The Layup Drill — Documenting Chinese street volleyball and the UFC visits Seattle

By Jason J. Cruz
Northwest Asian Weekly

Filmmaker documents unique outdoor game

There’s a documentary featuring streetball players trash talking on the asphalt in New York’s Chinatown?

No, it’s not basketball. “9-Man” is a special kind of volleyball that is played by Chinese Americans and Chinese Canadians.

The documentary is the idea of Ursula Liang. Liang, a native of Newton, Mass., came up with the idea over 10 years ago.

“I discovered 9-Man in the late 1990’s when my brother started playing,” Liang said. “It was this amazing community where guys had confidence, swagger, height, and muscles — all things that defied stereotypes of Asians.” Liang, a volleyball player herself, participated in the women’s tournament version of 9-Man. The main event, however, is played by the men.

Liang has a highly decorated career as a sports journalist, having worked at T: The New York Times Style Magazine ESPN: The Magazine. She has interviewed high profile athletes and covered major sporting events. Yet, in a time before Yao and Linsanity, Liang believed that depictions of Asians in sports were lacking. “To put it bluntly, mainstream sports coverage is not friendly to the APA community — it’s full of long-held ideas that reinforce the notion that Asian athletes are inherently inferior.” Thus, 9-Man was born.

The documentary seeks to tell the story of this niche sport that is an exclusive game grounded in passion, camaraderie, and culture. It’s a sport which shows that the Asian athlete has swagger.

“The comparison is Rucker Park to the NBA as 9 Man is to volleyball,” Liang said, analogizing the volleyball tournament to the famous basketball tournament held outdoors during the summer in Harlem. “People have passion and excitement for 9-Man and the added element of concrete, dust, dirt, and 100 degrees outside amplifies all of that.”

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Photo by Ursula Liang

About the game

The game of 9-Man has historical roots. It developed from the traditional volleyball introduced into southern China by American missionaries. It was brought to the States in the 1930s and played by many Chinese immigrants. Due to laws such as the Chinese Exclusion Act, which isolated Chinese in America, the volleyball tournaments offered a source of fraternity and an escape. Despite the gentrification of America, the 9-Man tournaments continue on in tradition and have been passed down from generation to generation.

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Photo by Andrew Huynh

Maintaining its roots, the game is still exclusive to Asians. Two-thirds of those on a team need to be “100 percent Chinese.” The other third must be of Asian heritage. There are times when birth certificates and other evidence of ancestry must be produced to allow for players to participate.

The game has special rules. Unlike the traditional rules of volleyball, there are nine players on each side and players do not rotate positions. While volleyball allows for three hits per side before sending it over the net, 9-Man allows for a player to hit the ball into the net to allow for one more hit (for a total of 4). Also, the net is lower to allow for more spikes. Adding to the streetball feel is the fact that there are no hired referees. The players and coaches act as referees which, predictably, creates controversies between teams.

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Photo by Ursula Liang

The game is played outside, during the summer, and mainly on concrete courts. The asphalt lends to bloody knees and elbows, but for most, it’s a small price to pay. The 9-Man season begins around Memorial Day and ends Labor Day weekend with its national tournament.

Players come from all walks of life. Former college volleyball players, doctors, lawyers, and working class individuals all play. Teams can range from recreational to the ultra-competitive.

According to Danny Moy, tournament director for the 9-Man tournament in New York, there are approximately 90 to 100 teams participating in the 9-Man National Tournament. The tournament participants are 60 percent male and 40 percent female. There are approximately 1,200 to 1,500 players converging at the national tournament. Moy indicated that smaller tournaments held throughout the summer have 60 to 70 teams participating. The age ranges between 13 to 60 years old and divisions can vary depending on age and skill. The national tournament occurs during Labor Day weekend and rotates between seven cities.

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Photo by Jen Wu

About the filmmaker

When not working on the documentary, Liang works as a freelance producer and writer on various projects. Most recently, she has worked on the Ultimate Fighting Championships original programming, “UFC Primetime,” which essentially promotes the upcoming UFC fights. Liang produces segments for the show, which features fighters in training and interviews about their upcoming fights.

With a background in journalism, Liang has learned the different skills needed to make a documentary. Liang also has received help from family, friends, and advisers on the documentary. She has mostly funded the project on her own, but has established a Kickstarter page seeking others interested in the project to contribute to the editing and final production of the project.

The documentary began filming in 2008 and Liang has followed the tournaments to New York, Los Angeles, Boston, Tronto, and Montreal. The crew filmed various teams and focused on a couple they believed would go far in the tournaments.

“The challenge of documentaries is that it takes so long to make,” Liang said. “I’ve been working on the project for four years and it’s not done.” Liang hopes to wrap up editing for the documentary, so she can determine whether she needs additional filming. Once completed, Liang hopes to market it to the film festival circuit and perhaps for television.

For more information on the documentary, visit 9-Man at http://www.9-man.com and you may contribute to its Kickstarter account at http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/ursula/9-man-a-streetball-battle-in-the-heart-of-chinatow

UFC heads to Seattle

UFC fighters, including former Northwest Asian Weekly interviewees Brandon Vera, Mark Munoz, Nam Phan, and Benson Henderson, will be in Seattle for the UFC on Fox event at KeyArena on Saturday, Dec. 8. Vera announced on his Facebook page that he will be a guest analyst for the event. Munoz will be in town signing autographs promoting the event and the UFC. Phan was a late replacement to the fight card. Ironically, he was to be on the card in Seattle a couple years ago, but an injury forced him out. Now, he fills in for an injured fighter this time around. Henderson will be in the main event defending his lightweight title. Also on the card is legendary UFC fighter and Korean Hawaiian BJ Penn in what could be the last fight of his career. (end)

Jason Cruz can be reached at info@nwasianweekly.com.

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