Sunday, September 10, 2017

Before Jeremy

Here is one of the most intriguing and pertinent interviews ever in regards to Jeremy Lin and Asian American basketball. 

Please enjoy this amazing interview with Michael Matsuno, an Asian American who played D1 basketball at Long Beach State in the 1980's.


How was your experience at Long Beach State as one of the first and only Asian American’s playing D1 hoops?

Michael Matsuno:

I didn’t realize the significance at the time. I just really enjoyed competing against guys and loved to play the Game.  That’s all I did was play Basketball growing up– there were no video games, no social media, no youtube. Today kids are addicted to those time killers and it blunts their improvement. There’s only so much time in a day and basketball gets taxed when kids focus on unimportant things. My game evolved starting in 6th Grade, where everyday at lunchtime while other kids hung out, socialized and made friends I would go to the playground and play against all the hardcore basketball players – guys like Terrance Mullins (Oklahoma) and Robbie Grigsby (USF) at Aptos Middle School.  This is where I learned the true meaning of competing and street basketball. No fouls were ever called and everyone talked a lot of trash.  I was the only Asian kid on the court playing.  Every other kid was African American.  We would all go back to class drenched in sweat each day.  

In HS, I was recruited by UC Davis and thought I was going to play there. When I got my first recruiting letters from the coaches I was so excited and proudly showed my parents.   I also impressed coaches at a Fresno State Summer Basketball camp and they were looking at me because I dominated/won the one on one competitions and took my team to the championship. Almost went there but I ended up going down to Southern California (Long Beach State) and I was playing in a 3 on 3 tournament hosted by head coach Joe Harrington.  I impressed him as our team won the championship in the entire school.  During the championship game I got into an altercation with African American player and the Coach came out on the floor to separate us and he said he liked that type of competitors. He told me he was impressed the way I played and wanted me to come tryout for the team as a walk on.  I made the team out of about 100 guys. 

I was 6-3 but I was a post player in HS and now I was a point guard in D1.  I had to learn to handle the ball real fast.  The main advantage I had was that I was not afraid to compete against guys no matter who they were which I learned back in Middle School. I remember getting into an altercation with our 6-10 starting center De Anthony Langston in one of the first practices.  Thinking about it later I had to have been a little crazy because he was from South Central LA (Verbum Day).  Few days later, I remember one of my coaches (Butch Carter of Indiana Pacers) teaching me and a couple other guys that you always got to make a guy respect you no matter what. If you have to go get a chair and hit someone over the head you gotta do whatever it takes to demand respect.  I sat there thinking man this is insane but deep down I understood what he meant.  Respect is everything in the sports world and to a Man.  I remember our practices were grueling and tough every day.  It was a tense battle that you actually had to mentally prepare for or you wouldn’t make it through the day.  

The average basketball fan has no idea what goes on behind the scenes and the intensity of D1 Practices.  Seemed like guys would fight in practice once a week.  You have to remember, guys who make it this far to Div 1 had to be super competitive in addition to talented.  There’s just no way for a player to make it without those 2 things.  They all had an incredible work ethic as well.  Each day, in addition to our full schedule of classes, we would practice full blast for 2 hours, lift weights for 1 hour then go to study hall at night.  Some of the guys would go back in the gym for another 2 hours and get shots up till midnight or later. Some other guys would go run bleachers in the dark for more conditioning. I was thinking man these guys really put in work!  I started getting stronger, faster and tougher from all this work.  My confidence started growing.  Every player on the team could do incredible dunks. Rudy Harvey was the first player ever to do a 540 dunk (360 plus additional ½ turn dunk)in the country. Several guys went to play in the NBA (Morlon Wiley, Bryon Russell).  It was amazing seeing the commitment it took to play Division 1.  

In practices, guys would really go at one another cause everything was on the line in terms of playing time and starting spots. The coaches would be yelling and screaming at you each drill and it was an intense no nonsense 2 hours of pure hell.  Towards the end, it became a job and it was not really fun.  It was a physical and mental battle each and every day.   The games were fun and easy compared to practices. The intensity in practices was no different than games – practices were actually much harder cause all we seemed to do was defensive drills. We spent 80% of our time on defense. I would go to sleep each night literally exhausted. College ball is no joke –they play for their jobs here and it’s strictly a business.  I remember when we Played Purdue in Indiana and we got beat by like 45. After the game our coaches (Joe Harrington and Seth Greenberg) are livid and screaming at us as they are Crying in the locker room (literally tears streaming down their faces).  I realized at that moment that the coaches are really life and death into this thing. 

Being Asian, I knew everyone looked at me as different so I played with chip on my shoulder every day.  You basically had to prove everyday in practice why you are even on the team. I loved that challenge and used it as motivation to become only Asian Player in Div 1.  When we played LaSalle (nationally ranked at the time with Lionel Simmons) in Philadelphia. The game was televised nationally on cable and I scored a couple points at the end. My face and name graphic was on TV and lot of my family and friends back home in SF saw it. It was pretty big thing for me.


How much do you think things have changed in terms of Asian American players since you played?

Michael Matsuno:

Things have changed as more Asian American’s are playing the game. They love basketball more than Football or Baseball. The Asian Leagues have become very popular and there are many more teams and organizations than there were 30 years ago.  There are definitely more skilled Asian Players out there. Asian players have the speed and skills to compete no doubt.  When the size catches up to other players out there is when we will see more guys making a national impact.  

One thing I do notice is that the AAU circuit does not have Asian players out there.  When I went on the national AAU circuit the last couple years with my son Brandon there were times where we would be the only Asians in the entire complex (thousands of people). There were no Asians on other teams let alone any parents or people in the gyms/centers.  Brandon had to really compete out there cause the other players would go at him harder as he stuck out right away.  It made him a tougher player and competitor.  

I remember an NCAA U17 Viewing event in Portland Oregon and we would walk in the Gym (about 6 courts) and people would stare at us like what are you 2 doing here?  One guy actually said this is a AAU Basketball Tournament as if I had shown up for a math lecture or something.  Main thing I noticed about AAU (at least the NCAA viewing events) is that every player is good and can make shots and defend. Every player works on their game and takes it very serious. They wouldn’t be playing if they weren’t in this to go to higher levels. I train and coach my own AAU team ( and don’t see many Asian players let alone coaches out there on the circuit.  I see some in the Local events but most Asian players are more comfortable playing in Asian Leagues. 


Can you relate to what Jeremy has gone through as an Asian American playing D1 and in the pro’s?

Michael Matsuno:

Every time Jeremy Lin mentions the disrespect from other teams and fans I understand. I remember going to Utah State on road during a game and the fans are right there yelling racial insults at you.  One guy yelled at me “Go back to China Bruce Lee.”  Another guy said to me, “you can’t see slant eyes.” Just really bad stuff.  And what’s really worse is that all the other fans start laughing when these guys say these things.  I didn’t react to it to give them satisfaction of so I acted as if I could not hear it but I certainly did hear it all.  Basically they see someone who is different than others and they target him.   Asian stereotype is viewed as non-athletic, physically weaker, and not aggressive.  I teach my boys to break the stereotype.  I remember after I made the Long Beach State team, after the season when I would go play in open gyms or anytime I could , guys would go at me and really try to embarrass me cause I had made team and I was Asian. They felt man if this Asian guy can make team, I can do it to cause Asians can’t play.  I would always dunk the ball anytime I could so these guys would see an Asian player dunking – something they were never used to seeing.


Do you feel that there is still bias against Jeremy today in regards to how he is perceived?

Michael Matsuno:

Huge Bias vs Jeremy Lin.  Guys are very envious and jealous of him. Carmelo Anthony and JR Smith called his Houston Rocket contract ridiculous (very rare for NBA players to criticize other player contracts).You can tell when he received his contract for New Jersey that NBA guys were raising eyebrows and felt he didn’t deserve the money.  Coaches don’t let him play to his strength and talents because it upsets other teammates and causes jealousy (obvious in Houston, Lakers and Charlotte). The only coach that gave him a chance to fully showcase his talent was Dantoni.  Even the Nets coach seems to pull him back and rein him in.   Lin has the talent, athletic ability, smarts and competitiveness to be an NBA All Star but the bias is always there.  Linsanity is proven on tape and he was putting up NBA All-Star numbers. Now it’s just matter of being in situation where he is allowed to lead the team.  Linsanity still exists and it’s lurking but time is running out.  He’s soon going to have start battling age (Great NBA players after 30 are rare) so he has no time to waste and should really be aggressive now.


Where would you rank him in regards to top point guards in the NBA today?

Michael Matsuno:

Jeremy Lin is top 10 PG in talent and competiveness. The thing I love about J Lin is this guy is not afraid out there. When game is on the line or a key moment is at hand, he’s willing to take the shot and let the chips fall where they may. Not a lot of guys have that clutch gene and a I don’t give a damn attitude.  

Also from studying his games, Jeremy Lin is an underrated defender – I rarely see him get scored on and he will block shots of his man. He has a swagger - the hairstyles with the “look at me” mentality is totally non Asian but exactly what he needs to do. But most of all is he is a winning player.  When he has the keys to car his teams win in HS, College and Pros. One thing Jeremy can do to gain more respect out there is start to get double techs with guys who don’t respect him or hard foul him. Guys take shots at him and he has to defend himself.  If he has to get suspended or take fines so be it, he will gain more admiration from other players if he did this.  Goal is not to get in fist fights out there but to get in guys faces and saying that’s gotta stop.  

He should also look to dunk more and get on the highlight reel.  It’s risky (injury or flagrant foul) dunking in games at the NBA level but if he works on his jumping and strength (he’s already 6-4 and great athlete) he will blow up even more, I’ve seen him do it before.  It would bring his street cred up, earn a better shoe deal and garner more respect from other players. 


What type of impact do you feel Jeremy has made on the aa basketball community?

Michael Matsuno:

Asian Kids idolize J Lin. I see so many kids change their hairstyle (long hair and ponytail) because Lin started it.  He gives every Asian kid with a dream to play basketball at high level a chance.  He’s forged a path to follow to reach a dream. It’s so important to have that Ichiro Suzuki breakthrough so others can follow. More so than Yao Ming (7-5) – Jeremy Lin is more similar to Asian Kids because he’s a point guard.  Jeremy I wish would share the work ethic it took to get to the NBA because I don’t think Asian Players realize just how much it takes to be successful in Basketball. Bottom line, he’s the pioneer who represents all of us because he made it to the NBA and is a starting player.  

My 3 boys and I started following Jeremy Lin when he was a sophomore in HS.  We would drive down to Palo Alto for his games.  I remember seeing Jeremy dunk in HS Playoff game vs Richmond and I had never seen that before from an Asian player.  We knew he was special talent all the way back then. Didn’t know he would make to NBA but we knew he was something different.  At that time, I contacted his HS Coach Peter Diepenbrock and His Personal Coach Doc Scheppler to find out how we can follow in Jlin’s footsteps. My youngest son Michael got to play for Coach Diepenbrock for 3 years in NJB All Net and it was the best coaching I’ve ever seen. Peter was extremely hard on him more than the other kids but he saw something in him and the toughness developed and the skills he learned really prepared him for High School (Varsity All League as Freshman).  

When my son Brandon’s team was asked who their favorite basketball players was at an awards dinner most of them said Steph curry, Draymond green, LeBron James, Michael Jordan. Brandon said Jeremy Lin and the audience cheered.  Go J Lin!

Read more about Michael Matsuno here:

Mr. Nice

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