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Wednesday, May 1, 2002
The emphasis is not on 'Asian' but 'American'

By Ursula Liang
ESPN The Magazine

"Kill that Jap!" That's what the crowd chanted. Focus, focus, he told himself. Don't let them get into your head. Block them out. Focus. Just play through it. Focus. Just block them out. And play.

Michelle Kwan apparently wasn't such a household name, as recent headlines in major news organizations suggest.
Somehow, he did.

All that Japanese-American Wat Misaka could do in 1944, in the middle of World War II, was play. Put up and shut up. Prove them wrong. He served two years in the Air Force. He led the University of Utah to two national championships. He broke the color barrier in professional basketball in 1947, playing three games with the Knicks before Sweetwater ever suited up. But 58 years later, the memory of that one game at Utah State is burned into Wat Misaka's skull.

"We grew up with prejudice," Misaka says. "That's just how it was."

Racism has left a permanent mark on sports. But today, Asian Pacific Americans like Misaka are making their mark. Nguyen, Ichiro, Kim, Ohno, Yamasaki, Fonoimoana, Wang, Kariya, Woods. For decades, APA's were represented in spots and patches. Now, some 150 years after the first Chinese trickled into the U.S. to lay down the tracks for Japanese, Koreans, Filipinos, Hawaiians, Samoans to come, APA and Asian-national athletes are declaring their presence in numbers, medals and awards. Jocks of Asian descent are part of this country, a permanent and rapidly growing part of the culture of sports.

But if you listen closely, you can still hear the chants. The ignorant things that spit from lips in frustration when the other guy can point to the JumboTron and yell "scoreboard." Taunts of "genius" that one too many sips of froth can inspire: "Ching chong ching chong!" "Why don't you go eat some sushi!" or "Go home!" And the appalling slips of judgment that spell in big bold letters that even a four-time world champion skater who has represented the U.S. in three Olympics is still not American enough: "American Outshines Kwan." And four years earlier: "American Beats Out Kwan."

Small reminders that home plate is a far cry from homey. There is no welcome mat here. But APA's are planted on the doorstep, ready to come in. Because we love sports just as much as the next man or woman. Maybe even more. A recent survey reveals that Asian American boys identify professional athletes as their heroes more than any other race does. The rest praise moms, movie stars, and musicians.

We grew up with prejudice. That's just how it was.
Wat Misaka
Today, APA's can look up to athletes who look like them, whether they are Asian Americans or simply Asians playing in America. That's something to celebrate. Role models are crucial to possibility. One trail blazer can set fire to a lot of hopes and dreams. There are limited public images of APA's -- in politics, Hollywood, the media. But now we have sports. And the chance to escape some of the emasculating stereotypes that haunt APA's: Too small, too weak. Too quiet, too meek. And by the way, math won't help you here.

If sports can do anything for Asian Americans, it can help shatter those misconceptions. Because it all boils down to the game. If Yao Ming goes first in the NBA draft, score one point for huge. If Ichiro can play another MVP-caliber season, score one point for powerful. If Junior Seau can tackle one more QB, score another point for strong. If Paul Kariya can win another Lady Byng trophy, score one point for cool. And tally a win for a new generation of young APA's that buck the stereotypes, believe in themselves, and make waves in sports.

Whatever the crowds may yell, Asians in sports are here to stay. And as ranks of APA athletes grow, the barriers will shrink. Acceptance and understanding will grow. Debates over biological race-advantage and disadvantage will soften. WWII sentiments will go. And Asian families will have to begin to see competitive sports as an enriching and rewarding part of life.

Pioneers will become mentors. Burdens will be shared and shaken. Asian Americans will take the court, focusing on nothing but the game.

Just focus. And play.

Ursula Liang is a writer/reporter for ESPN The Magazine