Even in defeat, Johnny Juzang is this year’s March Madness hero

March Madness knows how to stage a feel-good moment. UCLA’s Johnny Juzang looked speechless when his brother Christian, a former Harvard basketball player, suddenly appeared outside the team’s hotel. Johnny’s big brother made the 25-hour flight from Vietnam to surprise him ahead of the biggest game of his life: A Final Four matchup against the undefeated Gonzaga Bulldogs. While the night ultimately belonged to Gonzaga’s Jalen Suggs, and the tournament to Baylor, Johnny Juzang’s story may have the greatest resonance.

Juzang is half-Vietnamese. Earlier this month, Juzang scored 29 points on basketball’s biggest stage, at a time when people of Asian descent are seeing increased reports of violence and harassment. For many watching, Juzang’s performance marked their first time cheering for a star Asian American hooper since Jeremy Lin.

Juzang’s national recognition is powerful in this moment of heightened awareness for anti-Asian racism. He is a stereotype-breaking athlete excelling in a particularly marginalized space for Asian Americans: elite college basketball.

If you remember one name from this year’s March Madness, it should be Johnny Juzang. The emergence of Juzang is timely and odds-defying, but also late.

In 2020, only 1.7% of Division I athletes identified as Asian, according to data from the NCAA. In basketball, a sport with a relatively low barrier for entry, Asians are virtually nonexistent. This year, 20 self-identifying Asians suited up for men’s college basketball teams — a meager 0.4%.

Juzang shows young Asian Americans that they can indeed play ball at a school like UCLA, the birthplace of the first Asian American studies program, as well as the school with the most NCAA men’s basketball championships. As of late, there seems to be a growing recognition of Asians in the hoops zeitgeist: In March, Eddie Huang released his film “Boogie,” a coming-of-age tale about a Taiwanese American basketball prodigy.

Asian Americans have long faced racism in sports. Maxwell Leung, a critical studies professor at the California College of The Arts, observes how Asian American athletes must battle America’s model minority myth. Leung writes, “Lin’s achievements alone could do little to undo understandings of Asian men, exemplified by the docile honor student, that are at odds with male achievement in sports.” Even so-called “positive” stereotypes of Asian intelligence can weaponize spaces like athletics, in which Asians are deemed ill-equipped. Discouraging Asian participation, and failing to give potential Asian talent a fair shot, may begin to explain why so few Asian Americans compete at the D1 level.

Although they’re never asked, I’m sure coaches and recruiters would try to explain away the lack of Asian players to a disinterest in basketball, or natural biological disadvantages — arguments that have no basis other than speculation. What’s clear in these conjectures, however, are harmful stereotypes assigned to Asian players. Too short. Unathletic. Uncreative. Though Asian Americans have long embraced basketball, and serve as a valuable market to leagues like the NCAA, they are still largely perceived as exterior to basketball culture.

These adverse social labels may point to why a player like Lin, despite excelling as a high school player, was passed over for scholarship offers. Juzang spent his freshman season at Kentucky, where he was oft-deemed a soft player and overlooked for minutes, albeit playing behind two NBA-caliber guards in Immanuel Quickley and Tyrese Maxey.

Just a year later, Juzang has grown into a March Madness sensation — a star player at a legacy program with a very visible, very supportive Asian American family behind him. Yet, celebrating Juzang requires recognizing the potential of his tokenization.

As the tournament wraps up, many will try to pin Juzang as just a “first” — the first Asian American to be potentially selected in the NBA lottery, for example. Societal milestones like “firsts” certainty signify progress, but also create familiar traps. Defining Kim Ng as simply the first Asian and female GM in baseball, or Bianca Smith as simply the first Black women to coach professional baseball, puts undue pressure on these “firsts” to prove the worthiness of an entire demographic, while simultaneously reinforcing their looming status as outliers. Nobody asks for this pressure, and nobody should have to constantly answer to their race.

”It’s not something that’s on the top of my mind or really thought about. I’m just Johnny,” Juzang told AP News when asked about his race. ”I will get messages or hear stories about how I inspire people, regardless of their heritage. Sometimes there are people of Asian descent. But just being able to inspire people is something that’s touching and inspires me and something I don’t take lightly.”

Juzang’s newfound star status means that he will likely represent much more than just Johnny. In a more equitable world, that onus would not be his. The added attention around his accomplishments represents our societal failure — the inability of basketball to cultivate and consider Asian American talent on a more proportionate scale.

This year, an Asian American hooper finally gets his “One Shining Moment.”

Featured image: Johnny Juzang going to the Final Four/UCLA Men’s Basketball