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Asians-Only Volleyball Brings Community Together03:00

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Sam Li, 52 (center, lime green) has been playing 9-man volleyball for nearly 30 years and keeps up with the younger players. (Kainaz Amaria/NPR)closemore
Sam Li, 52 (center, lime green) has been playing 9-man volleyball for nearly 30 years and keeps up with the younger players. (Kainaz Amaria/NPR)

Volleyball games are stopping traffic on one of Washington, D.C.'s landmark streets, Pennsylvania Avenue, this Labor Day weekend.

More than 1,000 players from across the U.S. and Canada have gathered in the nation's capital to bump, set and spike in an annual tournament with unusual rules.

Stephanie Moy, 23, (center) sets up a volleyball net with her teammates at a practice in Rockville, Md. Women's teams also compete in the North American Chinese Invitational Volleyball Tournament. "CYC is a family thing," she says, "Our fathers played together. It's like tradition. I want my kids to play for CYC." (NPR)
Stephanie Moy, 23, (center) sets up a volleyball net with her teammates at a practice in Rockville, Md. Women's teams also compete in the North American Chinese Invitational Volleyball Tournament. "CYC is a family thing," she says, "Our fathers played together. It's like tradition. I want my kids to play for CYC." (NPR)

Each men's team must have nine players, instead of six, on the court to play a street version of volleyball known as "9-man." The game became popular generations ago among Chinese immigrants living in Chinatowns around the country.

To preserve the game's cultural history, tournament organizers require all players to have East or Southeast Asian ancestors. The official rulebook also says at least six players on the court per team must be "100 percent Chinese."

A 'Special' Sport

These eligibility requirements for the North American Chinese Invitational Volleyball Tournament are not as uncommon as they may sound, says Ursula Liang, who's working on a documentary about the history of 9-man.

"There are clubs and athletic leagues across the country that organize along ethnic lines and other identities, like gay groups [and] Jewish-American groups," Liang explains. "The precedent has been set by many other organizations."

Youngbloods co-captain Justin Yuen, 17 (center), and his teammates practice with African-American players Teddy Kwende, 21 (red shirt), and Gerel Hall, 20 (white shirt), who cannot compete in the national 9-man tournament. (NPR)
Youngbloods co-captain Justin Yuen, 17 (center), and his teammates practice with African-American players Teddy Kwende, 21 (red shirt), and Gerel Hall, 20 (white shirt), who cannot compete in the national 9-man tournament. (NPR)

But unlike most sports played in identity-based leagues, 9-man has its own distinct style of play. For example, a 9-man court is bigger and the net is lower compared to official volleyball regulations.

"Nine-man is a special sport, and people see that," Liang says. "And when they see that, they want to play and they wonder why they can't play."

'Just Human Nature'

At a 9-man practice in an empty parking lot, a volleyball darts over the net after a swift pass and dump by 17-year-old Justin Yuen and his teammates. Yuen is co-captain of the Youngbloods, a group of teens and twenty-somethings who practice on weekends in suburban Maryland in shorts and shades.

"Most of my Asian friends are from here. I don't really have that many Asian friends at school," says Yuen, whose 9-man team is part of the Washington Chinese Youth Club.

Jeff Yuen, 53 (center), a financial controller for a government contractor, coaches younger 9-man players. "We got involved because our dads would do this every Sunday," he says. "But once they left the cities to move to the suburbs, the Asian community started losing their roots. So we are trying to maintain our rich heritage." (NPR)
Jeff Yuen, 53 (center), a financial controller for a government contractor, coaches younger 9-man players. "We got involved because our dads would do this every Sunday," he says. "But once they left the cities to move to the suburbs, the Asian community started losing their roots. So we are trying to maintain our rich heritage." (NPR)

Not all of Yuen's teammates are of Asian descent. African-American players Teddy Kwende, 21, and Gerel Hall, 20, cannot compete in the national 9-man tournament and only play during practices.

Wallace Lee, 64, a coach and board member of the North American Chinese Invitational Volleyball Tournament, says questions about a player's race or ethnicity usually don't come up.

"But if it's a really good player and they don't look Asian, then you're going to definitely, you know, get some questions," Lee says. "I guess that's just human nature."

Like 'Throwing A Baseball With Your Dad'

Nine-man volleyball runs deep in many Chinese-American families. Jeff Yuen remembers practicing 9-man as a teenager with his father and younger brothers.

Abi Lee, 5, holds a basketball on the sidelines. Her father Robert Lee, 38 (not pictured), who is a player and coach, says he will encourage his daughter to be active with the CYC sports league when she is older. "I want her to join the WNBA when she grows up," he says. (NPR)
Abi Lee, 5, holds a basketball on the sidelines. Her father Robert Lee, 38 (not pictured), who is a player and coach, says he will encourage his daughter to be active with the CYC sports league when she is older. "I want her to join the WNBA when she grows up," he says. (NPR)

On Saturday afternoons, he would take a break from making egg rolls and spare ribs at his family's restaurant in Washington, D.C. His father would tie a string between two dumpsters in the alley behind the restaurant, and they would pass a volleyball back and forth over the makeshift net.

"This was our fun time," Yuen says. "It's a Chinese version of standing in your backyard throwing a baseball with your dad."

Now 53, Yuen spends his weekends helping to coach his teenaged nephews, including 17-year-old Justin. He says they're growing up in a Chinese community that's no longer concentrated in Chinatown tenements. Instead, it's spread out across suburbs.

"The [9-man] tournament is a way of trying to get the community to just come back together," he explains. "Just for a short amount of time in the summer [to] say, 'Hey! How you been doing? What's your family been doing? [How are] your kids?' "

Copyright NPR 2016.

Players warm up for practice. (NPR)
Players warm up for practice. (NPR)
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