Nov 30, 2016

In Asian Basketball League, Players Find Fellowship and Community

Reporting Texas

Jeff Hobson walked off the court, his red and blue jersey hanging off his shrugged shoulders. After a 45-37 loss in his only game of the day, Hobson managed to muster a joke about how he joined the Austin Asian Basketball League.

“I’m only half-Asian, but I look Asian enough that they didn’t question it,” Hobson said.

Hobson, 31, is one of more than a 100 players who suit up every Saturday morning from August to October on a rented court at the Travis High School gym. The league started nine years ago as a group of guys getting together on Saturdays to shoot hoops. Now, Saturdays involve 10 teams fighting each other for the league championship.

At its inception, it wasn’t even considered an Asian league. It was Filipinos only. League commissioner and founder Rommel “Mel” Corro said that as a Filipino himself, he strived for a group with similar cultural backgrounds.

“We wanted to have our own league where we could showcase and have camaraderie with fellow Asian players,” Corro, 46, said.

The league, which has grown by four teams in the past two years, also reflect trends in the city. According to the Greater Austin Asian Chamber of Commerce, the city’s Asian population is doubling every 12 years and will surpass the number of African Americans by 2020.

“There need to be more leagues,” Hobson said. “There are so many people I know that want to play but can’t because there aren’t enough teams.”

Hobson said his friends would love to join the league for the sense of belonging to something bigger than themselves.

Jonel Garcia, whose 5-foot-6 frame contradicts his bigger-than-life personality, migrated to central Texas from the Philippines as a young boy. To him, the league serves as a second home.

“When I come here, it feels like I’m back in the Philippines,” Garcia said. “Just playing basketball and hanging with my family. We used to play all the time, and it’s fun getting back on the court here in Austin and feeling like I’m a part of something.”

That sense of being a part of something was palpable on a recent Saturday at the gym.

Teammates didn’t fist bump or high five, they hugged. Families packed the stands to watch their brothers, uncles and fathers play. Time had to be called as a 3-year-old ran to midcourt during the game.

The players are in their 20s and 30s, mostly from the Philippines, but the range of nationalities runs wide. Vietnamese account for roughly 10 percent of the players, with Cambodians, Koreans and Chinese accounting for another 10 percent.

“I can’t tell you how much he loves it,” Christa Lou said of her boyfriend as she watched from the bleachers. “He loves hanging out with the guys, and I love coming to see him.”

Lou’s boyfriend, Keith Dinges, or “big No. 13” as she called him, is a newbie by the league’s standards. Having played just under a year, Dinges is still finding his footing and trying to find minutes on the court.

“I love getting to play with these guys,” Dinges said. “I’m still new and riding the bench a lot, but it’s fun and everyone out here are great people.”

After the conclusion of their own games, teammates made their way to the wooden risers to scout out next week’s opponents. One dad shuffled over to the stands, exhausted after playing more than 35 minutes, and was welcomed with a kiss from his daughter, who told him how “awesome” he was.

“This league is important to us,” league commissioner Corro said. “Some Asians are shy playing against other more skilled players outside Asian descent. That’s not to say we can’t compete with them, we just wanted to have something we can call our own.”

Before its founding, Corro knew he wanted things to be official. Each team gets customized uniforms, complete with shin-high socks, wristbands and Twitter usernames across the backs of their jerseys.

But it’s not the name on the jersey that matters to most in the league. It’s the fact they have a jersey at all.

“Cities around the country now have Asian-specific leagues,” Corro said, “There are leagues all over. It keeps us in shape. But mostly, it lets us compete.”