A Philadelphia cultural institution just celebrated a big birthday. The Philadelphia Suns have been playing basketball in Chinatown for forty years, and making their presence felt off the court.
It all began, on a basketball court in a too-hot gym, on a Saturday afternoon in September. Jimmy Wong explains he started playing for the Suns three years ago. He likes traveling to play against other Asian-American teams in tournaments.
Unprompted, the 18-year-old also delivers the best advertisement a community organization could ever hope for.
“The Suns is also like a bigger organization than that because we help out in like the Chinatown community and other parts,” said Wong. “They’re just like a big family, an extended family with each other.”
The Suns began as an adult basketball team in 1972, but branched out over time. The group has run neighborhood cleanups for 25 years; and it’s probably safe to say they’re the only basketball team in the city that puts on a traditional Chinese lion dance.
Ky Cao didn’t experience a lot of Asian culture before he visited a gym in Chinatown and got recruited by the Suns.
“I was thinking like I’m the only Asian guy in Philadelphia that plays basketball so I have to be like the best,” said Cao, “and then going to Chinatown we started playing against these kids and they’re pretty organized and I wasn’t ready for [it]. They were making plays, setting picks. I’m like ‘wow, these guys are pretty good.'”
“Growing up in South Philly, you got your corner store,” said Cao. Spending time in Chinatown, he got an introduction to bubble tea, Chinese takeout.
Today, he spends most of his time behind the counter of Abakus Takeout, a restaurant-turned-sneaker shop he started with a friend. The storefront still has the red dragon ceiling tiles, and, skewered birds next to sneakers in the windows. Sometimes, people still come in and ask for duck.
Harry Leong, president of the Philadelphia Suns, says he sees the store as a special extension of the Suns’ community oriented programs. The founder created a place young people can shop, but also hang out. Leong says he’s happy with the reputation the Suns have established in the neighborhood.
“Primarily they’ll see us as young people with a lot of energy, young people who want to serve, sometimes begrudgingly, but I generally see that there is value that the young people have seen in serving other people,” said Leong.
And, ultimately, serving themselves, says Eric Law, who staffs his parents’ gift shop in the heart of the neighborhood. He started playing for the Suns in eighth grade.
“In the beginning I wasn’t as athletic as everyone else, so I was slow to get into it, but it was just fun to hang out with my friends and learning this sport,” said Law.
Law says it made him feel better about himself.
“I think it’s awesome that it’s been like forty years,” said Law on the Suns anniversary. “I hope I would stick around long enough to reach that milestone too.”
Law plays basketball but also contributes to the organization, behind the scenes. If you’re looking to have a lion dance at your wedding, he’s the guy to call.