by Calvin Ng
I was the only Asian freshman to make the Junior Varsity basketball team. My teammates questioned how I even became a Running Rebel. "Asians don't play basketball." This didn't anger me; it just compelled me to prove myself in the sport I love. A year later, I was named captain of the team.
In the final game of our season, I look at the freshmen on the bench. Unlike me, they don't have anything to prove due to race. Yet, there is a yearning in their eyes. They want a chance to play instead of sitting helpless in the last game.
We fall behind in the second quarter. Our starters, frustrated, argue on the court, blaming each other for missed shots. Coach Barbin calls a timeout. He yells at me -- the captain -- and the other starters. I cut him off and ask him to play the freshmen. His face says it all -- who in their right mind would put inexperienced freshmen in a game right now?
"The starters aren't doing well at all and we're down by 10. There's nothing to lose," I reason.
He agrees and benches all the starters minus me and picks the four freshmen. This is a completely new team I'm leading now. My teammates listen and move the ball around. Despite their inexperience, they cut, set screens, and shoot well. We win the game and I see the leader in myself come alive.
For years, everyone pointed to me as a good leader -- everyone but me perhaps. At my middle school graduation, I expected to win an academic award but was shocked when my name was called to the stage for the leadership award. It wasn't until I played on a basketball team that I really saw myself as a leader, which grew out of my tenacity and devotion to the sport. The summer before I became captain, I went to Crocheron Park in Bayside, Queens daily to practice and play. I had already overcome others' doubts about me as a player due to my race, and would play full court pickup games with the older guys. Whenever I performed poorly, I pushed myself harder in drills to get better. After this regimen, I was able to shoot further, jump higher, and dribble better.
When I returned to school, my teammates saw the improvement, acknowledging me as an equal. Yet I struggled as leader of the team with the starters all season. They always played every game despite poor performances. Perhaps the true lesson in the moment I pushed for the freshman to play was directed at the starters. They never focused on the consequences of playing poorly, not seeing how their bickering affected the team. By contrast, the freshmen always looked for advice when they took bad shots. Rather than merely citing their mistakes, I offered ways they could improve as players. In doing so, I experienced what I loved most about leadership -- helping anyone who wants to improve.
This central trait to my leadership -- my desire to help people -- continues to appear beyond basketball. I apply the lessons of leadership on the courts as a volunteer tutor at a community center. My first student, Vivian, a freshman who had difficulty in Algebra, was unsure in approaching problems, often mixing up operations when solving equations. I recognized this right away. I did not make her feel bad about her shortcomings. I looked for a solution to help her as I did with the freshmen players. I immediately created a guide sheet for her, writing all of the basic guidelines for solving equations.
In some ways I thank those who doubted my abilities as a player. They inspired me to push myself harder as a basketball player. In the process, I discovered the leader in me and realized the values of practice and tenacity. I know I will be able to apply these lessons to so many avenues in my future.
Calvin Ng, a recent Stuyvesant High School graduate, will be attending Cornell University this fall.