Recognizing the greatest Asian and Pacific Islander athletes of all time

Recognizing the greatest Asian and Pacific Islander athletes of all time

It’s finally May, which means the NBA and NHL playoffs are well underway. It also means that Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) Heritage Month is just beginning. Asians and Pacific Islanders (API) have not been shy to make waves in the world of sports. As someone who is 75% Asian and a diehard sports fan, I can’t help but feel a sense of pride whenever I watch an athlete with a similar ethnic background to mine. With that being said, let me introduce you to my Mt. Rushmore of API Athletes.

Baseball – Ichiro Suzuki

Ichiro Suzuki courtesy of Wikipedia Commons

Shohei Ohtani is a baseball unicorn. One day, he might supplant the incumbent and rightfully take his place. Alas, today is not that day. Ichiro Suzuki still gets the nod.

Raised in Toyoyama, Japan, Ichiro embarked on a professional baseball career that lasted almost three decades. In 1992, Ichiro debuted with the Orix BlueWave of Nippon Professional Baseball (NPB) at just 18 years old. Ichiro would eventually break out in 1994. He finished the season by winning his first Golden Glove and Pacific League MVP awards. In 1996, Ichiro led the BlueWave to the Nippon Series before defeating the Yomiuri Giants in five games. Ichiro would finish his NPB career as a seven-time All-Star, seven-time Golden Glove Winner and three-time Pacific League MVP.

In 2001, Ichiro made his MLB debut with the Seattle Mariners. Undersized and from a different part of the world, Ichiro had plenty of doubters. However, after displaying his hitting and fielding prowess, Ichiro became a fan favorite. In his rookie season, Ichiro won AL Rookie of the Year and AL MVP. He would continue to pile on the awards in the following seasons. Ichiro collected 10 All-Star appearances, 10 Gold Gloves and three Silver Sluggers. Although he never won a pennant, Ichiro is a member of the exclusive 3000-hit club and his 262 hits from the 2004 season is still an MLB record. Eligible for the Hall of Fame in 2025, Ichiro is a lock to be elected as a first-ballot Hall of Famer.

Basketball – Yao Ming

Yao Ming Courtesy of Wikipedia Commons

There will never be another player quite like Yao Ming. After a brief but decorated career in the Chinese Basketball Association, the entire NBA was extremely intrigued by Yao’s potential. In 2002, the towering 7 feet 6 inches Chinese center was selected by the Houston Rockets with the first overall pick. Yao was a solid NBA player in his first few seasons, but wasn’t a world-beater quite yet.

Frustrated by the team’s lack of success in Yao’s first few seasons, the Rockets swung a blockbuster trade with the Orlando Magic for superstar Tracy McGrady. Yao and Mcgrady quickly formed one of the league’s scariest duos as the former’s career took off. Unfortunately, Yao constantly dealt with nagging injuries and the Rockets never made it past the second round during his career.

Yao prematurely retired in 2011 as the whole world was left wondering what could have been. Nevertheless, Yao still finished his career as an eight-time All-Star, three-time All-NBA third team and two-time All-NBA second team accolades. In 2017, Yao’s #11 jersey was retired by the Houston Rockets after being inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2016. In the world of basketball, Yao Ming stands the tallest, literally and figuratively.


Combat Sports – Manny Pacquiao

Manny Pacquiao courtesy of flickr

Manny “Pac-Man” Pacquiao’s upbringing is like that of the stereotypical boxer. He was raised in General Santos City, Philippines before moving to Manila as a teenager. While living in the nation’s capital, Pacquiao struggled to afford the most basic necessities. Boxing became his way out. Pac-Man’s lightning-quick hands and unbreakable spirit made him boxing’s perfect prospect. At just 19 years old, Pacquiao won the World Boxing Council flyweight title, his first major title.

Under the guidance of boxing trainer Freddie Roach, Pacquiao’s career took off. Roach was able to harness Pacquiao’s power and aggression as Pac-Man collected belt after belt. Before they knew it, Pacquiao became the sport’s first eight-division champion. Over his career, Pac-Man amassed a 62-8-2 professional record. Never afraid to take a big fight, Pacquiao’s bout with Floyd Mayweather in 2015 earned a record-breaking 4.6 million PPV buys.

Widely recognized as one of the greatest pound-for-pound boxers of all time, Pacquiao’s entertaining style and charismatic smile helped grow combat sports in Asia. Mixed martial artists Zhang Weili and The Korean Zombie and boxer Naoya Inoue would have all been worthy of this selection, but Pac-Man will always be one of the GOATs of his sport.

Soccer – Son Heung-Min

Son Heung-min courtesy of Wikipedia Commons

Last but surely not least is Tottenham Hotspur’s captain Son Heung-Min. Born in Chuncheon, South Korea, Son’s club career started in Germany with Hamburg. He would make 73 appearances with Hamburg before joining German rivals Bayer Leverkusen. In Son’s second season with Leverkusen, he helped lead his team into the Champions League knockouts with five goals in the group stage.

Elite clubs took notice of Son’s performances and the South Korean was on the top of every shortlist. In the summer of 2015, Tottenham Hotspur forked out £22 million to secure his signature. At the time, this made Son the most expensive Asian footballer of all-time. It’s proved to be a bargain. Son’s blistering pace, calm finishing, deft first touch and two-footedness have torn Premier League defenses to shreds.

He displayed each one of these skills during his incredible 2020 FIFA Puskás Award-winning goal against Burnley. In the 2021-2022 season, Son won his first Premier League Golden Boot, cementing himself as one of the competition’s greatest goal-scorers. Under new manager Ange Postecoglou, Son has assumed the captain’s armband this season while also leading the club in goals.

Son is also the captain of his country and has stepped up on the international stage as well. He led his team to gold in the 2018 Asian Games and to the round of 16 at the 2022 Qatar World Cup. A living icon, Son’s superstardom is unmeasurable. Fans of his will travel in droves from South Korea to London just to watch him play. Already the greatest API footballer of all time at just 31 years old, Son still has a long time at the top of his game.

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