The Bamboo Ceiling: Examining Asian-Australian participation in elite basketball

Murals coat the walls along the stretch of track running from Lidcombe to Auburn. It runs parallel to Parramatta Road, one of several arteries that connects the Sydney CBD to the west. In many ways, the district is the gatekeeper into contemporary western Sydney, an epicentre of thriving multiculturalism and nascent urbanisation.

Nestled within this backdrop looms the Auburn PCYC, a place that usually houses a vibrant, playful atmosphere, and a steady thumping of basketballs on the court.

Except on this occasion, the basketball court is deserted.

Instead, the kids sit along the near sideline, busy scrawling away in journals their thoughts and feelings.

“They write their goals down,” explained Emma Bramston, owner and coach of Hoops for Health. “They write their goals before practice [and] they reflect on how they went. It’s about fostering that dream. Once you have a dream, you can work at it.”

Over the past four years, the fledgling organisation has offered a suite of programs designed to nurture young talent, with a focus on developing, first and foremost, the person ahead of the basketballer. At its core, the programs provide an alternative path to the elite ranks for starry-eyed youngsters with dreams of hoops stardom, far into the future.

“It doesn’t matter who you know, [or] where you come from,” said Bramston. “If you have a goal to play at the highest level, and you work on your goal, you can’t not be noticed for that. Coaches can’t ignore that.”

Those journal entries act as reminders for these kids, a type of scaffolding that builds up an internal belief: Anything is possible, with KG-esque confidence.

“When you don’t know why you’re doing things, it’s too easy to not do it,” said Bramston.

Image courtesy of Hoops for Health

Diversity and basketball

The inner-west suburb of Auburn represents a melting pot of cultures. Diasporas of first-generation migrants have settled into the district, a snapshot of Australia’s burgeoning multiculturalism since the 1980s.

In the late 70s, the Fraser government had been instrumental in establishing a tone of diversity, tolerance and equity within Australian society. Legislation was amended to include anti-discriminatory measures; services for migrants, including the formation of the Special Broadcasting Services (SBS), were created.

By the mid-80s to early 90s, the Hawke and Keating administrations oversaw a fully formed governmental approach that positioned Australia as a fully-fledged multicultural society. It became part of our identity.

Bramston estimates that approximately 70 percent of her pupils are Asian-Australian kids; an admittedly broad, and loaded, term that encompasses a smorgasbord of differing cultures. (Data from the 2011 Census show that residents of the district were overwhelmingly of Chinese ancestry.)

As of 30 June 2015, the Australian Bureau of Statistics estimated that 6.7 million of the nation’s population (28.2 percent) were born overseas.

Similarly, the 2011 Census showed that approximately 4.1 million of the population (20 percent) were second-generation Australians, defined as Australian-born and with “at least one overseas-born parent.”

A 2015 report by the Australian Council of Learned Academies (ACOLA) estimated that more than 8% of Australia’s population were born in Asia. No estimated figures of second or third generation Australians with Asian heritage are publicly available, but it seems reasonable to suggest that the raw figures would be substantial.

Whichever way you splice it, Australia has become a thriving nation of differing cultures, with a significant chunk of that population having Asian ancestry. Yet it’s reasonable to ask the question: Why don’t we see Asian-Australians in the elite ranks of Australian basketball?

How does such a wonderfully multicultural society -- ranked in the top 40 for migrant percentage -- produce no elite basketball players of Asian-Australian ancestry in a sport, which by all accounts, is popular within most Asian cultures?

It’s an interesting question to consider.

Image courtesy of Hoops for Health

Why aren't there more?

Basketball Australia estimated that there were currently two million basketball participants at the grassroots level.

A cursory look into the annual reports of Basketball Australia’s state equivalents show every attempt in building participation and engagement within the public, including a focus on cultural segments of the community. Terms such as “inclusive” and “united community” appear to be key strategic pillars.

When Basketball Australia CEO, Anthony Moore, recently spoke to The Pick and Roll, he readily admitted that the organisation did not yet have data that segmented down to the level of cultural participation.

I contacted all state affiliates, and not all kept track of such data.

Basketball Tasmania noted that throughout their entire representative program, they had four Asian-Australian participants: three players and one coach.

A source at Basketball QLD estimated Asian-Australian participation at approximately less than 10 percent throughout their constituency. Yet anecdotally, he said that basketball gyms were overwhelmingly frequented by people of Asian heritage shooting hoops and enjoying the game.

Basketball ACT graciously offered up the following data regarding current Asian-Australian participation within their high performance program.

Within their entire program for juniors, 15 kids ranging from under-12s to under-18s years of age, across both gender groups, were identified as having “Asian-Australian heritage”. Thus far, only one junior had gone on to the under-18 ranks.

Adam Caporn, head coach of Basketball Australia's Centre of Excellence program (formerly the Australian Institute of Sport basketball program), confirmed there were currently no scholarship recipients who were of Asian ancestry.

It’s a lot to unpack, but also pertinent to ask: with the rate of participation, why aren’t more Asian-Australians coming through and graduating to the highest levels within Australian basketball? Even accounting for the steep climb required from elite junior to the National Basketball League (NBL), Australia’s highest level of competition, why don’t we see any Asian-Australians in the league?

“I don’t think I’ve ever played with an Asian-Australian, ever,” said Shane Heal, the Australian basketball icon and Boomers legend. “It’s a good question. I’m not sure why there aren’t more."

Heal is a basketball-lifer and someone who has been involved throughout all levels of the sport. For him, the dearth of representation is interesting but also not surprising. He has never seen many Asian-Australians at the top level within the junior ranks, both state and national, which double as organic pathways towards the highest honours, and the NBL.

Added Sydney Kings captain, Tommy Garlepp, “It actually doesn't surprise me. Throughout representative basketball as a junior, I would have only played against, or with, a handful of Asian-Australians.”

“It’s interesting. I think everyone who comes through, regardless of where they’re from has the same opportunity,” said Chris Anstey, another Boomers legend and former coach of the Melbourne Tigers. “I think Australia is such a fantastic multicultural country that we are able to give everyone the same opportunity.”

Anstey is a firm believer that basketball enables global citizenry – the idea of borderless countries, and the deconstruction of nation states. Our identity is reflective of the myriad of cultures we are in touch with, and no longer an insular construct.

Nonetheless, pondering the question of Asian-Australian representation itself potentially enhances our knowledge of participation within the sport, allowing us to identify any potential gaps in development and engagement at the grassroots level.

“Considering the population and participation rates, you’d think we would be seeing more [Asian-Australians] at the elite level,” said Jacob Holmes, former NBL player and now the Chief Executive Officer for the Australian Basketballers' Association. The organisations is charged with advocating the rights and responsibilities of its members, as well as advancing the wellbeing of the sport in general, and works closely with all stakeholders within the game. “I think from a Basketball Australia perspective, it would be really interesting to see how we’re capturing that ‘audience’, to make sure they’re a part of our pathway.”

In the end, isn’t that good for the sport?

The story of Darren Ng

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Darren Ng fondly remembers his epic battles with Adelaide 36ers teammate, Paul Rogers.

Way back in his first full season with the 36ers, Ng and Rogers would engage in table tennis warfare within the team’s change room. Ng remembers Rogers would put in a tonne of hours practicing after basketball training.

Unbeknownst to many, Ng had actually played junior tennis at “a very high level”, as he puts it. Trying to even the playing field, Rogers bought a $200 table tennis bat in which “you only had to touch it and it was spinning everywhere.” Not that it mattered.

“He used to dominate the local 36ers table tennis table and drive Paul Rogers absolutely mental,” said former 36ers teammate and close friend, Jacob Holmes. Holmes has known Ng since they played together in the under-12s. “Rogers took it way too seriously, and Darren just came in with a stock, standard $3 bat and dominated.”

So did those table tennis matches represent the ultimate hustle?

“I think that was my Asian heritage coming through,” Ng said half-jokingly.

That same heritage allowed him to play basketball at the highest level in Australia – a 10-year career for the Adelaide 36ers in the NBL as a sweet-shooting off-guard. Ng was once voted the best 3-point shooter in the league, and he attributes much of his ability to his dad.

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Chek and Janet Ng migrated to Australia in 1969 to finish high school. Born in the 80s, Darren and his two younger brothers were brought up during the height of Australia's multicultural boom.

It was during these formative years that Darren Ng and his two younger brothers fell in love with basketball. Chek Ng had enjoyed the sport and played all the way through high school. That passion was passed down to his three sons. Both Chek and Janet Ng were highly supportive of their sons’ sporting endeavours, but it would always be counterbalanced with a need to understand the importance of an education in hand.

“They wouldn’t let sport get in the way of study for sure,” said Darren Ng. “I think that was number one.”

Like any parent, Chek would pass on his experiences and offer guidance to his boys. After school, he'd take them to the park at Woodville where they would practice shooting for hours, and he would rebound for them. The practice payed off as the brothers matured and played at a high level in the local district level.

But it was Darren –-a lights-out shooter from deep-– who stood out the most, and took his talent to the national Under-20s championships representing South Australia.

Ng impressed throughout the tournament, finishing as one of its leading scorers and guiding his South Australian outfit to the title game. They lost, with Ng missing a potential game-winning 3-point attempt at the buzzer.

An impression had been made. Phil Smyth, the legendary head coach for the 36ers at the time, extended an offer for Darren Ng to train with his squad.

But Ng was uncertain. He’d already been accepted into the Bachelor of Medicine program at the University of Adelaide, and was well on the way to emulating his father in becoming a doctor.

“That was it for me,” said Ng. “A huge achievement in my life, and that was my path heading forward.”

Would playing basketball get in the way of his studies?

Ultimately, Ng acquiesced and joined for a few 36ers training sessions. He thought he would use the training as a stepping stone in improving his play in the state league.

Ng ended up sticking with the squad. Working hard, he was signed on as a development player before developing into one of the league’s best shooters. His progression was indicative of the hard work and time he used to hone his craft. Ng would go on to enjoy a successful career within Australia’s highest level of basketball.

His journey has now come full circle – Ng’s back with the 36ers once more, but as the team doctor.

Is Darren Ng the only Asian-Australian to have made it to the highest level in Australian basketball?

The Bamboo Ceiling

“Yeah, I’m not sure. It’s one of those loaded questions,” said Holmes, now speaking with his hat back on as the CEO of the Australian Basketballers' Association. “From my perspective, we want to limit the categorisation of the nationality, or the cultural differences. I think you’re always trying to make sure it’s just Australians.

Holmes’ point is important, and similar to Anstey’s.

Such categorisations would undermine the very concept of Australia as a multicultural society. But it also problematizes the notion of homogeneity - that there should be a prescribed pathway in order to make it in Australian basketball. Such notions often mean that we don’t look outside-the-box for talent identification, with a presumption that we are capturing all available talent.

Has Australia indeed been nurturing, and maximising its budding talent at hand? Everything being equal, are all kids given the same opportunities and basketball education?

Although it jibes at the very notion of how modern Australia is perceived, cultural traits do exist. These traits, and the surrounding environment, can have an effect when it comes to individuals choosing whether or not to pursue a career path.

What are potential obstacles that prevent the next Darren Ng from even thinking about pursuing elite basketball?

In 2014, Diversity Council Australia (DCA) released an industry-sponsored report, which included organisations such as Deloitte, the Commonwealth Bank of Australia and IBM. The report detailed the effects of the "bamboo ceiling" within Australian workplaces. The "bamboo ceiling" was defined as “the phenomenon whereby Asian talent are well-represented at entry level, gain entry into mid-level jobs, and yet are significantly under-represented in top leadership jobs in their professions.”

The idea behind the research was to contextualise how Australia could better enhance its skills and sensitivity within the “Asian Century”. The paper also served to highlight how Australia could greatly improve its productivity by ditching institutionalised preconceptions. If the nation was to achieve its potential and maximise its efficiency, in which the very best could compete for selection, we would need to look inwardly to ensure current practices aligned with this outlook. Such self-reflexivity would ultimately benefit us all, and make the nation more competitive and productive within world standards.

Deloitte CEO, Giam Swiegers, said that cultural diversity was a "pre-requisite to the success of our business – different people, different skills and different perspectives combined to create value through innovation."

The report also underscored cultural aspects inherent within Asian-Australian culture that threatened to derail their hopes of career development.

Would starting such a discussion within Australian basketball also serve a similar purpose?

Jeffery Wang has spent years advocating for greater diversity within business leadership and the arts. Years ago, he founded an organisation that provided a platform for Asian representation in the creative arts scene. Nowadays, he spends his time educating ambitious young business professionals in Sydney, mostly of Asian heritage, on the requisite skills needed to break into senior management in the business world.

“Take assertiveness. [It is] certainly a quality that's valued highly in the Australian context and a sure-fire sign of leadership, [but] is often misunderstood by most Asian cultures as 'lacking tact',” explained Wang. “My work primarily focuses on helping Australian businesses to better understand the value of traits in multiple cultural contexts.”

So I asked Wang if there were inherent cultural factors that could potentially influence talented young Asian-Australians from pursuing basketball as a profession.

“The most obvious being the conservative nature of a typical parent's attitude towards "risky" professions such as pro sports,” said Wang. “Asian parents tend to advise against children who have ambitions to play pro sports, and being a culture big on filial obedience, the children generally tend to follow suit.”

Anecdotally, there appear to be some examples.

Bramston has had kids reluctantly pull out of her Hoops for Health basketball camps because of the need to attend weekend tutoring classes. For those parents, study was just far more important.

“I think if you just look at Asian culture, particularly maybe Chinese, they’re really focused on education,” said Bramston. “A lot of kids might come to a camp for fitness and wellness, and all that is important, but then academics is so important. If you’ve got to choose between tutoring on a Saturday morning or basketball practice, you’re going to get sent to tutoring.”

Similarly, Darren Ng’s parents appreciated the importance of study. They actively encouraged him with his sporting endeavours, but never allowed that to override an education.

“They wouldn’t let sport get in the way of study for sure,” said Ng. “I think that was number one. That was always driven into us, we needed a career at the end of this, and sport -- and they could that see that -– especially basketball in Australia, was not something that could sustain you for the rest of your life.”

“I think in Asian cultures they do know that there’s a balance to life,” added Bramston. “The importance of competitive [basketball], as much as education – becoming doctors, making good money, and looking after your family – is so important. I don’t think it’s there for sport as much.

“There is discipline, but I think the hunger to be successful as a sports player isn’t as strong.”

The commitment towards the effort and hours it takes to hone one’s talent and maximise chances for entry into the elite level is substantial. The onus on proper schooling often supersedes commitment towards organised basketball, and thus, closes the door on traditional pathways towards getting noticed for elite junior programs.

“My parents were very supportive of our sporting ability, and our sporting commitments,” said Ng. “Just having your foot in the door, in terms of playing for a club, and being able to have organised basketball is a huge thing."

“If a lot of Asian-Australians were to do that then you could probably track your ability, compared to others, a lot better.”

“They [coaches and scouts] really earmark them, and work with them through the ranks 12s, 14s, 15s, 18s, and they’re really looked after [development-wise],” added Bramston. “I feel like it’s a really small percentage.

“If you start playing Division 1 at a young age, as long as you do the work, you show up and pay your fees, you’re kind of in, and then you’re in.”

“If the point around the participation of the Asian population in Australia for basketball, I know, anecdotally, that there’s huge participation rates at the junior level around the sport,” said Holmes.

“Now whether they’re in the same pathway through Basketball Australia, through the local state competitions, through the clubs and through the [junior] ranks in that way, I’m not sure if they’re separated out and do their own competitions.”

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Was Darren Ng an outlier? Malcolm Gladwell’s seminal book documented the qualities that make up the most successful people of our generation. Even the most naturally talented people needed a little luck along the way.

Was Darren one of the few who capitalised on the perfect storm of ability, opportunity, familial support, commitment and just plain luck?

“Darren was an extremely talented person, not just in basketball, but in a range of other exploits,” said Holmes. “He’s quite frustrating to be around because he’s one of those people that just picks up stuff and goes, oh yeah, I can do that.”

Yes, Ng is an extremely intelligent individual, possessing the rare trait of being adept at anything that he put his mind towards. But to attribute his basketball success purely towards his genetics would be a disservice, not only to Ng, but to those who shaped him.

Darren Ng made it because he was talented, worked hard, was brought up in a sports-loving family, had an upbringing that was a “bit more on the Australian side”, and most importantly, was committed.

“I think that’s part of my make-up, my personality," he said. "If I’m going to do something, I’m going to do it really well. The best that I can.”

Jonny Lee

“Coming up, I was -- in my age group in Australia -- probably [among] the top 5 players.”

Jonny Lee had always been identified as an elite prospect.

Lee’s parents had migrated to Australia in 1979 – his father was born in Malaysia, and his mother from Singapore – for work reasons. Upon arriving in Melbourne, they settled into the affluent eastern suburbs, a place where Lee spent most of his childhood.

Lee largely had a self-described “Australian upbringing”.

“Growing up, there wasn’t really an Asian community besides my family,” he said. “My background is a bit over the place, a bit Malaysian, Chinese – my grandfather was German, and my grandmother on the other side was Portuguese – so it’s a bit of a mixed bag.”

One day, a friend at primary school introduced him to the game. Lee loved it.

From there, he took “the traditional route”, playing rep ball with his local club, making the state team, and then progressing through to the Australian Institute of Sport (AIS) program [now Centre of Excellence]. He made the class of ’98 at the "tute" and represented Australia as a junior.

After finishing with the AIS, he lived a nomadic basketball existence in Queensland, dipping his toes briefly into the NBL, but never really making any roster. After a few years, home beckoned, and Lee returned south to Melbourne, where he settled on a playing career in both the SEABL and Big V competitions.

Now nearing the end of his semi-professional career at Warrandyte, in the local Big V league, Jonny Lee represents an interesting case study when it comes to the search for other “Darren Ngs” out there.

Lee was identified early in his development as a talent, and progressed through the ranks of club basketball, state and ultimately national juniors. Theoretically, he had access to the nation’s finest junior development at the AIS.

But Lee peaked as a junior, and was never able to take the next step.

“I don’t think my game quite translated to seniors or to make a proper living out of it,” said Lee. “Which was fine by me.”

What was the difference between someone like Jonny Lee and Darren Ng?

Once a highly-touted junior guard rising through the ranks, Lee bounced around in his aspiring semi-professional career, flirting along the outskirts of the NBL but never quite making it.

His subsequent return to Melbourne came with the trappings of a lost childhood – the sense that he had missed out on so much whilst chasing a professional basketball career.

“Every night was basketball,” lamented Lee. “Every weekend was basketball. Three mornings a week, training every day. Weekends were all gone. I think missing out on hanging out with friends and doing things that they were doing was what I looked forward to, coming back home.”

Lee’s priorities changed. By the time he returned home, he was nearly 22 years of age, unsure of his basketball future and needing a job. Basketball became secondary.

“Making a living took over – finding a job, making a bit of money. I sat down and [thought] it was either do that or have another crack at basketball.”

Lee could not commit to the hours and dedication that it would take to make it.

The physical demands?

“I definitely noticed it,” recalled Darren Ng. “I definitely knew that was the case.”

Progressing through junior basketball, Ng never noticed other Asian-Australians within the division 1-level basketball landscape. For Ng, it seemed that he and his brothers were the exception, rather than the norm.

With the traditional pathway of rep basketball – district, state and national – as the major avenue towards the NBL, it’s unsurprising that the dearth of Asian-Australians is also reflected within the top league.

“NBL-wise, I certainly noticed that was the case,” said Ng. “For me, I felt like I was more Australian than Asian, being raised here. [But] it was always something that I did notice.”

Like Ng, Jonny Lee never noticed many other Asian-Australians rising up through the junior ranks. That’s not to say that there were none. A few toiled away here and there.

“But never that were ever going to make it,” said Lee. “They never went that far, which is interesting.”

Again, the reasons are unclear. Were cultural aspects a hindrance towards the pursuit of elite basketball development?

With the sheer number of Asian-Australians shooting basketballs around gyms, you would think that there would be a healthy dose of aspiring hoops stars amongst them.

“I think it’s difficult if you’re trying to pry out the reasons why that might be the case,” said Ng. “There’s probably a lot of cultural aspects that prevent that from happening, as well as the physical aspects in terms of professional sport.

“Asians in Australia are generally – and that’s a generalisation – not very tall, or not tall basketball-wise. I was probably one of the tallest Asians at school, but only 6’2” still. For basketball, [that’s] not huge, and physically, obviously I’m more the leaner side as well.”

“I think you’re onto something with the physicality of a player,” Bramston told me as we sat in the bleachers, amidst a backdrop of kids training, and dreaming of one day making it to the NBA.

Is it possible that a disadvantage along the gene pool, combined with cultural factors, have conspired to reduce the pool of potential candidates to a negligible few?

The lack of Asian representation is not necessarily confined within Australia's basketball landscape. The NBA famously went through the hysteria of Linsanity back in 2012, perhaps in part because of Jeremy Lin's heritage. Similarly, a look at into the history of Asian-Americans to have made it to the NBA reflects a similar story to the scarcity of representation within the NBL.

“Having grown up with Asian-Australians, I know that they are aren't any more or less athletic or capable skill-wise,” said Tommy Garlepp. “The players, and even friends who didn't play basketball that I had, all worked hard and were good teammates or people. Perhaps it was mainly height.”

“You have to be 6’6” when you’re 15 years old, 16 years old, to really get that attention,” said Jonny Lee.

When you don’t physically stand out, does it make it tougher to get noticed? Does it lead to being overlooked for elite development programs? Once that occurs, it becomes an uphill fight to gain traction; it’s tough to make it when you’re now competing against kids who have access to elite training.

It’s also why programs like Bramston’s Hoops for Health exist – they want to give kids who miss out the opportunity, another pathway if you will, to access elite coaching.

Jonny Lee admitted that as a junior, he used to be able to get by with his speed alone. He was never the most naturally talented player, but quickness, and speed of thought, had always got him out of trouble.

But those advantages only worked up until a certain point during his youth – before kids started to catch up to him from a physical standpoint.

“I’m probably from a past generation of point guards where it’s really pass-first, get the team up, really know everyone else’s strengths, and play to them, and get them set up,” said Lee.

“I overlapped a bit into the new Gen Y [era]. Once they started coming through, they overtook me in terms of they grow up shooting the ball. They’re all a bit bigger, a bit stronger, and a bit more confident, which is where I lost out a bit.”

Those factors likely played a role in the divergence of Lee’s path from potential NBL player, to semi-professional. Yet other factors cannot be ignored.

Sure, genetic makeup plays a part, but that aspect plays a part, no matter the ancestry.

Darren Ng had that internal drive to make the most of any opportunities that came along. Jonny Lee relied on his natural advantage in speed, ironically, until the natural athletic gifts of his counterparts caught up to him.

There are countless others who probably shared the same path as Lee’s. At the elite level, it’s hard enough to stand out amidst the competition, let alone the physical and cultural aspects that may, or may not, impede along the way.

What can we do?

It remains difficult to delineate the exact reasons as to why there aren’t more Asian-Australians within the elite ranks of Australian basketball.

Is there a cultural impediment? Are there inherent physical attributes that cannot be overcome? Is it a matter of enhancing talent identification and broadening the parameters to find those who are not in traditional pathways?

The answer likely lies somewhere in the middle.

Yet perhaps it is more important to ask, what can be done about it? What can basketball authorities do to widen the net to ensure that the best available talent is captured? How can we ensure that all talented youngsters have every opportunity to access coaching?

But most importantly, how can we ensure that all kids who have a dream are educated in the understanding that the pursuit of professional basketball is not taboo?

Conversely, what can the next Asian-Australian with elite talent do to maximise their chances of success?

Darren Ng suggested that a concerted effort needed to be made by all involved in the sport to “try and promote kids and their parents to give it a try and participate in those organised competitions. Those are the ways that you’re going to progress through the ranks and get to the highest level."

“Getting people to playing basketball at that level, and understanding what it takes, dealing with structured basketball and coaching, that’s going to be the biggest key.”

Part of that education may be to reinforce the message that it is possible to juggle both elite sport and education at the same time. Sure, it’s tough, but no dream career is easy.

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It’s reductive to purely conclude that Ng was an outlier.

Darren Ng was brought up in a sports-loving family. He also just happened to be a very, very talented person – someone seemingly good at anything he put his mind to – but he was also dedicated.

In a unique set of circumstances, Ng’s “Australian” upbringing enabled him to straddle the line of pursuing elite sport whilst maintaining his focus on education. Ng’s parents were instrumental in this, but he also talked of how Phil Smyth and the Adelaide 36ers as an organisation were supportive of his post-basketball endeavours. He was allowed flexible hours in training to accommodate his studies. He even took seasons off from the league to focus on his burgeoning medical career.

On the other hand, Jonny Lee did not make it to the highest level, but he has no regrets. He lives happily with his wife and two young kids. He’s successful in his own right, operating his own kitchen benchtop business out of Bayswater.

Does he have any regrets about not becoming another Darren Ng?

“Not a lot," he said. "It would have been nice to get there, the NBL.”

Jonny Lee did not make it to the NBL for a variety of reasons, but they were largely based on his own decisions, and the priorities he set for himself. He was identified within the traditional pathway of Australia basketball, but the gap to the next level was possibly too great.

Tommy Garlepp believes that the system works – that talent prevails over factors that threaten to derail dreams before they even start.

“I believe in hoops, 90 percent of the time, you are selected purely based on your ability compared to your rivals with regard to selection at the next level you aspire to reach,” said Garlepp. “I really feel regardless of being an Asian-Australian, Sudanese-Australian, white, black, purple, if you are good enough on and off the court, there won't be too many road blocks.”

Garlepp's point is poignant; though this has been largely a case study regarding Asian-Australian representation within elite Australian basketball, it could just as easily apply to all cultures and creeds. It's about how we ensure that opportunity exists for aspiring basketballers, no matter their ancestry. It's about how basketball authorities continue to widen the net, and ensure that all talented youngsters have equal opportunity. And it's also about how aspiring juniors are educated on the demands of elite basketball, and the commitment required.

Darren Ng’s talent meant that his parents could see that pursuing hoops was not a fruitless endeavour. That he had a guaranteed fall-back option after his basketball career also helped.

Image courtesy of Hoops for Health

These days, Darren Ng has embarked on the career he had always dreamed of in medicine.

His role with the Adelaide 36ers means that he’s still very much in tune with current basketball affairs. He’s still eager to understand the reasons behind the dearth of Asian-Australian representation within elite Australian basketball, though he concedes: “I don’t know if you can come up with any answers.”

Most importantly, he hopes basketball authorities continue to educate players, both current professionals and juniors, on the need for education and post-career options.

“It’s a shame. A lot of players who put in all that time and effort, even if they have a 3, 4, 5, 6 year career in the NBL, at the end of it, what do you do at the end?” said Ng.

Perhaps more juniors dare to dream, and their parents acquiesce, if that dream is balanced out with the knowledge that education is just as important. It’s all related – just ask Darren Ng.

Meanwhile, Jonny Lee tries to make it down to Kilsyth whenever he can to watch his two talented nephews play. He’s ready to dispense knowing advice in case it’s required.

“The youngest one, he’s really quite talented," said Lee. "He’s probably been picked out – he plays out at Kilsyth – and he’s been earmarked as one to keep an eye on and try to progress. He’s Asian, but part of him is really diluted now. He doesn’t look Asian -- his dad’s an Aussie.”

Ironically, Lee says of his nephew: “he does have a little bit [Asian background] in him, but not something that stands out at all.” Instead, his talent makes him stand out.

Perhaps that was the point all along. No matter the culture, if you have the talent, you have the opportunity. After that, it comes down to your dedication and individual circumstances.

Though Ng and Lee’s careers never crossed paths, their stories are intertwined in the way it may help to instruct future generations.

It may be difficult to unpack one-size-fits-all reasons and circumstances for minimal Asian-Australian representation within the elite ranks, but it doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t recognise the dearth that exists.

It’s important to recognise potential “bamboo ceilings”, self-imposed or otherwise, and start the discussion. At the very least, an opportunity exists to find out if the system is working, or if there are ways to improve it so that dreams can be pursued.

Conversely, aspiring junior ballers with dreams of stardom need to understand the dedication required to achieve those dreams. Yes, Darren Ng was talented in many things, but he was also dedicated. When those around you, including your family, can see your commitment towards a dream, it becomes far easier to support you.

In the words of Emma Bramston: once you have a dream, you can work on it.

Thanks to: Darren Ng, Jonny Lee, Emma Bramston, Hoops for Health, Jacob Holmes, Jeffery Wang, Adam Caporn, Chris Anstey, Shane Heal, Basketball ACT, Basketball QLD, Basketball Tasmania and Basketball Australia for your assistance with this story.

A special thank you to Tommy Garlepp for your help and advice.

Also, a thank you to Stephanie Nakatani of Inky Cat Studio for the feature image. You can follow her on social media at FB/Instagram: inkycatstudio.

For more information regarding Hoops for Health, please visit their website here.