Where EAST meets the Northwest
Jason Day of the Professional Golfers’ Association. (AP
Photo/Eric Christian Smith)
Ichiro Suzuki of Major League Baseball. (AP Photo/Elaine
Nahomi Kawasumi (left, blue jersey) of the National Women’s
Soccer League. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)
Center Yao Ming play in the National Basketball Association
from 2002 to 2011. (AP Photo/Pat Sullivan)
Ken Niumatalolo was the first Samoan head coach in college
football history. (AP Photo/Brandon Wade)
From The Asian Reporter, V31, #1 (January 4, 2021), pages 11 & 12.
Greater respect: Asian athletes in American sports
By Mike Street
Special to The Asian Reporter
After 14 years and more than 150 Asian-American Sports Digests, I’ll be
pausing these columns to pursue a doctoral degree. In my time writing for The
Asian Reporter, I’ve seen major changes in the role of Asian and
Asian-American athletes across the sporting world. So now let’s take a look back
at some of the most significant changes since my first column in 2006, which all
show a growing respect for athletes with eastern roots.
Golf has transformed the most. On the men’s side, players like South Korea’s
K.J. Choi or Filipino-Australian Jason Day continued to shine, and Japan’s
Hideki Matsuyama put together several good seasons. We’ve seen brief surges from
players like Japan’s Ryo Ishikawa, or Asian-Americans Kevin Na, Tony Finau, and
Michael Kim. And I’m sure we’ll see more in the future from Japanese-American
Collin Morikawa, the 2020 Professional Golfers’ Association (PGA) Championship
But the women’s side has been absolutely dominated by Asian golfers, nearly
all of them from South Korea. The most successful since 2006 has been Inbee
Park, who has 20 wins and 7 major victories under her belt since her 2007
breakthrough, though her best years might be behind her.
Following in her footsteps, all nine Ladies Professional Golf Association
Rookies of the Year since 2010 have been Asian, seven of them from South Korea.
Those seven include players like Sei Young Kim, So Yeon Ryu, Sung Hyun Park, and
Jin Young Ko, who among them have 31 wins and 7 major victories.
My favorite sport, Major League Baseball (MLB), has also seen an explosion of
Asian talent. In 2006, only a handful of MLB players came from Japan’s Nippon
Professional Baseball (NPB), including the incomparable Ichiro Suzuki. I watched
Ichiro set historic records, collect his 3,000th MLB hit, and play for Don
Wakamatsu, MLB’s first manager with Asian heritage.
Ichiro’s success and other significant events have dramatically shifted the
market in NPB players. Pitcher Daisuke Matsuzaka was a $100-million MLB failure,
and pitcher Junichi Tazawa skipped the NPB amateur draft to play in MLB. So the
two leagues reached a new agreement, making it easier to acquire NPB players,
and every year brings more Japanese talent to MLB.
South Korea has also become a big market for MLB players, ever since pitcher
Hyun-jin Ryu came over from the Korean Baseball Organization (KBO) and became an
all-star. Both South Korea’s and Japan’s baseball reputations have been
bolstered by their country’s performances in the World Baseball Classic (WBC).
Japan medalled in all four WBC tournaments, winning twice, including against
South Korea in the 2009 all-Asian final; South Korea earned a bronze medal in
Football has also increased Asian representation, starting at the very top.
At the end of the 2007 campaign, the Naval Academy made Ken Niumatalolo the
first Samoan head coach in college football history. Since then, he has become
Navy’s winningest head coach ever, leading them to 10 bowl games and 10 winning
On the field, Asian football players have typically been linemen or
linebackers, but now we see some top-flight Asian quarterbacks. Samoan sensation
Marcus Mariota won the Heisman Trophy after leading the Oregon Ducks to 36 wins
in three seasons and the very first College Football Playoff Championship game
The 2018 national championship game was where quarterback Tua Tagovailoa of
Hawai‘i surged into prominence, leading Alabama to a second-half comeback win
against Georgia. Tagovailoa was a Heisman finalist and, along with Mariota, is
now playing in the National Football League.
As both Major League Soccer (MLS) and the National Women’s Soccer League
(NWSL) have grown, they have also increased their eastern talent. Some Asian
players see the two leagues as a stepping stone. South Korean Kim Kee-hee
recently did this with the Seattle Sounders, while NWSL legend and two-time MVP
Samantha Kerr, who has Indian roots, set scoring records in the NWSL before
leaving for Chelsea in the English FA Women’s Super League.
Others come to the leagues to play long-term, or to end their careers.
Legendary South Korean defender Young-Pyo Lee retired with the Vancouver
Whitecaps, while Maori defender Abby Erceg has led her teams to three NWSL
championships since 2014. Both leagues are packed with regulars with Asian
roots, like Japan’s Tsubasa Endoh in MLS and Nahomi Kawasumi in NWSL, or
Asian-Americans Caprice Dydasco in the NWSL and Lee Nguyen in MLS.
Sadly, the National Basketball Association (NBA) has moved in the opposite
direction. When I began the column in 2006, Chinese center Yao Ming looked ready
to become basketball’s Ichiro after three seasons with the NBA’s Houston
Rockets. Instead, Yao played for only three more seasons, forced into early
retirement by chronic foot injuries.
Yao’s countryman, Yi Jianlian, tried to follow in his footsteps, but the
lanky power forward never got strong or consistent enough to be an NBA star and
returned to China after five lackluster seasons. Taiwanese-American Jeremy Lin,
on the other hand, ignited "Linsanity" by coming off the bench to lead the New
York Knicks to a dramatic finish during the 2011-2012 season. But Lin never
could recapture that same magic, spending seven more seasons in the NBA, mostly
on the bench, including a stint with the champion Toronto Raptors in 2019.
But there are two NBA bright spots to watch. One is forward Rui Hachimura,
who became the first Japan-born player to be drafted in the first round when the
Washington Wizards picked him ninth overall in 2019. Named to the NBA’s
All-Rookie second team after an excellent first season, Hachimura should
continue to grow.
The other bright spot, Filipino-American NBA head coach Erik Spoelstra,
became the NBA’s first Asian-American head coach in 2008 when the Miami Heat
promoted him into that role. Since then, Spo and his team won the NBA
championship twice in five appearances, four of those with a team led by the Big
Three — LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, and Chris Bosh — that is considered one of
the best in history. Spo brought a completely different team to the NBA Finals
last season, making him one to keep watching.
Outside of the major sports, we’ve seen two Asian champions come and go.
Manny Pacquiao won titles in eight different divisions, a record-setting
performance for the Filipino boxer, but he is well past his prime and more
focused on his senatorial career. And Japan’s Takeru Kobayashi made headlines by
winning six straight Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating Contests, but a dispute with Major
League Eating has kept him away from the contest since 2009.
There are many, many more Asian triumphs I have enjoyed writing about, and I
hope you’ve enjoyed reading their stories. There was Team Japan winning the 2011
Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA) Women’s World Cup, and
then reaching to the championship match again in 2015. Or the Little League
World Series, which almost always features an Asian or Asian-American team — or
two — in the final game. Or Chinese-American Nathan Chen dominating the world of
As sports leagues learn to respect athletes with Asian roots as I do, there
will be even more great stories of Asian-American athletes. I hope one day I can
tell those stories again.
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