Toronto

Meet the childhood Raptors fan set to become the NCAA's first Chinese-Canadian player

A Toronto-area basketball player who grew up cheering on the Raptors will make history this fall as the first Chinese-Canadian to play NCAA Division I men's basketball.

Ian Lee was a one-time Raptors ball boy who rebounded for Dwyane Wade

Ian Lee, a six-foot-one point guard, will attend Howard University in the fall. (Kelda Yuen/CBC)

A Toronto-area basketball player who grew up cheering on the Raptors is set to become the first Chinese-Canadian male basketball player in NCAA Division I history.

"I still can't believe it," said Ian Lee, who announced his commitment to Howard University last week.

"It's just crazy that I get to be the first, but I know I'm not going to be the last," he told CBC Toronto.

Lee, 19, started watching the Raptors as a young child at his home in Richmond Hill. His mother remembers him picking up moves while watching, which he practiced on a toy hoop after the games ended.

His love for the team, and a helpful connection, eventually led to a one-game stint as a ballboy at the former Air Canada Centre when the Raptors were taking on Dwyane Wade and the Miami Heat.

Lee, who was 10 at the time, was called in to rebound and pass balls to Wade during warm ups. His up-close experience with the 13-time All-Star left an indelible mark.

"Since that moment, I've been living, breathing, sleeping basketball," he said in a video announcing his NCAA commitment.

Lee's U.S. career

Under a recommendation from his childhood coach Ro Russell, Lee moved to the United States during high school to pursue his basketball career.

Over the course of three years against top competition, Lee developed into a six-foot-one point guard known for his silky ball handling and outside shooting.

His play caught the attention of Howard University head coach Kenny Blakeney, who worked as an assistant coach at Harvard University during Jeremy Lin's college career.

Howard University, a historically black college in Washington D.C., competes in the NCAA's Mid-Eastern Atlantic Conference and has made two NCAA tournament appearances — in 1981 and 1992.

"I'm grateful to Coach Blakeney, who didn't look at me as an Asian basketball player, he just looked at me as a basketball player, period," Lee said.

Lee and Lin, the trail-blazing Taiwanese-American point guard who joined the Raptors this season, also briefly met earlier this year after a Toronto game. The two spoke about the challenges facing Asian-American players.

'He's a gym rat'

Russell, his childhood coach and the founder of the basketball development program Grassroots Canada, said he expects Lee to make an immediate impression when he joins Howard University in the fall.

"I know he's going to do really good academically, and basketball-wise. He's in the gym all the time; he's a gym rat so he's going to get better and better and better," he said.

"It's a historical opportunity and time for him. Now that's going to open up doors for younger kids of Chinese descent or Asian players," Russell said.

Lee credits his longtime coach Ro Russell for helping him develop into an NCAA Division I-calibre player (Kelda Yuen/CBC)

That already appears to be happening, as Lee said several young Asian-Canadian players have reached out to him for advice and inspiration.

"That's why I believe, I've started here, a lot can follow after me," he said.

 

With files from Kelda Yuen

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