California Dreamin’: Chen Yue’s journey to become China’s first woman NCAA basketball player

Ethan Epstein
Ethan Epstein/Senior Staff
Ethan Epstein

Chen Yue wanted to quit playing basketball. She was nearly 6,000 miles away from her home in Beijing, China, and was having trouble adjusting to life in the United States. A broken foot only made matters worse. All she could do was question herself: What if she had stayed in China?

Staying at home would have been what her parents wanted her to do. Chen’s parents were both former professional basketball players in China and understood the allure of playing basketball abroad. But they were also very close to their daughter and wanted her to receive an education from one of China’s leading universities, several of which were located close to home.

Interest from college basketball programs in the United States was hard to come by when Chen began to explore her opportunities beyond high school. Standing tall at 6 feet 7 inches, her height alone should have garnered attention. She earned many accolades in high school, including her league’s most valuable player award after leading her team to a championship. Chen had her pick of colleges in China and knew that she could someday play professionally in the Women’s Chinese Basketball Association.

But still, she wondered if there was a chance to find her way into an American university. She had aspirations of being the female Yao Ming and doing something no woman from China had ever done before — play college basketball in the NCAA. Unsure of how to get there, she decided to reach out to an old friend.

Back in 2009, Richard Smith was tasked with forming a Junior NBA team to represent Beijing as part of an international campaign by the NBA. He oversaw a multi-day basketball clinic with 78 boys and two girls — one of whom was a 12-year-old Chen. It was hard not to notice her. Even then, she stood above her peers at 6-foot-1. But it was her heart, not height, that won Smith over when he chose her over more skilled and talented boys to be on the team.

“I said to the organizers of the camp, ‘I want to have her on the team,’ ” Smith said in a talk with Chen’s teammates, recorded by the NBA. “ ‘This is very important to me.’ She was working very hard and she really had this earnest spirit. She came to this camp, it’s all boys, but she’s really putting herself out there. And then I said, ‘What if I was in that position? Would I have the guts to do that?’”

Smith’s team would beat out Junior NBA teams from Shanghai and Guangzhou to earn an all-expenses-paid trip to the 2010 All Star Game in Dallas, Texas. It was Chen’s first time stepping foot in the United States. From the festivities surrounding All Star Weekend to a private practice with NBA superstar Dwight Howard, it was a trip Chen could never forget.

“That was pretty awesome,” Chen says. “That trip made me really want to come here for college and play NCAA.”

After the trip, Smith went back to his regular day job working in the front office for the Utah Jazz. He gave each of his players his business card in case they ever wanted to reach out. Four years later, Chen did just that.

She sent a carefully worded email thanking Smith for all that he had done and expressed interest in playing for a college in the United States. That email was forwarded to the NBA offices in China. Before Chen knew it, representatives from the NBA were in her home helping her get started with the recruiting process. Word got out about her potential on the court and things moved quickly after that. She set up three visits to American colleges. Her first stop?

Berkeley, California.

Cal associate head coach Charmin Smith was impressed by what she saw on Chen’s highlight tape. She saw what most analysts were quick to point out — a tall woman with great mobility, quick hands and feet and a solid low-post game. But regardless of what the tape showed, Chen had doubts about her own abilities.

“When I first communicated with coaches, I really judged myself,” Chen says. “Am I at this level? Can I really get into this good college?”

UC Berkeley’s world-class education certainly attracted Chen, who had maintained excellent grades throughout high school. She loved meeting the coaches and was excited about the direction of Cal’s basketball program. There was also a dynamic multicultural community that Chen could not wait to be a part of. And of course, a full-ride scholarship awaited her as well.

“It feels like a dream,” Chen says. “I fell in love with what I’m looking for here.”

The transition, however, was anything but a dream.

“I still remember the first week here, I was really stressed out and so frustrated,” Chen recalls. “I kept crying all the time.”

She broke down late one night with her tutor in the student center, where she bawled out her problems to an advisor.

“When I first communicated with coaches, I really judged myself. Am I at this level? Can I really get into this good college?”

-Chen Yue

“I (told) him, ‘I can’t be here, here is too much, blah blah blah,’ ” Chen says. “ ‘Even though the coaches want to help me, sometimes they don’t really know what is going on.’ But he really helped me and explain(ed) my situation.”

Her coaches and teammates took note and did everything they could to support her. The more time they spent with her, the more they learned about her upbringing in China and the cultural differences between her old and new homes. Talking about topics — from China’s one-child policy to differing gender norms — opened up a whole new perspective on life for everyone around Chen. Soon after, Chen’s warm and fuzzy personality started to surface, and soon she was making jokes and laughing along with her teammates as if they were old friends.

She was just starting to come into her own when she suffered the first major injury of her short career — a fractured foot.

“I (got) pretty frustrated and just questioned myself, whether I should keep going on (with) basketball,” Chen says. “Both my coaches and teammates gave me a lot of support that I needed to keep going on (with) basketball.”

Part of Chen’s maturation into young adulthood has been the realization that there is more to life than just basketball. Instead of quitting, she decided to redshirt her freshman season. During that time, she found herself making friends in the multicultural community that had drawn her to Berkeley. Chen credits UC Berkeley’s sizeable Asian population for helping her feel more at home. Her feelings of loneliness soon dissipated, as friends would often invite her over for dinner or to hang out. But there was still one friend Chen had not seen in years.

Richard Smith would say that his role is small in Chen’s story. All he did was give a deserving 12-year-old girl an opportunity to succeed. As fate would have it, during Cal’s roadtrip to Utah last year, Chen finally reunited with the man who gave her so much.

“To me, he is not only like a basketball coach, he’s like a father,” Chen says.

The beauty of sports does not come from play on the courts, it comes from the unique relationships it can build. Few are more illustrative of that than Chen and Smith’s. For many, basketball is more than just a game. It’s given new life to people like Chen, who is inspiring young basketball players in China. She is just one of 275 international players who played in the women’s Division I league last season and the only one from China. That number is sure to rise as more and more international players come to the United States. Like Chen, they bring with them cultural experiences that enrich the lives of everyone around them.

Today, Chen is healthy and patiently waiting for her number to be called. The dominating presence of National Player of the Year candidate Kristine Anigwe has limited Chen’s playing time, but Chen is simply enjoying the ride.

“Every second is the best memory for me to be here,” Chen says.

After spending a year apart from her parents, Chen finally got the chance to fly back home this past summer. Spending quality time with her parents made Chen reflect on how much she enjoyed the simple things in life, such as her mother’s home cooking.

Time flew by quickly, and before Chen knew it, she was on her way back to America. She may have had her fair share of struggles in her first year in the United States, but she also had people worth going back to, the people who supported her through her ups and downs. This time, she’s not doubting her decision.

“Here, the team is like a big family, and that’s the part I love the most.”

Jeffrey Liu covers women’s basketball. Contact him at [email protected]