Dragon Hoops by Chinese-American comics creator Gene Luen Yang is a 2020 Harvey Awards nominee for “Best Children or Young Adult Book.” A sort of hybrid biography/autobiography, it covers Yang’s own experience learning about the basketball team at the high school where he taught math, and the complexities of race intertwined within sports and culture.
When I first heard the title, I figured that the book would be something about Chinese basketball players. But while there is a Chinese exchange student on the basketball team, the main focus is on the Bishop O’Dowd Dragons basketball team as a whole, which is made up of a variety of ethnicities. The book spotlights a variety of figures: the coach who was a former player at O’Dowd, the two black star athletes who are hesitant to talk about the details of their upbringings, a Punjabi teammate who feels out of place at a Catholic high school, the aforementioned Chinese player who dreams of being able to play real American basketball, and more. Over and over again, Dragon Hoops emphasizes their uniqueness as individuals and the intricate ways that their respective experiences shape how they see both the world and the opportunities afforded by basketball.
Dragon Hoops also provides multiple history lessons, including the invention of basketball, the rise of the sport in China, and even how black players became integrated into professional basketball. One thing I found out from this book is that there was once a false belief that black people did not have the quick wit or the athletic ability to succeed in basketball over white people. In contrast to today, where black people are sometimes likened to “gorillas” as a way to diminish their tremendous skills and talents, the ways that racism can mold and reshape itself to fit any changes highlights how insidious it really is.
An unusual aspect of this book is that part of the overall narrative is how Yang, as a person unfamiliar with basketball, learns about these students’ stories and the lessons he takes with him in his own career in comics. As a character in his own book, there’s a great deal of 4th wall breaking, and it does sometimes feel like Dragon Hoops might be getting a little too self-centered. However, I feel that it actually successfully conveys the authenticity of Yang’s position as an outside observer, and to take a more authoritative position would arguably have been more disingenuous. I connect strongly with Yang’s approach because I used to be someone who was bothered by not having deep and intimate knowledge of any subject I became interested in, but more recently realized that it’s simply okay to not be an expert in everything. In this respect, the book feels more like Yang letting the students tell their own stories through the comics pages, even as Yang himself admits to a bit of fictionalizing to get some points across.
While Dragon Hoops did not end up winning the Harvey Award, it was actually another title by Yang, Superman Smashes the Klan, that ended up winning. The two books may seem different on the surface—one is about that most iconic of superheroes, the other based about teenagers and their relationship with basketball—but both take an intimate look at American culture with respect to race and racism. But whereas Superman Smashes the Klan bases itself in the iconography of Superman, the biographical aspect of Dragon Hoops makes it feel even more relevant to the checkered past and present of the United States and its racism. Dragon Hoops provides a context of what it means to “succeed” in a world where basketball is oxymoronically both a respite and a direct engagement with American culture.