I got to know Robert Sung pretty well in the end, and the key to him was what he was like in high school. In high school, he was the second-best baller on a team that won three straight New York State championships — and he got none of the credit. That lack of credit became the defining story of his life. In other words, in the story of his life, he was a subplot.
When we met, Sung was ESPN’s beat writer for the New York Knicks. I had just signed with the Knicks after two years on the Clippers bench, after two years All-Ivy in college and one year as conference MVP. Sung had grown up wanting to be the first Asian American basketball star; I was the only Asian American in the NBA. In other words, people often compared us. We were the same height (six two), both point guards, and — most importantly to this story — had both played with the same superstar, Powerball! (né Paul Burton), captain of the Knicks and perennial favorite for MVP, though he never won.
I had grown up watching Powerball!, copying his moves; Sung had grown up playing in PB’s shadow. I was five years younger, but since Powerball! had gone pro after one year of college, he was in his eleventh year in the league and I was in my third. Sung had been covering the Knicks for four years.
They had a strange relationship: Powerball! had everything Sung ever wanted in life, both professionally and personally — even the woman Sung loved, Brit Young, who had been with Powerball! since high school. Despite that rivalry, Sung was Powerball!’s biggest advocate, his press cheerleader. He argued endlessly that Powerball!’s reputation (as a great individual player who could never lead his team to a championship) was unfair. Powerball! had won championships in high school and college — Sung blamed the Knicks’ playoff woes on the owner’s bad decisions. To me, Sung’s obsession seemed unhealthy — on the other hand, obsession paid his bills. (Journalists are truly terrifying people.) He wrote about Powerball! because he got money to write about Powerball!
But also, if you envy someone, it’s only natural to want everyone to think they are the best. How embarrassing to envy someone just okay.
Sung knew Powerball!’s winning instinct firsthand. On their shared high school team, Sung had done the dirty work. He had taken what the offense had given him and still had managed eighteen and five. He had what TV announcers call “hustle,” which is what they say when a player does more on the court than in their limited imaginations. In high school, Sung seemed destined for a Division I scholarship, four years of points and girls and being the hottest Asian on campus, if not a shot at the league. Then halfway through his senior season, he blew out his knee. He kept the ball on a crucial play and came down from the winning layup on someone’s foot — Powerball!’s. The knee required surgery, and Sung missed the rest of the season. Yet that didn’t stop the team from winning a third straight state championship. Scouts rated Powerball! the top high school player in the nation. Sung’s scholarship prospects dried up. He landed in Division II, where he was overplayed and reinjured his leg, ending his career.
I met Sung before my season in New York even started. The Knicks had invited me to play on their summer league team as a kind of try-out, and afterward, they signed me to a one-year nonguaranteed contract. I crashed with a teammate while I looked for an apartment, but I wasn’t sure I would last in New York. The only articles about the signing implied that my role on the team was to sell jerseys to New York Asians. I represented a new market. All I could do for myself was focus on the one thing I controlled: training.
When Sung called me, I was at the practice facility with one of the team’s shot coaches. I didn’t know how Sung got my number, unless he had access to the team contact list, but I said I would text when I was done. After my shower, I texted him that I could meet wherever he wanted. Immediately someone knocked at the door.
I jumped. I mean — it was weird timing, I didn’t actually think it was him. The practice facility was an hour from Manhattan.
I pulled on my sweats and opened the door. A tall Asian guy tried to peek past me.
“Can I help you?” I asked.
I had never seen him before.
“Robert Sung.” He reached out his hand. “I just texted you.”
My spine fucking tingled.
When I recovered, I had a good look at him. He was still in basketball shape, as tall as me but stockier, maybe 220, freakishly broad-shouldered. He was good-looking — they sometimes put him on TV — with these tender, droopy eyes, single-lidded; a high nose bridge; and dense hair cut above his eyebrows. It was a real puppy-dog look, but it worked for him. He bounced on his toes, hyped, eager. Despite my wariness, this moved me. No reporter had been so excited to see me since college, maybe not even then.
He craned his neck and peered into the locker room — that was when he confided in me his dream to be the first Asian American basketball star, when he saw we were alone. I could tell he was trying to convince me that he was on my side. I wasn’t immune to the connection. It was lonely being the only Asian American in the league and hardly ever getting off the bench. Maybe for the first time, I recognized just how lonely I was, and just how much it might help to talk to someone else who understood what it was like. Sometimes you don’t know how alone you are until you realize you don’t have to be alone.
But the connecting part was over.
Sung peered past me again and said, “I heard Powerball! would be back today. Is he in there? I really need to see him.”
I said he wasn’t there, I hadn’t seen him. My voice shriveled. “We were high school teammates, you know,” Sung said. “I was literally in your position. He would really want to see me, I mean, if he’s in there and just pretending not to be?”
What was even creepier than a stranger driving an hour to see me? A stranger driving an hour to pretend to see me.
I should have known then that Powerball! would always be Sung’s main subject, that Sung would consider anyone else the same as himself: a subplot.
After that first meeting, Sung kept inviting me out. Maybe he felt bad that we had started on the wrong foot. I made up excuses not to join him, but eventually we ran into each other. An old college friend had starred in an Asian American film, and one of our mutuals had tickets to the premiere. I had already committed to going when Sung texted. For whatever reason — maybe I didn’t want to share anything Asian with him — I told him I wasn’t interested in a movie just because it was Korean. I wanted him to catch my drift.
The venue was an old arts center in Midtown with a theater room that could seat maybe 150 and a larger ballroom for the reception. I convinced my friend to sit in the back row. The film was a rare look at small-town Asian America, and still it managed to be clichéd. Our actor friend played a son who moves back in with his Korean mom after his white dad dies. To help overcome their grief, he convinces his mom to start a restaurant together — but lo and behold, the neighbors they have known for years want nothing to do with them now. The son has to go door to door, smiling, reminding them of old relationships. When the restaurant finally starts doing okay, a white guy in a ski mask breaks in and, in the middle of robbing the place, kills the mom.
I was disappointed, but the audience gave the film a standing ovation. We were an Asian American crowd starved for representation.
At the reception, the mutual friend and I caught up with the actor, David Yoo. As the three of us chatted about the good old days, Sung appeared.
I felt bad for lying to him, but we didn’t know each other. On the other hand, once the season got underway, he would cover every Knicks game for the largest sports website in the world. I had to be smart. I pretended to be glad to see him. I said I had decided to go to the premiere after all, and I introduced him to my friends.
This was the kind of person Sung was: he asked David Yoo why the guy had chosen to do such a shitty movie.
I nearly choked on my drink.
“Excuse me?” David said. His face got red — or redder, since he had the Asian flush. “You know this fucker, Won?”
“He writes for ESPN,” I said, hoping that would buy me enough time to get Sung away from him.
“You’ve got too much talent to waste it on that kind of movie,” Sung said.
I pulled his arm.
He yanked it back, and his hand knocked into someone’s drink. A woman gave a small gasp. David swore and jumped back. His eyes flashed. I remembered why we hadn’t liked him much in college. He had yelled at one of the women in our friend group over a C-plus project — despite saying nothing to the other members, all male. After that, he orbited the group awkwardly. I wondered
how I could forget that, what that forgetting said about me.
A little of the woman’s champagne had spilled on David’s suit.
It wasn’t a big deal. He just wanted someone to dump on. Sung said something to me, but I was no longer paying attention. I was holding David back. He pointed at the woman and said she better not be a reporter too, because what he was about to do to her was off the record. Before we could find out what he meant, she threw the rest of her champagne at his face.
Without thinking, I jumped in front of the drink as if to take the charge.
It turned out to be the best possible thing I could have done. With my face wet, Sung was apologetic; David Yoo shut up. The woman pulled me out of the reception and helped me dry off.
As she dabbed a napkin on my forehead, I stared at her catlike eyes, her sharp chin, the deep groove of her philtrum. The truth was she had made a strong impression on me from the start, even before her drink hit me. For one, she was tall, maybe six feet. I liked tall women. Most ballers did. Then there was the sleeveless navy jumpsuit she wore that showed off how buff her arms were. I liked strong women too. She had the presence of someone confident and she spoke in short, direct clips, not mincing words. “If you stare at me like that,” she said, “I might think you’re hot for me. Who are you and why did you do that?”
We introduced ourselves. Won Lee. Carrie Kang. She was a producer for some big studio looking for more Asian American talent. When I asked how she got into the business of representation, she told me a memory from an early trip to Korea, channel surfing at her halmoni’s house and seeing Koreans on every station — the first time she had recognized this reality as possible. Before that trip, she had thought Korean TV was something on bootlegged DVDs and at Korean restaurants. (We all have a story like this, an origin story about the first time the world showed us our own reflection.)
“The film sucked,” she said. “Still, I was going to tell that asshole he did a good job. I was going to get his number. You saved me.”
She added: “Get his number for a future project, not a date.” “Not a date?” I asked.
“You’re single?” I asked.
“Don’t make this so awkward.” She laughed deeply, like she had a lower register hidden somewhere inside her. It was that, but it was also her smile. Her eyes curved into small arches, small rainbows, and both cheeks dimpled.
I wanted to see those dimples again. And again.
Later, Sung would claim that he was the reason Carrie and I got together.
Excerpt from The Sense of Wonder by Matthew Salesses. Used with the permission of the publisher, Little, Brown. Copyright © 2023 by Matthew Salesses.