Asian Americans in sports

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Asian Americans have been involved in sports for as long as they have existed. They have had careers in the NFL, Olympics, PGA Tour, NBA, and many more global sports organizations. Athletes like Tiger Woods, Apolo Ohno, and Kristi Yamaguchi have been seen as trailblazers and game-changers in their sports. They have gone from breaking color barriers in the NHL and NBA to becoming world champions in their respective sports. Many of these great athletes' careers fell into the shadows of sports history, but their impact will forever remain concrete in the sports realm.


Wataru Misaka broke the BAA, Basketball Association of America, the precursor to the NBA, color barrier when he played for the New York Knicks in the 1947–48 season.[1] Wataru only played in three games for the Knicks averaging 2.3 points a game. Another Asian American NBA player was Raymond Townsend. Townsend played for the Golden State Warriors and Indiana Pacers from 1978 to 1982.[1] Rex Walters, played from 1993 to 2000 with the Nets, Philadelphia 76ers and Miami Heat;[1] he is presently the head coach for the University of San Francisco basketball team.[2] After playing basketball at Harvard University, point guard Jeremy Lin signed with the NBA's Golden State Warriors in 2010[1] and won an NBA Championship with the Toronto Raptors in the 2018-2019 NBA season. Lin currently plays basketball in the NBA G League with the Santa Cruz Warriors. Jordan Clarkson of the Utah Jazz is also of partial Filipino-American descent.

Current Kansas Jayhawks assistant coach Kurtis Townsend is Raymond Townsend's brother.[3]

Erik Spoelstra, whose mother is Filipino, became the youngest coach ever in NBA history. He is currently the head coach of the Miami Heat.[4]

Multisport Athletes[edit]

Hines Ward-Pittsburgh Steelers
Wally Yonamine in 1951

A well known Asian American that played in the NFL was Hines Ward. Hines father served in the US Army and his mother was a Korean woman named Young He. At a young age Hines moved to Atlanta, Georgia when his father was stationed in Germany. Not soon after his father abandoned him and his family and his mother raised him on her own. Ward was skilled in both football and baseball. Prior to playing wide receiver at the University of Georgia, Ward was drafted by the Miami Marlins and offered a $25,000 signing bonus.[5] He was drafted 92nd overall in the NFL draft by the Pittsburgh Steelers and played all 14 seasons for the organization.[6] Along with being a magnificent athlete, Ward spoke out against discrimination issues that were occurring in his birthplace of South Korea.

Walter "Sneeze" Achiu may have been the first great Asian American multisport athlete. He became the first person of east Asian descent to play in the National Football League.[7] At the University of Dayton, he was a three-sport athlete participating in football, baseball, and track. Walter Achiu was inducted into the University of Dayton Hall of Fame in 1974.[7] After his' time in the NFL, Achiu went on to become a professional wrestling champion when he competed in the 1950s.[7]

Another great Asian American multisport athlete was Wally Yonamine. Wally Yonamine played professionally in the NFL for a single season with the San Francisco 49ers in 1947. In his one season with the team, he had 19 carries for 74 yards and caught 3 passes for 40 yards.[8] After his brief career in the NFL Wally traveled overseas to play baseball. In 1951, he became the first American to play professional baseball in Japan, leading off for the Yomiuri Giants.


Norm Chow was the head coach for the University of Hawaii from 2012 to 2015 and former offensive coordinator for UCLA from 2008 and 2010 after a short stint with the Tennessee Titans of the NFL, after 23 years of coaching other college teams, including four years as offensive coordinator at USC. In 1962, half Filipino Roman Gabriel was the first Asian American to start as an NFL quarterback. Dat Nguyen was an NFL middle linebacker who was an all-pro selection in 2003 for the Dallas Cowboys. In 1998, he was named an All-American and won the Bednarik Award as well as the Lombardi Award, while playing for Texas A&M University. Hines Ward, who was born to a Korean mother and an African American father, is a former NFL wide receiver who was the MVP of Super Bowl XL. Ward also won the 12th season of the Dancing with the Stars television series. Former Patriots linebacker Tedy Bruschi is of Filipino and Italian descent. While playing for the Patriots, Bruschi won three Super Bowl rings and was a two-time All-Pro selection. Bruschi is currently an NFL analyst at ESPN. Younghoe Koo, the current kicker for the Atlanta Falcons, was born in South Korea and is the fourth player in NFL history to have been born in South Korea.[a] 2018 Heisman Trophy winner, 1st overall pick of the 2019 NFL Draft and Arizona Cardinals quarterback Kyler Murray is of partial Korean descent.[10]

Mixed martial arts[edit]

Bruce Lee in 1971

In 2004, UFC President Dana White called Bruce Lee the "father of mixed martial arts".[11]

There are several top ranked Asian American mixed martial artists. BJ Penn is a former UFC lightweight and welterweight champion. Cung Le is a former Strikeforce middleweight champion. Benson Henderson is the former WEC lightweight champion and a former UFC lightweight champion. Nam Phan is UFC featherweight fighter.


Ford Konno at the 1952 Olympics

Asian Americans first made an impact in Olympic sports in the late 1940s and in the 1950s. Victoria Manalo Draves won both gold in platform and springboard diving in the 1948 Olympics, becoming the first Asian American to earn a gold medal. Sammy Lee became the first Asian American man to earn an Olympic Gold Medal (two days after Draves), winning in platform diving in both 1948 and 1952. Harold Sakata won a weightlifting silver medal in the 1948 Olympics, while Tommy Kono (weightlifting), Yoshinobu Oyakawa (100-meter backstroke) and Ford Konno (1500-meter freestyle) each won gold and set Olympic records in the 1952 Olympics. Konno won another gold and silver swimming medal at the same Olympics and added a silver medal in 1956, while Kono set another Olympic weightlifting record in 1956. Also at the 1952 Olympics, Evelyn Kawamoto won two bronze medals in swimming.

Eric Sato won gold (1988) and bronze (1992) medals in volleyball, while his sister Liane Sato won bronze in the same sport in 1992. Brothers Kawika and Erik Shoji won bronze medals in volleyball in 2016.

Amy Chow was a member of the gold medal women's gymnastics team at the 1996 Olympics; she also won an individual silver medal on the uneven bars. Gymnast Mohini Bhardwaj won a team silver medal in the 2004 Olympics. Bryan Clay who is of half Japanese descent[12] won the decathlon gold medal in the 2008 Olympics, the silver medal in the 2004 Olympics, and was the sport's 2005 world champion.

Since Tiffany Chin won the women's US Figure Skating Championship in 1985, Asian Americans have been prominent in that sport. Kristi Yamaguchi won three national championships, two world titles, and the 1992 Olympic Gold medal. Michelle Kwan has won nine national championships and five world titles, as well as two Olympic medals (silver in 1998, bronze in 2002). At the 2018 Winter Olympics, Mirai Nagasu became the first American woman to land the triple axel in Olympic competition.

Apolo Ohno, who is of half Japanese descent,[13] is a short track speed skater and an eight-time Olympic medalist as well as the most decorated American Winter Olympic athlete of all time. He became the youngest U.S. national champion in 1997 and was the reigning champion from 2001 to 2009, winning the title a total of 12 times. In 1999, he became the youngest skater to win a World Cup event title, and became the first American to win a World Cup overall title in 2001, which he won again in 2003 and 2005. He won his first overall World Championship title at the 2008 championships.

Nathan Adrian, who is a hapa of half Chinese descent,[14] is a professional American swimmer and three-time Olympic gold medalist who currently holds the American record in the 50 and 100-yard freestyle (short course) events. He has won a total of fifteen medals in major international competitions, twelve gold, two silver, and one bronze spanning the Olympics, the World, and the Pan Pacific Championships.

Bryan Clay, who won the 2008 Summer Olympics gold in the decathlon. He also previously won a silver medal in the decathlon in the 2004 Summer Olympics. Clay was dubbed the "World's Greatest Athlete" for the 2008 win with a 240-point margin between him and the next competitor. He is Afro-Asian with his mother being Japanese and his father being black.

Other sports[edit]

Michael Chang in 1994

Bobby Balcena was a Filipino American athlete from San Pedro, CA. He had a 15 year career in the minor leagues from 1948-1963. He played outfielder with the Wichita Indians, San Antonio Missions, Kansas City Blues, Buffalo Bisons, Dallas Rangers, Vancouver Mounties, Hawaii Islanders, Toronto Maple Leafs and Seattle Rainiers.[15] In 1956, Bobby Balcena became the first Asian American to play in Major League Baseball, playing two games for the Cincinnati Redlegs.[16] He died in 1990 and until then had been the only Filipino American to play in Major League Baseball.[17]

In long distance running, Miki Gorman won the Boston and New York City marathons twice in the 1970s. A former American record holder at the distance, she is the only woman to win both races twice, and is one of only two women to win both marathons in the same year.

Michael Chang was a top-ranked tennis player for most of his career. He was seen as an underdog standing at 5'9 and weighing only 150 pounds. He was the youngest tennis player to be ranked among the five best players in the world.[18] Chang was fifteen years old when he went from juniors to professional. He became the youngest to win a match at the US open and go to the semifinals. He went pro in 1988 and in 1989, at the age of seventeen, he became the youngest player ever to win the French Open, and the first American to win the event since 1955.[18] Chang gained an estimated $18 million from tournament winnings excluding product endorsements.

Tiger Woods, an Afro-Asian, is the most successful golfer of his generation and one of the most famous athletes in the world. He began his amazing career when he became the youngest man, at the age of 21, and the first African American to win the U.S. Masters in 1997.[19] Woods made his first appearance in the British Open later that year and tied the course record of 64. Woods won another 13 majors and was named the PGA Player of the Year 10 times over the next 12 years.[19] His most recent major victory was at the 2019 US Masters after many doubted his return. Later in the year, Tiger Woods won the Zozo Championship to tie Sam Snead's PGA Tour record of 82 victories. Tiger Woods has gained more than $118 million in career earnings and having an estimated net worth of $800 million.

Eric Koston is one of the top street skateboarders and placed first in the 2003 X-Games street competition. Richard Park is a Korean American ice hockey player who currently plays for the Swiss team HC Ambri-Piotta.

Brian Ching, whose father was Chinese, represented the United States Men's National Soccer Team, scoring 11 goals in 45 caps. He participated in the 2006 World Cup and won the 2007 Gold Cup.[20]

Julie Chu, who is three-quarters Chinese and one-quarter Puerto Rican,[21] is an American Olympic ice hockey player who played for the United States women's ice hockey team. She was also US Olympic Team Flag Bearer for the 2014 Winter Olympic Closing Ceremonies.[22]

See also[edit]

List of Asian Americans: Sports


  1. ^ Koo joined John Lee, Hines Ward, and Kyle Love as the fourth NFL player born in South Korea.[9]


  1. ^ a b c d Beck, Howard (December 28, 2011). "Newest Knick Out to Prove He's Not Just a Novelty". New York Times. Retrieved February 7, 2012. Lin, whose parents are from Taiwan, is the N.B.A.'s first American-born player of Chinese or Taiwanese descent. He is the league's fourth Asian American, following Raymond Townsend (Filipino-American), who played for the Warriors (1978–80) and Indiana Pacers (1981–82); Wat Misaka (Japanese-American), who was with the Knicks in 1947–48; and Rex Walters (half Japanese), who played from 1993 to 2000 for the Nets, Philadelphia 76ers and Miami Heat.
  2. ^ "Rex Walters". Men's Basketball. University of San Francisco Athletics. Archived from the original on November 23, 2011. Retrieved February 7, 2012.
  3. ^ Haskin, evin (March 24, 2007). "Jayhawks not thinking NBA". The Topeka Capital-Journal. Archived from the original on May 28, 2013. Retrieved February 7, 2012.
  4. ^ Meet new Miami Heat coach Erik Spoelstra Archived May 3, 2008, at the Wayback Machine
  5. ^ Greenlaw, Marshall (2017-05-28). "Hines Edward Ward Jr. (1976- ) •". Retrieved 2020-05-31.
  6. ^ "Hines Ward Stats". Retrieved 2020-06-01.
  7. ^ a b c "7 Asian American sports trailblazers who changed their games". NBC News. Retrieved 2020-06-01.
  8. ^ Weber, Bruce (2011-03-04). "Wally Yonamine Dies at 85; Changed Japanese Baseball". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved 2020-06-01.
  9. ^ Manza Young, Shalise (September 3, 2017). "Rookie Younghoe Koo wins Chargers kicking competition, continuing his fantastic story". Archived from the original on September 3, 2017.
  10. ^ "Kyler Murray dishes about his dodgeball, The Streak and being a road warrior". USA Today High School Sports. December 8, 2014. Retrieved March 13, 2019.
  11. ^ Wickert, Marc. 2004. Dana White and the future of UFC. See Wikiquotes for the text.
  12. ^ "Bryan Clay Profile & Bio". 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics. NBC. August 8, 2008. Retrieved August 23, 2008.
  13. ^ Allen, Percy (March 15, 1996). "Fed. Way Speedskater Decides To Take His Time". The Seattle Times. Retrieved December 22, 2009.
  14. ^ America's Olympic Crush [1] Retrieved December 15, 2012
  15. ^ "San Pedro's Bobby Balcena Dead at 64 : Baseball: He will be remembered as the only Filipino to make it to the major leagues". Los Angeles Times. 1990-01-10. Retrieved 2020-06-01.
  16. ^ Lariosa, Joseph (26 June 2013). "Fil-Am was 1st Asian to play in major league baseball". Filipino Star News. Michigan. Retrieved 24 April 2018.
    Linda J. Borish; David K. Wiggins; Gerald R. Gems (4 October 2016). The Routledge History of American Sport. Taylor & Francis. p. 360. ISBN 978-1-317-66249-5. Southern Californian Bobby Balcena was the first Asian American to play Major League Baseball.
    Florante Peter Ibanez; Roselyn Estepa Ibanez (2009). Filipinos in Carson and the South Bay. Arcadia Publishing. p. 73. ISBN 978-0-7385-7036-5.
  17. ^ Hillinger, Charles (10 January 1990). "San Pedro's Bobby Balcena Dead at 64 : Baseball: He will be remembered as the only Filipino to make it to the major leagues". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved 24 April 2018.
  18. ^ a b "Michael Chang Biography - Chronology, Awards And Accomplishments, Further Information - SELECTED WRITINGS BY CHANG:". Retrieved 2020-06-01.
  19. ^ a b "Tiger Woods". Biography. Retrieved 2020-06-01.
  20. ^ "Bosnia-Herzegovina vs US match". Wild East Football. September 27, 2011. Retrieved October 15, 2015.
  21. ^ "Vancouver welcomes the world". CNN. January 20, 2010. Retrieved June 27, 2016.
  22. ^ "Hockey player Julie Chu to be flag bearer in Olympic Closing Ceremony". Yahoo! Sports. February 21, 2010. Retrieved June 27, 2016.