On July 8, professional basketball player Jeremy Lin and actor Simu Liu hosted the Canadian Chinese Youth Athletic Association (CCYAA) Celebrity Classic at the Goldring Centre. The event centered around a basketball game between various Asian celebrities that aimed to raise funds for the CCYAA and the Jeremy Lin Foundation.
Lin was the first American of Chinese or Taiwanese descent to play in the NBA, and his rapid success while on the New York Knicks in 2012 created a cultural phenomenon known as “Linsanity.” In 2019, Lin won an NBA championship with the Toronto Raptors, consolidating his deep connection with the city. Elsewhere, Toronto-native Simu Liu achieved stardom playing the titular character in Marvel’s Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings. He also plays a Ken in the Barbie film.
Representation through CCYAA and The Jeremy Lin Foundation
While the Celebrity Classic was founded by the aforementioned Barbie star in 2019, the launch of The Jeremy Lin Foundation and the CCYAA date back to 2013 and 1995, respectively.
Lin’s foundation was established in 2011 but officially launched via the Making a Difference Project initiative two years later at the 2013 NBA All-Star Game. While he initially set out to support overlooked nonprofits through fundraising and exposure, his recent focus has been on highlighting Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) issues. In the height of the pandemic and during the subsequent skyrocketing rates of anti-Asian violence rates, Lin advocated for awareness of the severity of these crimes and pledged to donate up to $1 million towards COVID-19 relief efforts.
The CCYAA’s objective has been to promote sports and a sense of community for youth in the GTA. Founder Clement Chu understands the significance of the devotion of an iconic figure like Lin to the AAPI community. Chu reminisces about his Chinese friend who thanked him for last year’s Celebrity Classic, after which his son had said that he “felt cool to be Asian.” Chu does what he does for his friend’s son and the many young Asian students who look up to Lin — a basketball player who has an incredible NBA career and looks like them.
Liu was attracted to the event by the prominent role that Chu’s CCYAA and The Jeremy Lin Foundation have played in supporting Toronto’s youth in sports. Growing up in Mississauga, Liu did not see anyone on the screen who looked like him. Now, in 2023, he is not only proud of the Asian athletes and creatives who are currently dominating their respective landscapes, he is also hopeful that Asian children will pursue dreams that they would have “never [given] themselves permission to iterate.” To Liu, being at the forefront to open the door for the younger generation is of utmost importance. If he can represent while creating community through basketball — all the better.
Maitreyi Ramakrishnan — Mississauga-born star of the popular Netflix show Never Have I Ever — also joined the Celebrity Classic. While she exuded great pride in current Asian representation in the media, she also highlighted the significance of sharing the stories of Indigenous communities and creators, a note that echoed throughout the event. When Alyssa Navarro and AJ Rafael sang O Canada before the games, they changed the lyrics to “our home on native land,” following the suit of Jully Black’s lyric change ahead of this year’s NBA All-Star Game.
The CCYAA Youth Jam and Celeb Classic
The festivities began with the CCYAA Youth Jam, an event that aimed to celebrate Asian culture while also showcasing various artistic talents, including dance performances by the VYBE Dance team and a Bollywood dance performance. The Youth Jam closed off with a slam dunk contest in which Liu, Lin, and Dee Brown — a former Toronto Raptor and the winner of the NBA’s 1991 Slam Dunk competition — served as judges.
For the actual game, a range of celebrities, athletes, and personalities from across the Asian diaspora participated. Even Toronto Mayor Olivia Chow made a surprise appearance to show support. Apart from Lin, the only other professional basketball player participating was his current teammate on the Kaohsiung Steelers, Gokul Natesan, although Brown acted as the coach for one of the teams opposite Jamaal Magloire, another former Raptor.
Nevertheless, the game was fun and exciting. Lin and Natesan spent most of the game facilitating their teammates’ plays, providing the opportunity for the celebrities to show off their basketball skills. Yet, Lin found moments to entertain the audience, whether it was drilling a deep three-pointer or making a hilariously vicious block on comedian Nigel Ng, who was dressed up as his comedic alter ego, “Uncle Roger.”
“Are we looking forward to playing [against] Jeremy Lin? No, he’s fucking good,” Ng had joked earlier in the day.
Culture and connection at FoodFest
Prior to the game, U of T’s Varsity Stadium was full of food stands with diverse, mouthwatering Asian cuisine. The FreshFest — which was Toronto’s first chef-led and chef-curated food festival — ran from 11:00 am to 6:00 pm with the city’s most renowned chefs and their Thai, Malaysian, Chinese, Singaporean, and Indian culinary treats. All proceeds from the FreshFest were announced to be donated towards CCYAA and The Jeremy Lin Foundation.
Among the chefs present was Punjabi restaurant Rick’s Good Eats’ owner, Rick Matharu. While Liu and Lin seek community and connection on the basketball court, Matharu promotes food as the cure for everything. Behind Matharu’s upbeat attitude and willingness to share his samosas for free, however, is because of psychological and financial strains during the pandemic — a story that is not unique to him. In April 2020, sales in Canada’s food services decreased by 61.3 per cent compared to pre-pandemic numbers. Many businesses — especially Asian restaurants, which were hit the hardest — are still recovering from the lockdowns and restrictions that followed for the next two years.
While Matharu does not downplay the impact that COVID-19 had in the food industry, he sees food as a vessel to “forget about the rest of the world.” With the smiling faces of people with no masks lined up in front of his food stand, it seems like his words hold true.
The Celebrity Classic wasn’t just about food, basketball, or even the celebrities participating. It was an event where the diasporic community could gather, commemorate their culture and bear witness to the vast amount of opportunities that the future holds.