The Surprising Story Behind CCYAA’s Celebrity Classic Basketball Game

And how Simu Liu postponed his Marvel audition for the inaugural game.

And how Simu Liu postponed his Marvel audition for the inaugural game.

CCYAA founder Clement Chu and Simu Liu

by Sadaf Ahsan
June 29, 2023

When Clement Chu — founder of Canadian Chinese Youth Athletic Association (CCYAA) — was a teenager growing up in the suburbs of Toronto, he and his friends tended to be the only Asian kids playing basketball at the high-school level. It could have been demoralizing, but instead, it motivated Chu to create a space exclusive to them to foster that talent. 

“A lot of kids from our communities were just playing three on three on the streets, so I realized there’s an opportunity here,” says Chu. “That we could create organized infrastructure with proper referees, proper gyms, proper scoring so that kids of Asian descent would have the opportunity to play basketball in an organized manner.”

That’s how the CCYAA was born, in 1995, the same year the Toronto Raptors played their first game. A non-profit that promotes sports, fair play, and community for youth across the GTA, it offers seasonal sport leagues, programs, events and leadership opportunities that have seen 2,000 participants turn out each year. Basketball training, meanwhile, has served over 1,000 youths each year through programs like The Jeremy Lin Basketball School and specialized clinics which also leads to participation in national U.S.-based tournaments.   

It was the early ‘00s when basketball became the No. 1 sport in China, overtaking soccer, leading to a global shift. Partly kicking off the craze was Chinese basketball player Yao Ming, who played for the Houston Rocks from 2002 to 2005, and became a Hall of Famer. Asian American basketball player Jeremy Lin, too, contributed with the “Linsanity” era when he played with the New York Knicks in the 2011-12 season. Another major factor was just how accessible basketball was and is compared to most other sports; you really only need a hoop and a driveway.

“All of a sudden, basketball became very in vogue, also in Toronto,” says Chu. “It reached a point of maturity where a lot of the youth who had grown up with it were now ticket-buying fans. With Vince Carter being in the city, basketball became very popular, and Asian kids who wanted to play were getting an opportunity. Fast-forward to today, where we have a new focus and mandate, where we’re targeting very young children to try and build a love of sport because we understand the challenge now is that a lot of kids are just in front of screens, are very sedentary, and we want them to enjoy sports — for life.”

The Making of CCYAA’s Celeb Classic

Another element of that has been using sports as a platform to speak on the importance and impact of representation. This, incidentally, was how Chu linked up with Canadian actor and Marvel star Simu Liu, leading to the start of the CCYAA Celeb Classic.

As the story goes, Liu spoke at a seminar on non-traditional career paths for Asian kids (which featured actors, athletes, make-up artists, you name it, in place of, say, accountants, lawyers, or doctors) held by the organization. At the time, he’d just gotten a role on CBC’s Kim’s Convenience. 

Liu and Chu hit it off, bonding over their mutual fight for representation — in the arts and sports, respectively — and their love of basketball. The two became fast friends. Meanwhile, Jeremy Lin was also working to engage the Asian community, and he and Chu often connected when he visited Toronto. Chu connected him and Liu, and another friendship was born when Lin came to Toronto to play for the Raptors in 2019, becoming the first Asian American to win an NBA championship. It was that period that led to Liu suggesting they run a celebrity charity game to help fundraise for the Jeremy Lin Foundation, which works to break barriers faced by low-income AAPI youth. 

It all led to the first game, inside a night market where a court was built, and folks were flown in fresh from L.A. But things didn’t run quite so smoothly.

“On the Friday before the game, Simu was like, ‘I can’t make it,’” Chu recalls. “I asked him why, but I knew. He would never have told me that he couldn’t make it unless it was something very important, and sure enough, it was because he was auditioning for Marvel, but he wasn’t allowed to say that. I told him, ‘You gotta do what you got to do, we’ll take care of it.’ But he pushed off his audition for the event, while Awkwafina and Kevin Feige were all there in New York waiting for him. He told them he’d be there on Monday, and he played the game. Later that week, he found out he had the role of Shang-Chi and the week after he was at San Diego Comic Con.”

Although the following two years the pandemic shut the game down, it’s been back on as of last year, as Chu, Liu and Lin have kept collaborating. Despite Chu having worked hard to grow the platform over the past two decades, he’s never been interested in being all that front-facing. He still has his day job, working for a company that manufactures telecom. And that’s because, naturally, he appreciates a team, which includes over 100 volunteers.

“I was raised playing basketball, where there were times that I would get to be a superstar and shoot every single shot, but there were a lot of times where, especially being Asian, you’d step into a gym where there was a lot of people who were not Asian, and you’ were barely getting on the court,” explains Chu. “Once you get on the court, you have to add value, and it sure as heck wasn’t gonna be scoring or dunking, rather by passing the ball, playing defense… it had to be through helping. That’s where I developed that mentality of how to fit in best in an organization. As I’ve evolved within CCYAA, I’ve discovered that my best strength is engaging with my team, to help them be the best.”

Beyond Basketball

The intent will always be, says Chu, to focus on filling the gaps when it comes to serving the community. In other words, basketball isn’t the CCYAA’s only focus. Chu and the organization are keen to grow the platform, with food being its next big vertical as another major connection point in Asian culture. It led to the creation of Fresh Fest, which launches this year on July 8, and is a curated “chef-led food experience” featuring Superfresh’s Trevor Lui, Pai’s Chef Nuit, and more. 

The organization also recently opened the CCYAA Centre for Athletic Performance in Markham to provide an accessible space that facilitates not only playing sports, but learning other skills, like coding and new languages. 

CCYAA has developed a lot of partnerships along the way including with NCAA Player of the Year Zach Edey (who is of partial Chinese heritage), who has been attending organization events and showing youths the possibilities when getting involved with sports.

It’s what Chu calls “role modelling.” For instance, early on, the girls who were in the program were high-level basketball players and went on to win scholarships and play in college, leading to newer girls on the program coming in with the mindset of reaching the same goals, and having a high success rate. Meanwhile, the boys felt less motivated, like they’d never get past the high-school level, making them less likely to get to the college level.

“I think that that’s the central theme,” says Chu. “With Simu, being an action hero or an Asian lead in a romantic-comedy is important, because these are roles that people cannot often see an Asian male in. Similarly with Jeremy, people could not picture an Asian American guy of semi-regular size playing in the NBA and doing well in it. So we realized it’s important to elevate that talent so the youth can see it. The Celeb Classic, for example, allows us to bring in people of different background and industry so that they can see a bit of them in themselves. That’s what motivated myself and the team to do this, because it’s 100% volunteer-based. Because we are seeing the difference that all of this works actually makes.”

The CCYAA Celeb Classic is on Saturday, July 8 at the Goldring Centre. Tickets are currently on sale here

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