Column Feature

The ‘Yellow Mamba’ of North Carolina

A/P/A Heritage Series

A month-long series of Asian-Pacific American stories to celebrate A/P/A Heritage Month

Think about Division I men’s basketball. How many current Asian players can you think of? Maybe a handful. What about in the Power 5 conferences? The group shrinks. How about in the blue bloods? Any?

There are very few, but Daniel Bolick was one not very long ago. In 2011, Bolick walked on at North Carolina, becoming the first Asian player in the program’s storied history. Bolick called himself the “Yellow Mamba” on Twitter, and the other four walk-ons collectively called themselves “Blue Steel,” which gained a bit of a cult following for their self-deprecating tweets and how relatable they seemed.

Bolick is half Taiwanese on his mother’s side and speaks a little Mandarin, though it’s not as good as he wishes. However, he grew up trying to fit in with white crowds. It was easy to want to be like people around him, but as he grew older he embraced his Taiwanese identity more.

He picked up basketball in elementary school and became all-conference in high school. When he arrived at UNC, Bolick played on the junior varsity for two years. A rule limited players to two years on the JV squad, so he tried out for varsity his junior year. He got cut.

“At that point my mom was like, ‘OK well just focus on school. Get your internship. Focus on your career after basketball. It’s fine. You had a good run,'” Bolick said.

“I was like no, I’m going to work my butt off and try again next year. I’m glad I didn’t listen to her because lo and behold, all my work that summer paid off and I ended up making the team. She was always supportive, but she definitely fought me on it in my latter years of college.”

After making the team, Bolick became teammates with Harrison Barnes, Kendall Marshall, Reggie Bullock, John Henson and Tyler Zeller. Bolick would joke with people that he was just the team manager, but he was one of the guys.

“(Blue Steel) saw ourselves as normal guys, normal students, and we really embraced it,” Bolick said. “It was great. Literally being on a team of future NBA players and flying charter planes everywhere. Five-star hotels. Five-star resorts. We were rock stars.”

As per UNC tradition, Bolick started in the final home game in his one-year career. It also happened to be against No. 4 Duke for the ACC regular-season title, so there was a lot at stake. This is how Bolick remembers the game in his own words.

Thinking back on it, it’s almost surreal. It doesn’t seem like that actually happened. I approached it like any other day. Game days are the easiest days for walk-ons. You put in your hard work in the week. Then you have game day. It’s my time to sit back.

You have your pre-game meal. They had chicken, steak, fish – they gave you the works. You knew it was going to be a fun and easy day. You go through the routine, maybe get a lift in before the game. You have your walk through. Then you have the best seat in the house for the actual game. I approached it like any other game. Just really laid back not thinking too much about it.

It didn’t really set in until we have the routine where you go out for our normal warm-up. We come back in to the locker room with maybe five minutes left. That’s when Coach Williams, he has the names of the five starters of the opposing team. You had Nolan Smith up there, Kyle Singler, the rest of the Duke starting five. He will put the starting five who’s starting, and he’ll put your name next to who you’ll be defending to start the game.

Next to Nolan Smith, ACC Player of the Year, he puts Bolick next to his name. At that moment, I could feel my palms start to sweat. I could feel my heart rate speed up, like it’d beat out of my jersey. That’s when it really hit me. This is really real. My palms don’t usually sweat. That’s the biggest thing I remember. My palms just got completely soaked.

It was funny because it’s so much different being in a game. I maybe only played like a minute and 45 seconds. Maybe like two minutes or so. I was so tired. I was to the point of exhaustion. I almost put the fist up, which was a signal for Coach, I’m tired, take me out of the game. I was like nah, I can’t do that. I’m only going to be in for so long. I can’t put the tired signal up. We were up 3-0 when we came out of the game.

I remember guarding Nolan Smith, and it was the lowest defensive stance I’ve ever been in. Honestly if he had made any sort of move on me in that moment, he would’ve crossed the shit out of me. I didn’t look scared but on the inside I was. It pretty much went as good as it could have.

UNC went on to win 81-67 and claim first place in the conference. You can watch Bolick in that game and other career “highlights” in this video.

After UNC, Bolick wanted to play professionally in Taiwan. He tried out for some teams but didn’t get signed. He stayed to teach and coach for a few months before returning to America. For the next year, Bolick worked in a physical therapy clinic, while taking some prereqs on the side and studying for the GRE to prepare for physical therapy graduate school. That plan also fell through once he realized he didn’t want more school at that point. Now he works as an account manager for a clinical research company.

Bolick’s story is rare for Asians in college basketball. In the 1999-2000 season, only 15 Asian men played Division I basketball, according to this NCAA database. That number peaked in 2009-2010 with 26 players and dropped to its low of nine the next year and has returned to 15 in 2013-2014.

To put that 15 in perspective, it constituted just 0.28 percent of Division I male basketball players in 2013-2014. Black males made up 58.1 percent, while white males made up 27.3 percent. The estimated Asian population in America in 2013 was 5.3 percent. The percentages alone don’t necessarily correlate to Asians males being underrepresented in collegiate basketball, but 15 players is still a very small number, and somewhat disconcerting. Gene Demby’s 2014 article for NPR Code Switch , which references the same NCAA database numbers, suggests that discrimination may be one reason as to why there aren’t more Asian players. Bolick, however, doesn’t see it that way.

“I just don’t think as many Asian kids play basketball,” Bolick said. “I had a camp and I’ve worked tons of camps growing up. There’s not as many Asian kids that are playing younger. If you see someone who looks like you doing something, you’re naturally drawn to that. Maybe with Jeremy Lin playing, maybe more Asian kids will be more inclined to play.”

ANDREW TIE | @Andrew_Tie

Andrew Tie is a senior journalism major at UNC-Chapel Hill. He is a 2015 Dat Winning fellow.

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