By Jason Cruz
Northwest Asian Weekly
Welcome to the year-end edition of The Layup Drill. In this edition, we take a look at the top 10 Asian American athletes of 2021.
This year, we saw somewhat of a return to normal as fans returned to sports venues.
The Tokyo Olympics, which were delayed by a year, were held despite the lack of in-person spectators. Although there were objections to the event happening, organizers were able to pull it off with few interruptions. In February, the Beijing Olympics will take place and will need to deal with the same COVID-19 issues, as well as a variant that has spread across the globe. In addition, there are political implications involved as the United States intends to hold a diplomatic boycott of the games. There is also the issue of former women’s tennis player Peng Shuai who disappeared and then re-emerged in what appears to be government control after she accused a former government official of sexual misconduct.
The Seattle Mariners had a surprising season coming within a couple games of making the playoffs. The Mariners were helped by starting pitcher Yusei Kikuchi, who was selected to his first All-Star Game this summer. For most of the season, it was the Shohei Ohtani show. The Los Angeles Angels pitcher won American League MVP, posting astronomical numbers in hitting, as well as doing well as a pitcher. Ohtani is one of the few players to both pitch and hit in the majors.
This year saw the likely end of Manny Pacquiao’s boxing career. His last fight ended in a loss to Yordenis Ugas. He is now running for president of the Philippines.
Also, big news on the local scene is the emergence of the National Hockey League’s 32nd franchise, the Seattle Kraken. The new team plays at Climate Pledge Arena (formerly KeyArena). Notably, the Kraken have made a dedicated effort to get the community involved in hockey by employing former professional hockey player and Bellevue native David Min to be a part of the Youth Development Team.
Samantha Tan is a Canadian Asian driver-owner of Samantha Tan Racing who is making in-roads in the sport of endurance racing. The 24-year-old has been successful in the GT4 category of endurance racing. She started in regional racing in the U.S. when she was 16 years old. She is now racing BMWs. Tran has made her own team out of necessity as her old racing team folded. Her goal is to be the first Asian woman to win LeMans.
Finally, this past December, the University of Notre Dame hired head coach Marcus Freeman after the former coach, Brian Kelly, left for the job at Louisiana State. The 35-year-old Freeman served as Notre Dame’s defensive coordinator and linebackers coach. He previously played linebacker at Ohio State and then was drafted into the NFL by the Chicago Bears. He is the son of a Black Air Force veteran father and Korean immigrant mother. Freeman acknowledged his mother at an introductory press conference at Notre Dame.
“I get my unselfishness and other centered focus from my mother,” he stated, with his parents sitting in the front row.
10. Justine Wong-Orantes
The Torrance, California native helped Team USA win a gold medal in women’s volleyball. Wong-Orantes’ mother is of Filipino-Chinese descent. Despite being only 5’6”, she became known as one of the best female return specialists in volleyball.
Wong-Orantes was not widely recruited to play college volleyball due to her size and was offered to play at the University of Nebraska after she was seen playing at a tournament. Her play at Nebraska earned her a spot on the USA National Team.
The 26-year-old plays professionally in Germany.
9. Nonito Donaire
Although Manny Pacquiao is retired, the 39-year-old Donaire continues on. It appears Father Time has forgotten about Donaire as he won the WBC Bantamweight Title this past May. He also successfully defended the title this past December against fellow Filipino Reymart Gaballo.
8. William Wang
The senior Bellevue High School running back led the Wolverines to a 3A state title, rushing for 243 yards and two touchdowns in the championship game. Not only does he score on the field, but he’s also a star in the classroom posting a 4.0 GPA, a 1560 on his SAT, and a perfect score on his ACT. In addition, he plays the viola, an instrument he’s played since the 5th grade.
7. Younghoe Koo
The Atlanta Falcons kicker has found a home. Last season, Koo made his first Pro Bowl. As a result, he signed a contract extension with the Falcons.
5 & 6. Jalen Green/Jordan Clarkson
Green made history this past summer being the NBA’s highest-drafted Asian American player in the league, as well as being the third athlete of Filipino descent to make it to the NBA. The 19-year-old Green, whose mother is Filipino, was picked by the Houston Rockets in the first round.
Clarkson, who plays for the Utah Jazz, had a breakthrough season in 2021 and was chosen as the NBA’s 6th man of the year, an honor given to the best reserve coming off the bench. Green and Clarkson played against one another this season in Houston and the Rockets held a Filipino Heritage Night, as it was the first time two Filipino Americans were in the same game at the same time.
4. Kyler Murray
The Arizona Cardinals quarterback has led the team to first place in the NFC West thus far.
3. Naomi Osaka
Osaka took a stand this past year by taking time off to focus on her mental health.
Despite criticism for withdrawing from the French Open and pulling out of Wimbledon, the highest-paid female athlete in the world returned to light the Olympic cauldron during the opening ceremony in Tokyo. Osaka seemed ready to return for Team Japan, but she suffered an upset loss in the opening rounds of the Olympic tennis tournament. While she has not had the best of years on the court, she has been an example of someone embracing the need to focus on mental health, which has given others pause to reflect on their own challenges.
2. Collin Morikawa
The 24-year-old had a big year, nearly missing being the top-ranked golfer in the world. Still, at number 2, Morikawa won the Open Championship (British Open) and came in 4th at the U.S. Open. He also tied for third place in the Olympics (but missed a bronze medal after a 7-man playoff). Morkikawa was part of the U.S. team that won the 2021 Ryder Club. Things are looking up for Morikawa as he heads into 2022.
1. Sunisa Lee
A surprise at the top as Lee took the gold medal in the all-around final at the Tokyo Olympics. The Hmong American became the first Asian American to win Olympic gold in the all-around women’s gymnastics competition. She also brought home the silver medal as part of Team USA and a bronze in the uneven bars. As a result of her success, she made an appearance on ABC’s Dancing with the Stars as a contestant. Her home state of Minnesota declared July 30, 2021 as “Sunisa Lee Day.” She was also included on the Time 100, the periodical’s annual list of the 100 most influential people in the world. Lee attends Clemson University where she is on the women’s gymnastics team.
Jason can be reached at email@example.com.