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Ian Lee’s basketball goals become reality at Howard

He’s considered the first Chinese-Canadian NCAA Division I men’s basketball player

Ian Lee had dreams of playing Division I basketball even if most of the programs didn’t pay him much attention. He only needed one school to give him a chance, and that school was Howard University.

First-year Bison coach Kenny Blakeney saw something worth paying attention to in Lee’s offensive skills and background, leading Lee to commit to Howard in May.

Lee is a 6-foot-1 point guard from Toronto and this season he became the first Chinese-Canadian NCAA Division I men’s basketball player, according to Yahoo Canada and CBC Toronto.

“Ian is going to play. I did not bring Ian on to this program to be on the bench. He has an incredible IQ and college basketball teams that advance in the tournament are those with incredible IQs,” said Blakeney.

In the Bison’s first two games he’s seen limited playing time, against the University of the District of Columbia and Washington Adventist, but the season is only two games in.

Basketball was life

“He started watching basketball on television and before long, he was dribbling any ball he could find around the house and shooting them into any container, garbage cans and later, plastic hoops from the dollar stores. Then he graduated to basketball camps and clinics and thus began his long journey into competitive basketball,” said his mother, Dawn Sun, who said her son first picked up a basketball when he was 4 years old.

To enhance Lee’s skills, his mother sent him to hoops legend coach Ro Russell. Russell has coached basketball for more than 35 years, had more than 400 players move onto Division I ball, and 13 former players, including Andrew Wiggins and Tristan Thompson, in the NBA.

“In the basketball setting in Canada, Coach Ro is well known,” said Sun. “We needed someone who could guide him since neither Ian’s father nor I played basketball.”

Russell coached Lee on his AAU team, Grassroots Elite Canada, before Lee brought his talents to the U.S., where he played at Mountain Mission School in Grundy, Virginia, and Dohn Prep in Cincinnati. Moving from Canada to the United States for high school, Lee hoped to improve his chances of furthering his basketball career.

Although Lee was living away from his family, his mother supported his decision. “Ian wanted it. It was a nice thing for him to live at school, and wake up and go to bed at the basketball court. He was able to play a high level of basketball,” said Sun. He stayed in the dorm at Mountain Mission and at Dohn Prep, he lived with other basketball players.

For him, the competition in the U.S. was different than in Canada. “Three years ago, it was a difference in culture and basketball. The schedule was tough, playing against schools like Oak Hill Academy. That experience made me better and challenged me to be the player that I am,” said Lee.

Lee also faced challenges on the court related to his race.

“When I started working with him in the fourth grade, that’s one of the first things I said to his mom: ‘Are you ready for this?’ ” said Russell. “They’ll call him racial slurs and treat him like he’s not good enough to be on the team. Opposing players will make fun of him and say different words.”

In facing opponents, Lee experienced heckling, especially when he was playing at his best, but he focused his energy on the court. “My race would be a factor and people would look at me differently but I knew that at a young age. Coach Ro told me that it would not be easy and that I would not be treated the same, but I stuck to what I knew. I did not let the off-the-court stuff about my race affect me.”

When it came time to seek out colleges, Lee had trouble garnering significant interest from Division I programs.

“I must have called 300 coaches and 299 said no,” said Russell. “They’d say, ‘We have never recruited an Asian kid, we don’t know if he can defend, if he’s tough, if he’s physical, if he’s strong, if he’s quick, if he’s athletic, if he can play at this level, if he is mentally strong.’ A lot of them, because they had not recruited that type of player, elected to pass.”

Lee is not alone in facing Taunts

Ultimately, all Lee needed was one yes, which he received from Blakeney, who was hired in early May. He had been an assistant coach at Columbia University. He also was an assistant at Harvard University from 2007-2011, where he helped develop Jeremy Lin, who would become the first Taiwanese American to play in the NBA.

Similar to Lee, Lin faced difficulty trying to attract attention from college programs. He did not receive any athletic scholarships (Ivy League schools did not offer athletic scholarships) and considered being a walk-on at Pac-12 Conference schools.

“I knew Jeremy Lin would be a 10-year NBA player from day one,” said Blakeney. “I saw high major qualities that were unique for a mid-major player. He listened and worked diligently every day and made himself into an NBA player.”

Ian Lee playing for Dohn Prep.

Dawn Sun

When it comes to Lee, Blakeney will play the freshman and believes in the importance of giving players a fair opportunity. “The greatest compliment that a player can give a coach is that he is fair. When players leave, I would love the greatest compliment that ‘he is fair.’ ”

Blakeney is aware of the heckling. Coaching at Harvard, Blakeney noticed that opposing players and fans targeted Lin. “We’d play games in the Ivy League and people would call him slurs. I sat with Jeremy on the bench and I told him that was the biggest sign of respect that you can have in basketball. For them to stoop so low to affect you, that is a huge sign of respect. You have to build a level of toughness.”

With Lee at Howard, Blakeney hopes heckling and disrespect don’t happen. “We are in an element and climate that is racially stirred up. There will be some racial slurs thrown his way. As mentors, coaches, and teammates, we have to rally behind him.”

Lee met Lin earlier in 2019, when Lin gave advice to the Howard guard. “He talked about work ethic and to work harder than anyone else,” Lee said of Lin, who now plays for the Beijing Ducks of the Chinese Basketball Association. “It doesn’t matter your background. All that matters is your work.”

Lee is approaching his college career aware of the challenges but looking beyond race.

“It’s cool to have this part in history, but it does not define me. I’m still the same basketball player as everyone else, I play with the same basketball and I play on the same court,” Lee said.

In his time at Howard thus far, Lee says he’s adjusting well in college. “The transition has been smooth. On the academic side, the years I spent in the States have prepared me,” said Lee, who is majoring in computer information systems.

Ian Lee playing for Mountain Mission School.

Dawn Sun

Russell has also seen the influence of Lee on his peers in Canada. “We had tryouts for my AAU team this past August and there was a contingent of Asian kids,” said Russell. “Before Ian, there was no role model or icon they could look up to from Canada. Sure there was Yao Ming and Jeremy Lin, but those are guys they saw on TV. They can reach out and touch Ian.”

Russell plans to bring Lee back to Canada for camps during the summers, where he can be a source of inspiration for youths.

Lee’s dreams of basketball surpass his career in college. “I want to continue playing basketball for as long as the ball keeps bouncing for me. I hope to play somewhere professionally and continue to chase after my dream.”

Arthur is a 2019 Rhoden Fellow and a junior journalism major from Los Angeles. He works with the Department of Athletics at Howard and served as the production manager with Spotlight Network.