Lehigh men’s basketball is making history by being the first known Division I basketball team to have three Asian players on their roster.
Freshman guard Jayshen Saigal, freshman forward Ben Li and freshman center JT Tan are among the 11 underclassmen headed into the 2020-2021 season.
Despite being a large portion of their class, the three athletes are part of the mere one percent of Asian athletes that play under the National Collegiate Athletic Association.
“Asian American athletes shouldn’t feel like they’re on the outside in any sport. If they have a dream, they should be able to chase it.”
-Freshman men’s basketball guard Jayshen Saigal
Although this amount of Asian representation is groundbreaking for a Division I team, the three teammates don’t see this as a major influence on their performance.
“Obviously, it’s really cool to be a part of something like this, but I don’t think that it’s going to change the way that we play,” Saigal said. “We still have the same goal no matter what.”
After the Mountain Hawks posted a 11-21 record last season, the goal for this year’s team is to achieve a winning season.
Li, Saigal and Tan agree that they do not see themselves as any different from their teammates. Their team is centered around their passion for playing basketball and that similarity presides over everything else.
However, each of them did not reach their goal of playing collegiate basketball without overcoming racially motivated stereotypes and obstacles.
“I’ve heard every Chinese joke you can make about me on the court,” Li said.
Although these taunts never strayed Li from his dream, he recognizes the fact he has to work harder to succeed than other athletes because of his Asian background.
Saigal shared a similar belief. He said his recruiting process was made more difficult due to the lack of Asian American athletes in college basketball today.
The three men hope that their story will push other Asian Americans to pursue athletics at a collegiate level.
“I think this is the first step in making this a more normal thing,” Saigal said. “Asian American athletes shouldn’t feel like they’re on the outside in any sport. If they have a dream, they should be able to chase it.”
Li hopes his time at Lehigh will have a lasting impact on future Asian American athletes to come.
“In a few years, I don’t want Asians to be seen as outsiders in this sport,” Li said. “I definitely think that this will influence the next generation — that’s what this is all about.”
For now, the teammates are planning for a season unlike any other. Following an announcement by the Patriot League that all non-conference games are canceled, the team is hoping for a shortened season where they would only play teams in the Patriot League.
Although Li, Saigal and Tan are not in Bethlehem to train, they have been utilizing their time at home to prepare themselves for their first collegiate season.
Despite facing different circumstances, their focus remains on staying ready for the upcoming season.
“We need to all keep working hard to make sure that when we are able to get back on the court together that we’re all in great shape,” Saigal said.
Until the day comes where the team is able to practice together on the same court, the three men have to stay focused on individual training. That training comes easy, they say, due to the love of basketball that led them to Lehigh in the first place.
“We’re just looking forward to playing the sport that brought us all here together,” Tan said.
The Patriot League is set to announce a decision about the season in the coming weeks.