WACO, Texas — Jason Terry’s sweet basketball stroke has taken him all over the country during his 18-year NBA career, but six years ago he witnessed something that he had never and very likely will never see again.
Terry was readying his daughter, Jasionna, and her sixth-grade basketball team for a game in Texas when the former Sixth Man of the Year saw an Asian mother and daughter going through a rigorous basketball workout.
Terry couldn’t stop watching as the Chinese American girl meticulously went through catch-and-shoot drills and one-dribble pull-up jumpers. He was floored by the girl’s fundamentals, sophisticated shooting touch, sound footwork and disciplined work ethic for her age.
Terry had so many questions about this unique mother-daughter tandem. Where did they come from? Where did the mother learn these NBA drills? Exactly how old was this girl? So Terry introduced himself.
“Those drills aren’t regular,” Terry recalled. “They said she was in the sixth grade. I said, ‘Sixth grade only! And you’re working on NBA workout drills?’
“The way she shoots … I have never seen anyone like her.”
Natalie Chou is a rare sight indeed — a 6-foot-1 Chinese American female basketball player with McDonald’s All American credentials, now a freshman for the No. 4 Baylor Bears.
There are so few female Asian American players at this elite level that the No. 8 recruit in the country has been dubbed by some Chinese media outlets as the female Jeremy Lin. It’s a label that likely has more to do with her ethnicity and potential than her actual playing style, but still one she wholeheartedly embraces.
Lin is familiar with the Baylor freshman. And like Lin, Chou wants to be a role model for the Asian community and perhaps one day spark a new generation of Asian female basketball players.
“I think she will carve out her own nickname and her own lane once people see her,” Terry said. “She is not as flashy as Jeremy, but her fundamentals, the way she plays the game is pure and only will continue to get better.
“I don’t know how many Asian Americans have been in the WNBA,” Terry added, “not only at Baylor but beyond, she will make her mark in history.”
Under the strict tutelage of her mother, Quanli Li, who played professional basketball in China, and with Terry as a mentor, Natalie is one of three heralded freshmen who comprise what some consider to be the top recruiting class in the country. The Lady Bears visit No. 22 Tennessee Sunday (2 p.m., ESPN2).
It’s been a slow adjustment so far for the versatile guard, who has played in all nine of Baylor’s games while averaging 12.1 minutes and 3.4 points per game and shooting only 4-of-14 from 3-point range. With four starters returning from last season’s 36-2 team, head coach Kim Mulkey can afford to be patient with her prized class, which also includes Lauren Cox, the top-ranked recruit in the country, and 40th-rated prospect Calveion “Juicy” Landrum.
But Natalie’s high school accomplishments while at Dallas’ Plano West — which include averaging 24 points and 7 rebounds as a senior and winning a gold medal with Cox on the U17 USA Basketball team in 2014 — has Lin very bullish about Natalie’s future.
“I think for us [Asians], I am always going to root for any story like that,” said Lin, who first read about Chou earlier this year. “[An Asian American female basketball player] is going to break even more stereotypes in a lot of different ways. That is why I am really rooting for her.”
An American dream
Quanli Li sits on a massive sofa in a lounge adjacent to Baylor’s women’s basketball locker room.
Nearby there’s a film room that any basketball coach would love, where her younger daughter, Natalie, is conducting an interview in Chinese — albeit in her “Chinglish” accent, as Natalie’s older sister, Mengting, but goes by her nickname Tingting, likes to describe it.
Li is supportive but demanding, pushing her kids to excel with a relentless work ethic and unwavering drive for perfection that has driven Natalie to tears on countless occasions.
“We would be at halftime of a game, and Natalie might have missed two or three shots or turn the ball over a couple of times or just not playing up to her mother’s standards,” said Terry, who recruited Chou to play four seasons on his Lady Jets AAU team. “She would come up to her at halftime. I don’t know what she would say but Natalie would be in tears, her eyes would get red and then she’d go out and have a great second half of the game.
“But their relationship is a great mother-daughter, student-coach relationship. I can just tell she idolizes her mother greatly. It is amazing to watch.”
On this late September day near the Lady Bears’ locker room, Li’s eyes begin to water and her voice quivers. Not in her wildest dreams did she ever imagine sitting in the basketball facility of an elite women’s basketball program with her daughter playing for one of the top four women’s teams in the country.
She’s overwhelmed with pride and what feels like four decades’ worth of emotions and sacrifice begins to seep out. From Beijing to Baylor, Li has given up so much to get her daughter to this point. A woman who has impressed the likes of Terry and Mulkey with her unwavering focus and determination for her daughter lets her guard down for a brief moment.
“This is more than I can ever imagine,” Li says. “My daughters are both doing so well. I did my best to raise them.
“I want to say thank God for watching over us starting from the first day we landed in this country,” Li added, wiping away a tear. “It is our opportunity. I am very happy. We are fortunate to come here. If anybody sets their minds to be successful and achieve your dream, this is a place you can do it.
“A lot of sacrifice. It was worth it.”
Li’s first sacrifice came at age 12, when she left her family and school to train with a Chinese professional basketball club in Beijing.
“We all lived in a small house,” said Li, who had two sisters and a brother. “At that time, that is how China was. Six people in one house and they all worked full time [or were at school] so I remember when I was little, I was always by myself.”
By 13, Li was earning a modest wage, but it was more than what her mother made while working in a factory. Nine years later, Li quit basketball, deciding to focus on her education.
She soon married and followed her husband, Joseph Chou, to Beaumont, Texas, where Chou studied engineering at Lamar University.
Li struggled to adjust, not knowing a single soul in the U.S. or being able to speak English very well.
“In China, sometimes I feel I am privileged,” Li said. “People really look up to you, respect you. But coming here, no one knows you. You’re starting all over … I could deal with daily life but still, I was kind of lost here.”
So Li leaned on her training and what she knew how to do best — basketball and hard work. She started going to the gym at Lamar to play pickup games and professors began wondering who this Chinese woman was who could really ball. Li says the Lamar women’s basketball coach came out to ask her if she wanted to join the team.
Now a mother, Li politely declined. But she had found something familiar that would help her adapt to her new surroundings. Basketball flowed through her Chinese blood. It was the language through which she could communicate best with Americans. She became a basketball instructor, teaching kids. And like many Asian parents who immigrated to the States, Li was hardest on her two most prized pupils, her daughters.
Li started with Tingting at the age of 7. Natalie followed her mom and sister to every basketball class and soon began to not only dribble a ball but execute crossovers by age 5.
“I teach a lot of kids,” Li said. “You can tell who is a quick learner. Once I noticed her talent, I said, ‘OK, I need to work on her.'”
Li, who eventually separated from her husband, raised her daughters believing that she had to push them harder to help them succeed in America. The way she figured it, her daughters were different here. Li didn’t see other Chinese or Asian girls playing basketball in Texas. She was determined to change people’s minds and show she was the best basketball skills coach and that her daughters could play with anyone — no matter how they might be judged based on their ethnicity.
“I guess the term is ‘tiger mom’ for Chinese moms,” said Tingting, who stressed that her mom also knew when to back off and let the sisters learn through their own experiences. “She was like that with me about grades, but she was like that with Natalie about basketball. A lot of high expectations. I think a lot of it has to do with the fact that we’re first-generation immigrants. My mom has made so many sacrifices, like when she came to the States, she had nothing. It is a lot of emphasis on work ethic and determination and never giving up.”
While Tingting began to focus on academics, Natalie quickly immersed herself in her mother’s sport.
Li ran Natalie through grueling workouts, harder and more detailed than any of her team practices. It was common for Natalie to practice twice a day, forsaking all the things kids her age did for fun. She traded sleepovers and school dances for basketball camps and tournaments.
“I have never been to a high school party,” Natalie Chou said without a hint of regret. “Well, I would never go to a high school party [anyway]. I never really got to go hang out with friends after school or over the weekends because I was always playing basketball.”
And Natalie never wanted to disappoint her mother, fully understanding all that Li sacrificed for her and Tingting. The pressure to play well is always there.
Natalie always knew where her mother sat during AAU and high school games — front row, center court. And she always heard Li, constantly coaching from the stands with instructions, words of encouragement and criticism in Chinese.
“She will always be like, ‘Da-Ta-La,'” Tingting says. “[She’s saying in Chinese], ‘Now is your time to [take her] one-on-one.'”
“It gets stressful because you are really trying to impress everyone else but you also have to impress your mom and your family,” Natalie admitted. “I think I care more about my mom’s opinion than anyone else’s except for my coaches like Coach Mulkey, whom I respect everything she says. But I feel it [if her mom is disappointed].
“It’s the worst when she doesn’t say anything. That is when you know you messed up.”
Li smiled when asked if she knows what a “tiger mom” is.
“I know,” Li said. “‘Hu-Ma.’ Like you are so [strict] to the kid, to everybody, so mean. Yeah, in some ways, I am. I can’t say I am a tiger mother [though]. I don’t think that is a good word. But I am pretty strict with them.
“It is not going to be easy. No one is going to baby you.”
The Asian girl
Natalie might get stressed when her mother is quiet, but she never worries about what opponents say about her or her ethnicity. She quickly became known as the Asian girl in every gym, especially after joining Terry’s AAU team.
“I would walk past teams that we were about to play and I would hear, ‘Oh! I got the Asian! That’s me, I am guarding her!’ Or, ‘This is going to be the easiest game,'” Natalie said. “And I would just start smiling because I was the best one on the team.
“They think you are Asian and you can’t really play sports. But usually in the first couple of seconds is when they realize, ‘Oh snap!’ I usually do a move and they are like, oh no, bad choice to guard me.”
Supporting her sister in the stands, Tingting has heard more ignorant comments and racial slurs.
“For some reason, there is always some sort of race card or negative terms that are thrown out,” Tingting said. “‘She sucks.’ ‘She’s Asian.’ Or ‘Oh, I’ll get the [Asian racial epithet].’ Those are things that make you feel so much better when you beat them.”
Terry has enjoyed watching Chou prove doubters wrong.
“After the second year (in AAU), it was like, ‘Oh no! Who is going to guard the Chinese girl?'” Terry says. “Her game was so good. Just watching her mature and grow and realize that hey, I am Chinese but I am a basketball player. She took race out of it when you saw her skill set.”
There have been some Asian female basketball standouts in college before, like Eun Jung Ok, who helped lead the University of Louisiana Monroe to the 1985 Final Four, and serves as the team’s associate head coach. More recently, Lindsey Yamasaki was a volleyball and basketball star at Stanford from 1998-2002.
Yamasaki, who is half Japanese, played for USA in the 2001 World University Games in Beijing and was the first Japanese American to play in the WNBA after being drafted in the second round by Miami in 2002. Leilani Mitchell, who is also half Asian, plays for the WNBA’s Washington Mystics, and Saniya Chong, who is half Chinese, is a senior starting for No. 2 UConn.
Still, the overall number of Asian American basketball players is microscopic. Asians and Pacific Islanders made up 1.0 percent of Division I female college basketball players in 2014-15, compared to 47.3 percent African-American players and 34.9 percent white players, according to The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport (TIDES) at Central Florida University.
“I can count on my two hands the number of [Asian] girls that I have played against during my 25 years,” said Yamasaki, who played professionally for four years and was the first head coach (2008-11) at the Academy of Art University in San Francisco. “I think there has been more diversity over the years but I am surprised there aren’t more Asian Americans. I think there are more but there are just still so few that it is not as noticeable.”
There was no overlooking Yamasaki and now Chou. Both stand at a stereotype-defying 6-foot-1.
“We are a little bit different that we physically don’t meet the stereotype that we are not short and we are not meek and these small guards,” Yamasaki said. “Some of the stereotypes that I even faced when interacting with Asian communities is that I am so physically different.”
Unlike Yamasaki and Chou, Natalie Nakase had to fight the stereotype of not only being a rare Japanese American female basketball player but one who barely cleared 5 feet in height. Nakase, now a video coordinator on Doc Rivers’ Los Angeles Clippers staff, always got looks for her stature, but she still walked on at UCLA in 1998 before finishing her college career as a three-year starter and an honorable mention All-Pac-10 point guard.
She was the first Japanese American in the now defunct National Women’s Basketball League and played professionally overseas for three years after she was among the last cuts for the Phoenix Mercury. A knee injury led her to enter coaching and Nakase became the first female head coach in Japan’s top men’s pro league.
Now Nakase continues to fight stereotypes as an Asian woman striving to be an NBA head coach someday. Nakase took notice of Natalie after first seeing the Texas teen on the U.S. under-17 national team. She also had a strict, basketball-loving parent who motivated her to overcome any obstacles she faced by working harder than everyone else, and she’s excited about the new path Natalie can blaze.
“Clearly it is possible,” Nakase said. “She is at a top-division school, and she is playing and she’s only a freshman. She was on the national team. I wish I was on the national team. I saw her and said, ‘Oh my gosh, there is an Asian on the national team!'”
Lin, the first American-born player of Chinese or Taiwanese descent to play in the NBA, said he is a little wary of people calling Chou the female version of him. Like Terry, Lin wants her to forge her own identity and wonders what kind of impact an Asian American female role model can have in basketball moving forward.
“You think about it, who is the voice of Asian females [in sports]?” wondered Lin, who pointed out that before “Linsanity” there were male Asian basketball players such as Yao Ming, Sun Yue and Wang Zhizhi among others who came before him. “Who is pioneering, what that should look like or who is challenging the stereotypes? There aren’t really that many female Asian basketball players or athletes in general. You have [figure skater] Michelle Kwan and people like that but I think this will be big because it’s different when it is basketball.
“It is harder for Asians to break in [in basketball] and they have to prove themselves more times than not and they have to stand out even more than the average person in order to be found, respected and given the same opportunity. But also in general, in years past, Asian American families didn’t put as much an emphasis on sports and basketball. So … I feel like this [Chou’s success moving forward] is a great example of challenging that.”
Natalie’s latest challenge
Before Mulkey convinced Natalie to pick Baylor over the likes of UCLA, California and Texas, the Baylor coach had a talk with Li that she won’t forget.
“I am very observant with parents,” Mulkey said. “Her mother is what I call a basketball junkie. Right before Natalie committed to us, Miss Li called me. She wanted to know this. And it just tickled me. She said, ‘Coach Mulkey, if Natalie comes to play for you, do you have a problem with me continuing to work her out?’
“I said, ‘Absolutely not. If you come to Baylor and go to the practice gym and you work her out, you may have more than Natalie in there with you.’ As long as we are on the same page and teaching the same things, how can you ever fault a parent for wanting to stay involved and wanting to develop a child?”
Mulkey recognizes that Natalie could be something she has never had in her Hall of Fame career.
“Miss Li brought up the fact that Natalie could potentially be your first Asian All-American,” Mulkey said. “I said, ‘Yes!’ I never thought about that. You think about a lot of barriers and firsts do come with Natalie. She can reach out to a lot of people that may not think that basketball is what they are supposed to be doing. Another thing that when you look at her is her size. When you think of Asian basketball players, they are usually smaller, quick guards. Natalie is 6-1. That is not something you see much of.”
While Natalie hasn’t immediately become a college star, Tingting says her sister is naturally a slow starter. Terry says it won’t be long before Natalie begins to feel more comfortable. The former NBA champion works out with Chou during the offseason, putting her through his drills.
“I try to challenge her and we are doing more than what I do in my workouts and she masters it,” Terry said. “After the first time, the next time she comes back, she will master it.”
In the meantime, Natalie hopes to use all that her mother has taught her to become something many haven’t seen that often — a Chinese American female basketball role model. She already has been approached by “little Asian girls” at games, the mall and church all wanting to talk or take a picture with the tall Asian girl who hopes to shatter some long-standing stereotypes.
“[I want to show] that we can actually play sports and are actually good at it,” Natalie said. “And that we are not just book-smart people. We are like a lot more than what y’all think.”