When Gonzaga basketball stars Kayleigh and Kaylynne Truong signed a name, image and likeness deal this summer, it wasn’t about the money.
Rather, this was a chance to give something back by sharing their story. It’s a tale of two Asian American girls who found success in classroom but also on the court.
Apparently, that was hard to handle for some people, because as Kayleigh points out, “We don’t look like everyone else on the court.”
Twin daughters of Vietnamese immigrants, the Truongs have played most of their lives against a full-court press of ignorance, left-handed compliments and outright prejudice.
During her junior year of high school in her hometown of Houston, Kaylynne was celebrating a playoff-clinching win over a major rival when one of the referees approached and inquired about her college plans.
“Are you going to play D2 or D3?” the man asked.
Trung was stunned.
She had a third option – Division 1 – which somehow didn’t fit the man’s preconceived notion that Asian American athletes aren’t quite good enough.
“I will never forget the way he reacted to my answer,” Kaylynne wrote in “Defying the Odds,” a recent perspective piece for Sideline Post.
“He looked at me, smirked, shook his head, and then walked away without saying anything else to me,” Truong wrote.
“Did he really just laugh at me because I said I wanted to play Division 1 basketball? Did he think I would only make it to a D2 or D3 school? If the color of my skin were different, would he have reacted differently?”
The Truongs are sharing their story during a sharp rise in hate crimes directed against Asian Americans, especially since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic.
While no one has attacked them physically, they and other Asian American athletes have endured prejudice for years.
For Kaylynne, it began in fifth grade. Surveying the other girls who turned out for an AAU basketball team, she spotted no other Asian Americans apart from her sister.
“I noticed how the Black and white athletes were always selected first to be on a team and I was left to be the last pick,” Kaylynne said. “It did not really matter how hard and how much I practiced.”
That led to more questions and a shocking answer: “I was told the reason was that the team captain and team members assumed that I was unathletic and I would not be able to contribute to the team,” Kaylynne said.
Success on the court did little to erase the stereotypes, even in high school.
When Kayleigh’s Advanced Placement history teacher was told that one of her Asian American students was on the basketball team, the teacher showed up early to catch the freshman and varsity teams.
“Is Kayleigh about to play?” the puzzled teacher asked a student, who replied that Kayleigh was on varsity.
Those seeds of doubt were planted by many hands, and almost took root in Kaylynne’s psyche.
“When I first experienced this bias toward me because of my race, my confidence took a big hit,” she said. “I started to doubt and question myself if I should continue playing basketball or if the game was not meant for an Asian girl to play.”
Since then, the Truongs have been key players for the Zags, helping them win two West Coast Conference regular-season titles and a pair of tournament titles.
“Even today, every time I step onto the court, I feel like I must prove myself to people that I belong, and I can compete with the best athletes,” Kaylynne said.
That’s the point of the NIL deal with Degree, the deodorant manufacturer which recently signed the Truongs and other female athletes - to spread a message of empowerment to the younger generation of Asian American athletes.
“That’s why we’re doing this,” Kayleigh said.
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