June 26, 2016

Book Review and Interview: Stanley Thangaraj takes a deep dive into the culture of Desi basketball in America

Long before Sim Bhullar became the first person of Indian-descent to play in the NBA and Satnam Singh was the first Indian drafted to the world’s finest basketball league, a bunch of South Asians - Indians, Pakistanis, Sri Lankans, Bangladeshis, Nepalis – in the US and Canada met together in a sweaty gym for pick-up basketball in Chicago. And in Atlanta. And Dallas. And New York. And Vancouver.

They were Hindus, Muslims, Christians, and Sikhs. But more importantly, they were guards, forwards, and centers. They married their uniquely South Asian backgrounds with the thoroughly 'American' pastime of pick-up basketball. They created a world of their own to define themselves as both thoroughly desi as well as a part of the larger American hoop culture. On the court, their differences disappeared. The religions, languages, and ancestral nationalities didn't matter. They all shared a single hoop dream, and they relied on an inflated orange basketball and those sweaty gyms to to achieve that dream.

In his book Desi Hoop Dreams - Pickup Basketball and the making of Asian American Masculinity (New York University Press, 2015), Stanley I. Thangaraj arranges a marriage of his two areas of interest - Anthropology and Basketball - for a deep dive into how South Asian American men - desis - express their masculinity, cultural differences, and identity through basketball. The book is a revealing read that shatters many stereotypes of South Asian immigrants in the US and Canada and takes a scholarly look at how a subsection of the desi population found solace in basketball at both the grassroots level as well as the national stage in Indo-Pak Tournaments.

Thangaraj, an Assistant Professor of Anthropology at the City College of New York, has been intimately involved with the subject matter he now studies for decades. Thangaraj was born in Madurai (Tamil Nadu) in 1974 before his father, a professor of Theology, was recruited to Harvard University in Massachusetts in 1979. Thangraj was raised between India and the US, and the impact of the Bird-McHale-Parish era of the Boston Celtics left a major impact on him. A desi hoop dreamer was born. He played basketball in High School and discovered the Desi-American hoop circuit in college. He took part in Indo-Park Networks (IPN) around the country, specifically in Atlanta where he spent over 20 years, and in Chicago which has hosted IPN National tournaments since the '80s. Between 2006 and 2010, Thangaraj decided to focus his anthropological research on South Asian basketball culture in Atlanta, Chicago, and beyond, the observations and conclusions of which eventually led him to pen Desi Hoop Dreams.

South Asians have a long and proud history in the US, with many immigrants coming from India, Pakistan, etc. finding their niche fields of medicine, science, finance, engineering, and computing. But in Desi Hoop Dreams, we meet a subset of desis who refuse to be limited to the stereotypes - positive or negative - of the Indian 'model minority' in the USA. While their parents generally earned their respect through their intellectual superiority, here we meet a new generation of desis who want to prove themselves as physically imposing, too. Phrases like "man up" and "be a beast!" aren't just encouraging hollers during a basketball game; they are mantras to prove one's athletic strength and superiority both on and off the court.

Thangaraj balanced playing and researching in both casual and serious pick-up games, and the result is a fascinating insider look the complicated world of South Asian American basketball. His wide net of pick-up basketball characters reveal the complex inner relationships and pressures that come with being a South Asian athlete at a pick-up game. We meet South Asians originating from dozens of countries, including those from Africa, the West Indies, and Europe. We follow Muslim Americans to basketball courts in Masjids and discover the changing attitude of identity politics before and after 9/11. The author discusses how basketball eventually defines the culture of many of these players outside the court too, in social settings such as night-clubs.

The book also doesn't pull any punches from the dark side of what Thangaraj calls are the 'Brown Out' basketball communities. The communities he follows and studies often present moral contradictions in their cultural and gender understanding of identity. The book takes a sharp look at how the 'Brown Out' group immerses or excludes itself from other races in North America, women, and homosexuality.

The height of desi basketball culture collides together at the IPN in Chicago, which features some of the best South Asian basketball players and teams from US/Canada. Thangaraj witnesses how basketball helps in uniting desis on the court, and why the game addresses the complexities of masculinity among a diaspora of desis who are challenging racial stereotypes on the court.

I got an opportunity to briefly interview Stanley Thangaraj about Desi Hoop Dreams this week.

Hoopistani: What initially motivated you to work on this project?

Thangaraj: I came to Atlanta in 1988 and as an immigrant kid, and I was one of the only South Asians in my school. I didn't fit in, but I found basketball. The game was, racially, black or white for me until I got into college, and it was then that some friends invited me to the Indo-Pak Tournament (IPN).

I loved IPN basketball and I was offered to study it as an athlete in a PhD programme at the University of Illinois. I was so excited. I could spend all my time now just balling, although being a researcher does limit some of the things you could enjoy.

I wanted to highlight the complex, complicated lives of South Asian Americans. I wanted to present their lives and their dreams as a way to move beyond the simple portrayals of them as "nerds" or "terrorists" in USA media. I wanted to represent them on their own terms and showcase their lives on their terms.

Hoopistani: Having played in white/black basketball circuits and exclusively desi ones, how would you say that the format or style of the game is different among Desi-Americans?

Stanley Thagaraj. Photo by: Tau Battice
Thangaraj: If you look at spectrum of players in desi communities, you would say no, there is no difference. Only difference is that ethnically exclusively spaces have a lower level of play, because many of these young men haven't gone through organized basketball. These young men bring those histories with them. They know what it means to be stereotyped and marginalized. They bring that burden and baggage. When they ball, its a chance to ball on their own terms.

But you have a lot of guys who make it to the IPN tournament who have incredible talent and have played at the High School or Collegiate level in the States. They can compete in any sporting space in the US.

Hoopistani: Why would you say basketball, specifically more than other sports or activities, is able to play such a major role in some desi men to define their masculinity?

Thangaraj: Most of these young men did not choose basketball as their first sport. A lot of them were playing soccer, baseball, American Football. But basketball became unavoidable. In 1984, Michael Jordan entered NBA. By the late 80s, he became the most visible symbol of what it means to be cool and be a man. By the '92 Olympics, the 'Jordan' brand took over the world. Basketball became the most dominant way of what it means to be an urban man. Most of these young men grew up in the cities, and to them, to stake a claim as an 'urban citizen' meant playing basketball.

Plus, basketball is the most accessible sport. You can assemble a basketball hoop in no time and you can play anywhere. You can't do that with baseball and American Football.

Hoopistani: The book goes into great detail about the differences among desis themselves: North Indians, South Indians, Hindus, Muslims, Christians, Pakistanis, Sri Lankans, etc. Back home, these differences are a major factor of division between these communities. Were you able to see basketball become a uniting factor for these different communities in the USA?

Thangaraj: Yes and No. Basketball is a uniting force in the way that, very rarely, do you have a space where people of so many South Asian backgrounds share the space. We had South Asians from West Indies, Kenya, UK, India. Basketball brings together these communities that may not meet in any other space. It allows us to think that the Indian and Pakistani conflict doesn't translate here to the US.

When you are an incredible basketball player and are down with hanging out with ethnic or religious others, you get to play. For example, the Hindu and Muslim players of two teams - Maryland Five Pillars and Maryland Cobras - came together to form one strong team. The Chicago Domeinators became a team of Muslims and Sikhs together. Sports opened up doors for interpersonal interaction. If you can ball you can open any door you want.

One difference is the newly-arriving immigrant, whom they call the 'fob', who I've seen that the players have been reluctant to share their space with. It is ironic that the same players who have been minorities then turn around and create limits to sharing spaces across different generations of immigrants to the US.

Hoopistani: What are your thoughts on Indian basketball? India's most popular sport is cricket, which isn't exactly the most physical of sports unlike basketball, which you described in great depths in your book as a physical, tough sport that men believe can define their masculinity.

Thangaraj: Playing cricket is not seen as masculine in the US, but it is grounded in masculine identity in India and Pakistan. There is so much energy and growth in the conflict and rivalries in the sport there. In South Asia, it represents the 'best of men', but not here.

However, With increased immigration of desis here, cricket is rising. ESPN sometimes shows cricket in the USA because it is another opportunity for them. Now there is an affluent group of South Asians in the USA with potential to bring in more capital. This is a strategic move to open up the market for new consumers.

Basketball in India certainly as a lot of potential, even though there is some corruption and problems with infrastructure and coaching. The NBA is spending a lot of money in developing the game there. I witnessed the improvement in the talent level first-hand playing ball in South India several years ago. Athletically, India has the potential, no doubt. Players like Satnam Singh and youngster Prince Pal Singh have emerged out of Punjab in recent years. There 1.3 billion people, so, there will definitely be some great basketball talent.

No comments:

Post a Comment