naked man with rippling muscles out-dueling another man in a battle of will, strength, and physicality; a battle of masculinity? Or because ringette has an age group called “bunnies”, something light, fluffy, white, and innocent, something so majorly in line with femininity? Which do I want? Do I have to pick one? Can I ever just be an athlete, or do athletes always have genders? Do I ever just get to be a genderless player; just an athlete, creating, creative, doing, done, queer, revolutionary, un-sexualized, neither male nor female or anywhere you can name in between? Or does it mean something that athletes have gender; is it because athletes always have gender that they are important. Is it that athletes are always mixed up in gender crap that we have the power to shift stuff for the better?

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Soundtrack to an Empty Gym

I stand here in an empty gym.
I have my shoes, my ball, and a hoop.
These are the instruments
to express my love for the game,
it is all I’ll ever need.

It is a sanctuary
from the default world.
All of the scars, warts, and heartbreak
this life offers.
Is washed away by a reminder
of the simplicity this game brings.

It is home
it is a place where
I don’t need to pretend to be anyone else.
All of my imperfections
my fears
and failures
on display.
I have no worries
because I know the game
will never throw me away.

I stand here in an empty gym.
I have my shoes, my ball, and a hoop.
It is all I’ll ever need.
I love this game.

A month ago, I look at all the ugliness in sports and wonder why I still love it.

Irving Chong (@Irving_Chong) and Nicole (@_nicoliooo) are co-creators of This is Why we Can’t Have Nice Things even though it doesn’t make sense why they’re friends.

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