It was another busy Saturday night for Jeremy Lin. The Atlanta Hawks guard had dinner plans lined up, and another friend in town to entertain.
But first, he had a stop to make at a P.F. Chang’s restaurant on Ashwood Parkway.
Jeremy could’ve waited until the next day, when the Hawks hosted the Milwaukee Bucks at State Farm Arena in Atlanta, to meet Nathan Stockman and Bobby Jefferson II. But given how hectic game days can get—and how diligent Jeremy is about his routine—he wanted to make sure he got some quality time with the two teenagers from Cincinnati, whose pain and triumph he knew all too well.
“For me, it’s a little bit difficult seeing them before or after the game because you can be so focused or fixated, or the game just ended or you’re at the arena and there’s just so many people and it can get so busy,” Jeremy tells CloseUp360. “So I wanted to really properly meet them and their families, and just have more of a chance to dialogue.”
Nathan and Bobby had plenty to talk about with Jeremy. Though their conversation was casual, with video games and basketball at the fore, the young men were there because of the bigotry and hate they had faced on the court back home—much like the kind that Jeremy had encountered himself on his way to the NBA.
Nathan and Bobby were more than teammates and classmates at St. Xavier High School, known in Cincinnati as St. X. For two years, from the start of football training camp in June until the end of basketball season in March, they spent almost every day together, forging a friendship as teammates on the gridiron and the hardwood.
“Bobby was kind of a bigger brother to me,” says Nathan, who was a grade below Bobby.
They both knew what it was like to stand out at a predominantly white Catholic school. Nathan was the only Asian-American on the basketball team. His mom, Susan, was adopted at birth from South Korea.
Bobby, meanwhile, was the only African-American on the squad.
Yet, even in Cincinnati, a city that’s come under fire of late for the prevalence of prejudice within its limits, Nathan and Bobby, by and large, had not encountered much overt bigotry while growing up there.
“I would say, I’ve been a pretty sheltered kid my whole life,” Bobby says.
That bubble began to deflate in December 2017, during a 56-55 win at Oak Hills High School. Whenever Nathan, then a junior, found himself in front of the Oak Hills student section, he could hear unnerving comments coming from a few hecklers in the crowd. Bobby could hear them, too.
You missed your shot because you can’t see, they said. This is the USA. Go back to China.
But officials in the building didn’t pay it much mind. Neither did Nathan.
“I just laughed at them,” he says. “I was like, if you have to go that far just to try to get to my head, that shows a lot of what you are. So I was like, I’m not going to let these few guys just destroy me over what I am. I’m proud of who I am and I’m not going to be ashamed of it ever.”
Then in February 2018, Nathan and Bobby once again found themselves in hostile territory in West Cincinnati. Two weeks after ending a five-year drought in the Greater Catholic League with an overtime buzzer-beater at home against Elder High School, St. X faced a revenge-minded Panthers squad—along with its salty supporters—on the road.
The atmosphere at Elder was tense, even before Nathan and Bobby took the floor with the Bombers. After exiting the tunnel—which both teams shared—Bobby, basketball in hand, heard an unfamiliar voice calling him from behind.
“Move out of the way,” the voice yelled.
“For what?” Bobby replied. He turned around to find a white uniformed police officer.
“I stood my ground and I started laughing because I’m like, this has to be a joke,” Bobby says. “Me and my teammates around me who witnessed it, we all thought it was a joke.”
But to the cop, that response was no laughing matter. As Bobby recalls, the officer then slapped the ball out of his hands and scolded him.
“You should learn a little respect,” the policeman said condescendingly. “I know it’s hard for you, though.”
“When that happened, I kind of looked around,” Nathan says. “I was like, does anyone else see this? Because I see it all over social media. I couldn’t believe my eyes when it happened in front of me, and the police officer had the audacity to say that to Bobby and get in his face.”
That’s when Nathan, Bobby and their teammates knew this would be no ordinary high school basketball game.
The taunts started early and came often from hecklers in the student section.
P.F. Chang’s, they said. 10 can’t see. 10 plays chess.
“I guess a stereotype of Asians is we play chess,” says Nathan, who was the only Asian-American on the court that day. “I didn’t really understand that one.”
Bobby, the lone African-American to play in the game, was bombarded by his own barrage of racially charged barbs.
Bobby sells crack, they said. Bobby smokes meth. Bobby’s on welfare. Bobby can’t read.
“If they had just done a little homework, they would have known that I obviously can read because I’m going to an Ivy League school,” says Bobby, who’s now a freshman on the football team at Dartmouth College.
But these weren’t just stray strains of hatred from a few ignorant fans, like the ones at Oak Hills. Rather, these were coordinated chants carried by the vast majority of Elder’s student section, regardless of race.
“The fact that the African-Americans were able to chant this stuff at Bobby and not do anything about it blew me away,” Nathan says.
Elder’s players, coaches and officials let it stand, as well. So, too, did the referees.
St. X’s student section did its part to support its squad with competing chants of “You are racist” at Elder’s offenders.
“Then the Elder student section came back at our student section,” Bobby recounts, “saying, ‘You guys are f******.’”
“At the moment, I didn’t really think much of it,” Nathan says, “because when I’m playing, I’m not focusing really on the student section or anything.”
Bobby, though, couldn’t stay quiet amid that antagonism. When he subbed out to join Nathan on the bench, he came off the court yelling at then-St. X head coach Jimmy Lallathin.
“Coach, this is more than just a game now,” Bobby implored. “They’re on some racist stuff.”
At the time, Coach didn’t pay Bobby’s entreaties much mind. He was as caught up in—and blinded by—the passion of the game itself as Nathan had been before his first breather.
Nathan, though, knew something was amiss, and kept an ear out for it when he went back in.
“I started listening,” Nathan says, “and I was just blown away.”
At the next timeout, Nathan voiced his concerns in the huddle.
“Coach, you’ve got to listen to this stuff they’re chanting,” he said. “This is getting out of hand.”
With two of his starters now put off, Coach Lallathin shared his concerns with Elder’s staff. But the vitriol persisted, with clear words and full throats, into the third quarter, when the home fans added Coach Lallathin to their verbal hit list.
One of St. X’s assistant coaches, Halsey Mabry (who’s African-American), was ready to take matters into his own hands.
“For you two, I’m willing to go up into the stands and punch one of them,” Coach Mabry told them, “because I grew up with the same stuff and I’m not going to let this come onto you.”
“Bobby and I loved it a lot because it shows that the whole team and the whole staff was behind us through it all,” Nathan says.
Before Coach Mabry could act on those intentions, Coach Lallathin threatened to pull his team off the floor if the nasty chants persisted. That got Elder’s administrators to take action, though the damage had already been done. A shaken St. X squad wound up losing big, 67-46.
“I was just shellshocked,” Nathan says. “I grew up playing basketball against a lot of those kids on the basketball team [at Elder]. I was friends with some of them, and I just really couldn’t believe that they were willing to even say that in front of a sold-out crowd and just continue it on.”
The gravity of what had happened in that gym didn’t really hit Nathan until he walked onto the floor after the game. He saw his mom “broken down in tears, just bawling her eyes out in the middle of the court” as she told her son about the times that she, too, had been harassed for being Asian.
That night, Nathan was laying in his room when his mom walked in, once again bawling.
“I’m so sorry I had to make you Asian,” she told him. “I never wanted this.”
“That hit me hard,” Nathan says. “I was, like, my mom should never be ashamed of what she made or who I am.”
That’s when he knew things had gone too far.