By Jason Cruz
Northwest Asian Weekly
Welcome to the last Layup Drill of the decade. In this edition, we take a look at the best athletes of 2019.
Locally, 2019 saw the end of the playing careers of Doug Baldwin and Ichiro Suzuki. The former Seahawks wide receiver, whose grandmother is Filipino, decided to call it a career due to multiple physical injuries. The good news is, he will still be active in the Seattle community.
Suzuki played his last game with the Mariners during the team’s first game of the season in Japan. The scene was emotional for Japanese fans, Suzuki, and his Mariners teammates. Similar to Baldwin, Suzuki stayed around in Seattle to be a part of the organization and even continue to participate in batting practice and pitch to batters.
South Korean soccer player Kim Kee-hee helped the Seattle Sounders win their second MLS Cup in franchise history. Kim started the final against Toronto FC. Interestingly, the Sounders’ three appearances in the finals have all come against the Toronto franchise. However, this year, unlike the previous two, the game took place in Seattle.
The year also saw the drafting of the University of Washington’s Taylor Rapp to the Los Angeles Rams. Rapp, whose mother is Chinese, was picked in the 2nd round by the Rams. Kyler Murray was picked number one in the NFL draft by the Arizona Cardinals. Despite having been drafted by the Oakland A’s in baseball, Murray decided to play quarterback for the Cardinals.
Murray’s mother is South Korean. The Cardinals quarterback began the season as the starter and despite some mistakes has had a productive season.
Manny Pacquiao continued his boxing career with an impressive win over Keith Thurman. It looks as though his career will not stop, even though he’s now in his 40s. In addition, he received his bachelor’s degree from the University of Makati this month in Political Science.
Although he has a busy schedule, Pacquiao received his Bachelor of Arts through an alternative education program. Pacquiao was nominated for the 2019 Asian Sportsman of the Year.
We also saw the end of Linsanity in the NBA, as Jeremy Lin found a new basketball home in China. It was bittersweet for Lin’s 9-year career in the NBA, which started with such a great story with the Knicks and then ended with an NBA Championship with the Toronto Raptors.
Despite the championship, Lin played sparingly and did not feel like a part of the team that contributed to the win.
In the summer, he broke down crying during an appearance overseas as he admitted that NBA teams had bypassed him. Fortunately for Lin, he found a new opportunity in China and will play near his brother. While stateside, many Lin fans will miss him, but all are excited for his new opportunity. He may be gone, but his time in the NBA and what it meant to a lot of Asian American fans will not be forgotten.
After a 2018 U.S. Open win, followed by an Australian Open victory last January, Naomi Osaka became the first Japanese player to be ranked number 1 in the world. However, she fired her coach that helped her through the two major title wins. A second coach was fired after a disappointing 2019 U.S. Open this past August and Osaka was then coached by her father. This past month, she chose another coach to guide her to her return to the Australian Open in January. With all of the turnover in her coaching, Osaka only fell to number 3 in the world. She will look to rebound in 2020.
Also, of significance this year was the passing of Wataru Misaka, the first Asian to play pro basketball in the United States. As Lin donned a Knicks jersey that spawned his popularity, Misaka also played for the Knicks. The Japanese American was drafted by the Knicks in the 1947 Basketball Association of America Draft. He was the first non-white player and first player of Asian descent to pay in the league that pre-dated the NBA. Misaka had a great college basketball career playing for the University of Utah. However, he lasted only three games for the Knicks and decided to go back to school to get his engineering degree. Misaka was 95 years old.
Below is a list, not in any particular order, of the top Asian athletes of 2019:
Weili Zhang: The UFC had its first world champion from China as Weili Zhang won the strawweight (115 pound) title in just 54 seconds. The event took place in Shenzhen, China before many of Zhang’s fans. The 30-year-old is 10-0 in mixed martial arts and drew the praise of one-time UFC star Ronda Rousey.
Jeannie Rice: The 71-year-old grandmother is running faster than most people half her age. Rice set a record for the half marathon in her age group with a time of 1:37:07. She averaged 7:25-per-mile over 13.1 miles, which is a blazing pace for someone in their 20s, let alone in their 70s. Originally from South Korea, Rice’s goal is to win in her age group at each of the six races in the World Marathon Majors. She’s won her age group in the Boston, New York, Chicago, and Berlin Marathons. She has the Tokyo and London marathons left.
Rui Hachimura: The Gonzaga alum was drafted by the Washington Wizards with the 9th pick in the 2019 NBA Draft in June. He became just the second Japanese basketball player to be drafted in the NBA. The 6-foot-8, 21-year-old Hachimura has taken off with the Wizards. In his first professional game with the Wizards, he posted double figures in both points and rebounds. A week later, he had 30 points, a high for the season. As just the second Japanese player in the NBA to be drafted, Hachimura is also dealing with the media surrounding his status and instant celebrity. He wasn’t prepared for how big of a media obligation he would have to endure. The Wizards hired a Japanese-speaking interpreter to work with him.
Hachimura is already on many print and digital ads in Japan and might be as well-known as Jeremy Lin was during the rise of Linsanity.
Unfortunately for Hachimura, he suffered a “groin contusion” after being accidentally kicked by his own teammate during a game in December. Despite the setback, Hachimura has been a centerpiece for a Washington team looking to rebuild around him.
Taylor Rapp: The University of Washington alum was drafted by the Los Angeles Rams after a successful college career with the Huskies. Rapp has made an impact with the Rams in his rookie season. He stepped in as a starter on the Rams defense when the original starter went down with a season-ending injury. Notably, he had his first interception of his NFL career, which went for a touchdown, another first for Rapp. The interception came off of Arizona Cardinals rookie Kyler Murray.
Embracing his Chinese heritage, Rapp was serenaded by Los Angeles area schoolchildren who sung “Happy Birthday” to him in Mandarin. On a December visit to Castelar Elementary School in LA’s Chinatown, Rapp posed for selfies with students and posed as their teacher.
“I hope I was able to inspire every single one of them [schoolchildren] to not let anyone tell them what they can and can’t do, and to go after their dreams, no matter what they might be.”
Rapp said other kids taunted and made fun of him when he was younger, as one of the only Asian football players on his team.
Kyler Murray: The first pick of the NFL Draft chose football over baseball. Murray, an outstanding athlete, won the Heisman Trophy award while playing for the Oklahoma Sooners.
Despite being shorter than 6 feet, a previous requisite in the NFL to play quarterback, he has shown his elite speed and strong arm which made teams forget about height requirements.
Through 14 games, Murray has thrown for 17 touchdowns and over 3,200 yards. His ability to scramble and run past defenders is a unique quality that some have compared to that of a younger Russell Wilson.
Younghoe Koo: Placekicker Younghoe Koo is back in the NFL with the Atlanta Falcons. After becoming the fourth player in NFL history to be born in South Korea with his stint with the Los Angeles Chargers in 2017, Koo was cut just four games into the season. He did not return to an NFL roster. Koo signed with the startup Alliance of American Football and saw success before the league folded in April. After that, he had tryouts with the Chicago Bears and New England Patriots. He was signed to the Patriots practice squad in October, but was cut just a week later.
Koo then reemerged with the Atlanta Falcons later that month, after the franchise cut its longtime kicker Matt Bryant. Since then, Koo has been named the NFC Special Teams Player of the Week twice for his play. He also has a penchant for onside kicks. In a game against the Saints on Thanksgiving Day, Koo was successful on two onside kicks, a trick kick deliberately booted short so that the kicking team has a chance to recover the ball. The play has a low percentage of probability, but Koo was able to successfully do it two times in a game and he even recovered one of them.
The 25-year-old Koo may have found a home with the Falcons. Originally from Ridgewood, N.J., Koo was a placekicker for Georgia Southern.
Katelyn Ohashi: The Seattle-area born gymnast grabbed viral video fame with a perfect 10 floor performance for her UCLA women’s gymnastics team last January. The senior gymnast became an instant star. Her backstory of injuries and body-shaming issues became a spotlight causing many to rally around her in support. Ohashi has used her fame to speak out on women’s issues and combat body-shaming. Ohashi posed for the ESPN “all-nude” issue as a way to show how she has overcome her insecurity. Since her viral video, Ohashi has become a star appearing at the ESPY awards and raising the 12 flag at a Seahawks preseason game and a scarf at a Seattle Sounders game.
Naomi Osaka: The tennis star has had an up and down year. Yet, she still ranks as the number 3 tennis player in the world. She also has renounced her U.S. citizenship in order to play for Japan in the Summer Olympics in 2020. Osaka made the decision right before her 22nd birthday in October. She told media that it was her “special desire” to represent her birth country at the Olympics. Osaka, whose mother is from Japan and father from Africa, was born in Japan, but moved to New York when she was 3.
Jason can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.