On Tuesday, October 6, 2009, the first full-blooded Asian-American set foot inside the lines on an NBA basketball court, his name permanently etched, as required, in the NBA boxscore archive.
His name? Riel Banaria. His position? No, not point guard. Not 1 thru 5. His role was… ref!
The word Asian-American is a broad term, but the younger, fully-Americanized, likely speaking-English-at-the-home generation knows who we are. We’re the sons and daughters of our immigrant parents. If we weren’t born here, we certainly were brought up here. We hang out with other guys and gals just like us, and we communicate with each other in English, we adapt to the cultures around us, the ballers among us are even well-versed in the African-American vernacular. We’re pretty far removed from our Asian ancestry, for better or for worse. We probably couldn’t name the last two leaders of our ancestral countries, but we certainly remember Bush and Clinton.
Guess what, one of us made it to the Big Show. Sure, Riel was a replacement ref, but he belonged. He was hand-picked by NBA brass. And there he was, all 100% Filipino, 100% Asian-American, running up and down the court in a game between the Phoenix Suns and Partizan Belgrade, an official NBA preseason game.
I know that Erik Spoelstra is “Filipino-American” and Rex Walters is 50% Japanese, while Derrick Low is Hawaiian-Chinese or what have you (apologies if I’m wrong on any of those). And there was Wat Misaka, but that was even before there was an NBA and I’m sure that even if Misaka’s days were more fraught with racial overtones, it’s hard to compare that with modern-day contexts. With no disrespect to the Asian-Americans out there who are not 100% of one Asian ethnicity, but it’s just that slight tad difference that means so much. That we empathize with.
You know how it goes. You’re 100% Chinese or you’re 100% Filipino or you’re 50% Japanese and 50% Chinese or likewise, and you grew up in a household rich with that 100% ancestral culture. Probably as a teenager and in a huge argument with your parents, your Asian culture embedded in your DNA clashed head-on with the glitz and glamour of being a free American citizen.
To this day, you’re too embarrassed to speak your own native language that your parents at one point hoped you would carry on before reality set in. At the same time, you feel different when you represent the clear minority race at some social function with Latinos, blacks, and/or whites. In short, you might not feel like you have an identity, because you’re not quite either one. You’re the crossover.
It’s that thing that bothers you when a newspaper classifies you as Chinese-American when you’d rather be known as Asian-American. After all, you wouldn’t call the black guy over there Kenyan-American right off the bat, would you? He’s African-American, aka “black”. He, like you with your roots, probably hasn’t even touched the soil of his ancestral continent.
And all those habits of your ancestors. Sometimes it’s frustrating when they act soooo… well, like how your people are supposed to act, with those ridiculous inflections of the speech and horribly flawed accents. Yet when Shaq makes fun of how your relatives back in the homeland speak, it pisses you off and you’ll defend your ethnicity with all your heart and soul.
So that’s what I mean when Riel Banaria became the first to make it to the NBA. You should be proud. He’s the one and only.
Riel got his first break in the NBA Vegas Summer League a few years back. Then he got his dream job. A well-paid, expenses-paid with crib included, stint with the KBL in Seoul, South Korea. He told me it was like living in upper Manhattan. It was posh. It was a good life. His kids were going to be raised there.
After the first full season, the KBL unexpectedly cut him, citing financial casualties. Riel was back in Vegas, starting over. He was even still handling the logistics of the KBL tryouts, which were sponsored by the teams (not so much the league). There was even speculation that the NBA was thinking he might be a good fit to go help out when NBA China was ready. Who knows. But nothing really became available until the NBA needed replacement refs. Now, he’s like the other replacements. Waiting for that second shot. Just a crack in the doorway.
Riel referees and assigns referees at Dream League’s major tournaments in Las Vegas. He’s a stickler for getting things right, and I love that about him. That’s what we want with a ref. Although he can be a little too stubborn in his ways sometimes, but that’s how it goes in Dream League.
He’s a decent player himself, too. As intense as he is a referee.
I don’t really like doing interviews, so in lieu of that I’ll just give you a memory dump. My favorite argument with him came in one of our first Vegas tournaments when he was both reffing and playing (but not at the same time, of course!). Dream League was a fledgling at the time and still growing into its own adoption of NBA rules. Of course, Riel already knew these rules. So when, on behalf of the team he captained, he picked the bench to the left of the scorekeeper’s table, he fully expected to be warming up on the same side, positioning his team to face the scoreboard in the 2nd half.
But I didn’t know the rule and, at the time, didn’t really want to burden myself on such trivial decisions. I just let nature takes its course. And nature was as follows: everyone just assumed you warmed up the side opposite your bench, like in college. Honestly, I didn’t care at the time, but these little things, I do now, if I’m asked to make the proper decision on it. Incidentally, the away team decides which basket it wants to defend, so there’s your official NBA rule. It literally takes years of practice for obscure rules like this to sink in.
I still feel bad Riel didn’t get his fair decision on that at the time. He was right, you know.
His refereeing style on the court is what the NBA is looking for: assertive, yet amenable to discussions. Quick to put two and two together and come up with a logical explanation. And he preaches to all his referees: you run! That’s basketball.
Next time you’re playing a Dream League tournament in Vegas, recognize that you’ve got it good.
Hats off to the trail blazer. You’re not quite there yet, but we’re behind you. We’ll be there when you get there, too.
You might also like:
- 3 Dream League MVPs on the same Philippines team: Urbiztondo, Reyes, Pacana
- Asianballer Daniel Liu now a supermodel
- 4 (four!) of our Dream League refs make it to the NBA
- How draftee agent signings affect Jeremy Lin
- Get ready for many more views from beneath the ivory tower
- Duggan: Jeremy Lin’s first NBA workout next week
- Who wants to be in a hoops commercial?
- There and back again: Coast-to-coast to see Jeremy Lin (1/4)