"Is he better than me?"
That's the first thing I asked when I heard about a guy my old NYC running mates were calling "Jeff 2.0." Jeff 2.0—like me—was an undersized, pass-first point guard with good handles and a decent jumper. He was also Asian.
In December, I got together with my NYC basketball friends to play in their regular weekly game. Jeff 2.0 was there and it was the first time we had met each other. He seemed like a very nice guy and he definitely had some game. We ended up guarding each other for most of the night. I played my ass off against him and at the end, I felt that I had done respectably, especially since I had just come off major knee surgery. But it got me thinking about intraracial competition. Jeff 2.0 and Jeff 1.0 (me) were the only two Asians in the gym that night, and I felt that we were both subtly trying to capture the "Best Asian in the Game" award. Unfortunately, as we know, there is no such award.
I think that an easy hypothesis here would be: Players will play harder against same-race opponents.
But I don't think it's that simple.
The better hypothesis is actually: Players will play harder against same-race opponents when their race is relatively rare in the game.
Growing up in upstate New York in the 80s, I didn't know any other Asian ballers. In most games I played in, I was the only one. Going to college in Boston, I met a few other Asian players, and I definitely played harder against them—wanting very much to be the best Asian around. I mean, there was no way I was going to be the best player on the scene, but I had a really good shot at being the top Asian (and I think I was). I moved to NYC for grad school in the late 90s, and found myself in a tough situation. I played with quite a few Asians at the gym and in the parks, where there was no guarantee that I'd be anywhere near the best. There were definitely some Asian ballers at NYU who could easily bust my ass back up to Poughkeepsie. I would play SO HARD against them, but they were just better than me. I remember one of the "kings of the gym" (a black guy) coming up to me one day and saying something like "You're the second best Asian brother here. You've got a good game, but [the other Asian] is the best." I couldn't disagree, but I was stung by the truth of what he had said. I hated that anyone else knew what I knew—that I wasn't the best of my kind.
But then I moved to Berkeley—aka the Land of Asians. I started balling at the UC Berkeley gym and at various parks around town. Now, instead of being one of a few Asians, I was one of many. In fact, some of the games I played in were all Asian. Suddenly, being the top Asian player didn't seem so important anymore. For one, there was no way that this was going to happen. There were too many Asians playing in my games now, and too many of them were clearly better than me. But more importantly, the social structural conditions of the game had changed my perceptions. I found that with so many Asians to compare myself to (and to be compared amongst themselves), I didn't feel that same intraracial rivalry.
So I believe that racial uniqueness plays a critical role in this dynamic. When there are only a couple of you, you see an opportunity to gain status in the eyes of the local hoops community. As I have mentioned elsewhere on this blog, I like it when good players give me a racist nickname ("Yao," "Ichiro," "Duck Soup"), as it means that I am noteworthy, despite the general disadvantage of my race. But when your racial category reaches a certain tipping point, this status competition becomes more or less moot. You'll never get a cool racist nickname if there are fourteen of you.
Thinking about this suggests a further complication, which is that overall racial category statuses also matter. For example, if two relatively skilled black players are playing with eight white guys, do they feel the same pressure to be the best of their race? Maybe, but maybe not, as black players tend to have higher status generally in pickup basketball culture. For those with high hoops status, being the best of their kind may take a backseat to being the best, period.
Thus, I think that the best hypothesis of all is: Players will play harder against same-race opponents when their race is relatively rare in the game, and they are in a relatively low-status racial category.
And of course, here's the question we really want answered. Does intraracial rivalry affect the highest levels of play? Do Kirk Hinrich and J.J. Redick get insanely pumped up to guard each other?