UCLA’s Natalie Chou wants to make a difference for Asian Americans
Natalie Chou’s week so was hectic that she could barely process the news. The UCLA guard was already preparing for the NCAA tournament and studying for final exams when a tragic headline took over social media.
Eight people, including six Asian women, were killed in shootings at three Atlanta-area spas on March 16. It was the latest in a surge of violent attacks directed toward Asians as hate crimes rose in the past year. UCLA players assured Chou, the daughter of Chinese immigrants, they are here to talk if she needed. She didn’t even know what to talk about yet.
I’m going to say something though, Chou told a reporter two days after the attack.
As the Bruins begin NCAA tournament play Monday, the redshirt senior is juggling several responsibilities. Not only does UCLA need the 6-foot-2 guard for a long tournament run, but she is playing on her sport’s grandest college stage as one of few Asian Division I athletes when people who look like her are being attacked on streets and at work.
Third-seeded UCLA will open the 2021 NCAA women’s basketball tournament against No. 14 Wyoming on March 22.
Chou is more ready than ever to handle all the roles.
“She wants to make a difference in the world,” coach Cori Close said. “There’s been an inner strength that has sort of organically come out of her. … She’s fighting. She’s fighting in a way we’ve never seen and I think that translates on the court.”
Chou is averaging 10 points and 4.3 rebounds a game, both career highs, as the No. 3 seed Bruins face No. 14 seed Wyoming in the first round of the Hemisfair Region in the NCAA tournament. UCLA (16-5) relies mostly on third-team All-American Michaela Onyenwere and All-Pac-12 guard Charisma Osborne, but role players like Chou will determine whether the Bruins can break through after four straight NCAA regional semifinals to reach their first Final Four.
While this will be Chou’s tournament debut with the Bruins, she is no stranger to the bright lights of the postseason. The Baylor transfer helped the Lady Bears to the Sweet 16 in 2017 and the Elite Eight in 2018.
Baylor, a No. 2 seed in this year’s tournament, established itself as a national power behind strong post play. During Chou’s era, it was Kalani Brown and Lauren Cox, who are now both playing in the WNBA. Chou, who started 21 games as a sophomore before injuring her wrist, did her damage from beyond the arc.
Chou carried that label of “shooter” to UCLA, but coaches tried to shake her out of it. They reminded her to use all the skills that made her a McDonald’s All-American and youth national team member. Chou shoots a team-high 38.7% from three-point range, but can also intelligently navigate the paint, drive off the bounce and disrupt plays on defense with her length.
“She’s just got a vast array of skills in her tool box,” Close said.
Chou’s mother Quanli Li is the master who sharpened those tools. Li started playing basketball professionally when she was a teenager in China.
When Chou’s parents and older sister moved to Texas, where she was born, Li built her life on basketball. She didn’t have many friends and she didn’t know the language. But “basketball is universal,” Chou said.
“She always told me and my sister ‘Nothing comes easy, nothing comes free,’” Chou said. “I’ve learned to take that to heart. ... No one’s ever just going to give you anything, especially with our background in this country.”
“I feel like my calling in life is to inspire little girls who look like me. So if that’s on the basketball court, then I love that.”
— Natalie Chou
Li started coaching in the United States, but some parents didn’t trust her acumen, she said in a video produced by UCLA last year. She proved her knowledge by shaping Chou into a top-10 recruit who earned a spot on an AAU team coached by former NBA star Jason Terry.
While returning to Texas for the women’s NCAA tournament, Chou called her family to check on them in the aftermath of the Atlanta shootings. Her mother, who will be in the stands this week, assured her everything would be OK. She could hide under a hat, glasses and a mask, Li said. No one would know she was Chinese.
“Hearing this left me heartbroken,” Chou wrote in a statement posted on social media Friday. “No one should have to hide who they truly are. No one should have to live in a state of constant fear. Many Asian Americans feel that we’ve lost ourselves in a place that hasn’t accepted us. We feel pressured to strip parts of our identity to conform to this standard of ‘model minority.’”
Even while excelling in basketball, Chou had close Asian family friends question why she and her mother wasted time on something as frivolous as sports instead of academics. It wasn’t something Asian people did, Chou was told.
In 2020, 1.7% of Division I athletes identified as Asian, according to data from the NCAA. Chou was one of 31 Asian women playing Division I basketball last year, a total that accounted for less than 1% of players in the sport.
Being the only Asian woman in the gym can be lonely, Chou acknowledges. But it’s also an honor.
“I feel like my calling in life is to inspire little girls who look like me,” Chou said. “So if that’s on the basketball court, then I love that.”
Chou, who plans to return to UCLA next year with the additional eligibility granted during the pandemic, has started 19 of 21 games for the Bruins this year. She feels more confident than ever.
The sentiment doesn’t just apply to the basketball court as she finds her voice in the social justice conversation.
When hate crimes against Asians began rising in tandem with the pandemic last year, Chou condemned calling the coronavirus “the Chinese virus.” After the deadly shooting in Atlanta, ESPN shared her words again along with messages from influential Asians in sports such as Dodgers manager Dave Roberts and former NBA star Jeremy Lin.
In response to the Atlanta shootings, the UCLA women’s basketball team released a statement co-signed by its More Than a D.R.E.A.M. committee, a player-led group that focuses on educating the team on social justice. The three-sentence message quoted Martin Luther King Jr. saying “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere” and said the team stood with the Asian community.
“What’s right is right and what’s wrong is wrong,” said Onyenwere, who leads UCLA with 18.7 points and 7.3 rebounds a game. “What’s happening now is wrong towards the Asian community so it’s our job to stand in solidarity with that. … We’re going to continue to stand with Natalie.”
Chou is thankful for the support. Among the team, the Bruins say “all of you is welcomed here.” For Chou, that means while others may have to hide their identities to feel safe, she is encouraged to embrace all of her basketball skills and all of her identity as an American-born Chinese woman pushing back on stereotypes that have pegged Asian women as quiet, nonconfrontational and studious.
“Not all of those are bad qualities, but I do feel like it takes away from who we really are as a whole person,” Chou said. “Our culture is very hard-working ... but we’re also going to make noise.”
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