WACO, Texas — Jason Terry’s sweet basketball stroke has taken him all over the country during his 18-year NBA career, but six years ago he witnessed something that he had never and very likely will never see again.
Terry was readying his daughter, Jasionna, and her sixth-grade basketball team for a game in Texas when the former Sixth Man of the Year saw an Asian mother and daughter going through a rigorous basketball workout.
Terry couldn’t stop watching as the Chinese American girl meticulously went through catch-and-shoot drills and one-dribble pull-up jumpers. He was floored by the girl’s fundamentals, sophisticated shooting touch, sound footwork and disciplined work ethic for her age.
Terry had so many questions about this unique mother-daughter tandem. Where did they come from? Where did the mother learn these NBA drills? Exactly how old was this girl? So Terry introduced himself.
“Those drills aren’t regular,” Terry recalled. “They said she was in the sixth grade. I said, ‘Sixth grade only! And you’re working on NBA workout drills?’
“The way she shoots … I have never seen anyone like her.”
Natalie Chou is a rare sight indeed — a 6-foot-1 Chinese American female basketball player with McDonald’s All American credentials, now a freshman for the No. 4 Baylor Bears.
There are so few female Asian American players at this elite level that the No. 8 recruit in the country has been dubbed by some Chinese media outlets as the female Jeremy Lin. It’s a label that likely has more to do with her ethnicity and potential than her actual playing style, but still one she wholeheartedly embraces.
Lin is familiar with the Baylor freshman. And like Lin, Chou wants to be a role model for the Asian community and perhaps one day spark a new generation of Asian female basketball players.
“I think she will carve out her own nickname and her own lane once people see her,” Terry said. “She is not as flashy as Jeremy, but her fundamentals, the way she plays the game is pure and only will continue to get better.
“I don’t know how many Asian Americans have been in the WNBA,” Terry added, “not only at Baylor but beyond, she will make her mark in history.”
Under the strict tutelage of her mother, Quanli Li, who played professional basketball in China, and with Terry as a mentor, Natalie is one of three heralded freshmen who comprise what some consider to be the top recruiting class in the country. The Lady Bears visit No. 22 Tennessee Sunday (2 p.m., ESPN2).
It’s been a slow adjustment so far for the versatile guard, who has played in all nine of Baylor’s games while averaging 12.1 minutes and 3.4 points per game and shooting only 4-of-14 from 3-point range. With four starters returning from last season’s 36-2 team, head coach Kim Mulkey can afford to be patient with her prized class, which also includes Lauren Cox, the top-ranked recruit in the country, and 40th-rated prospect Calveion “Juicy” Landrum.
But Natalie’s high school accomplishments while at Dallas’ Plano West — which include averaging 24 points and 7 rebounds as a senior and winning a gold medal with Cox on the U17 USA Basketball team in 2014 — has Lin very bullish about Natalie’s future.
“I think for us [Asians], I am always going to root for any story like that,” said Lin, who first read about Chou earlier this year. “[An Asian American female basketball player] is going to break even more stereotypes in a lot of different ways. That is why I am really rooting for her.”
An American dream
Quanli Li sits on a massive sofa in a lounge adjacent to Baylor’s women’s basketball locker room.
Nearby there’s a film room that any basketball coach would love, where her younger daughter, Natalie, is conducting an interview in Chinese — albeit in her “Chinglish” accent, as Natalie’s older sister, Mengting, but goes by her nickname Tingting, likes to describe it.
Li is supportive but demanding, pushing her kids to excel with a relentless work ethic and unwavering drive for perfection that has driven Natalie to tears on countless occasions.
“We would be at halftime of a game, and Natalie might have missed two or three shots or turn the ball over a couple of times or just not playing up to her mother’s standards,” said Terry, who recruited Chou to play four seasons on his Lady Jets AAU team. “She would come up to her at halftime. I don’t know what she would say but Natalie would be in tears, her eyes would get red and then she’d go out and have a great second half of the game.
“But their relationship is a great mother-daughter, student-coach relationship. I can just tell she idolizes her mother greatly. It is amazing to watch.”
On this late September day near the Lady Bears’ locker room, Li’s eyes begin to water and her voice quivers. Not in her wildest dreams did she ever imagine sitting in the basketball facility of an elite women’s basketball program with her daughter playing for one of the top four women’s teams in the country.
She’s overwhelmed with pride and what feels like four decades’ worth of emotions and sacrifice begins to seep out. From Beijing to Baylor, Li has given up so much to get her daughter to this point. A woman who has impressed the likes of Terry and Mulkey with her unwavering focus and determination for her daughter lets her guard down for a brief moment.
“This is more than I can ever imagine,” Li says. “My daughters are both doing so well. I did my best to raise them.