Chinese New Year: Basketball jamboree gives kids a chance to rep their community

As an Asian-American basketball player at St. Mary’s School, Leslie Truong, who stands 5-foot-4, learned firsthand how to be successful in a sport that emphasizes height.

Now as the boys’ basketball coach for her alma mater, part of a Catholic sports league, she teaches her players how to face taller opponents, which wind up being the majority of teams because her school has the largest number of students of Chinese background.

“To be very straightforward, a lot of Chinese kids are generally height-challenged,” said Truong, 28.

While the regular season gives St. Mary’s plenty of chances to win against the odds, the team will face players in a similar situation Feb. 28 in the 22nd annual basketball jamboree at the Betty Ann Ong Chinese Recreation Center, a friendly tournament organized as part of Chinese New Year festivities.

“Things might not be in your favor, you might feel like the underdog in basketball, but I want to teach them you can’t feel that way,” Truong said. “So an event like this will add to the awareness that kids have. It’s something that down the line they should be proud of.”

Also participating in the 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. jamboree is the St. Mary’s girls’ team, the Francisco Middle School boys’ and girls’ teams, the Presidio Middle School girls and a boys’ club team called The Associates. No one will be awarded trophies, but everyone involved will receive Chinese Year of the Ram T-shirts.

The jamboree was started more than two decades ago by Francisco Middle School Principal Kenny Lee, 61, then a director for the Chinese New Year Parade. A Chinatown-grown basketball player, Lee wanted to create a tournament that was reminiscent of his childhood days, when there were many more organized leagues in the neighborhood and he played in the 60-pound league.

“To a certain degree, it was to bring the kids back into Chinatown,” Lee said. “But also to be able to participate in the overall New Year’s festivities because in between games, they would be able to go to other activities happening on Grant Avenue.”

In the early years, the jamboree was a two-day event. There were so many teams competing “it was actually too exhausting,” Lee said, and he has had to turn some teams away. This year, there will be 60 to 70 sixth- to eighth-graders.

Though fewer students can participate in the Saturday jamboree, it continues to draw among the biggest turnouts for Chinese immigrant parents, Francisco Middle School girls’ coach Jack Jung said.

“Because we are a Chinese newcomer school, a lot of parents work during the weekday games,” he said.

Neither the girls’ nor boys’ Francisco Middle School teams, where basketball programs are not in season, plan to practice in preparation.

That’s part of what makes the jamboree special, said the middle school’s boys’ coach Ryan Seto, 20, who played in the event as a student. “I had a lot of fun compared to the regular season, I guess because there’s nothing really on the line and I had a different mindset,” Seto said.

The St. Mary’s boys’ team won’t be practicing for the jamboree either, but that’s because it is basketball season for its league, the CYO Athletics in the San Francisco Archdiocese.

“We’re a small team, but we’re a running team,” said St. Mary’s shooting guard Spencer Chung, 15.

And Truong does not see opponents in the jamboree being any easier because there will be more Asian players than they normally face in their regular season.

“When it comes down to it,” she said, “no matter who they are facing, an expectation of mine is that they just go out there and they play their best game.”

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