Former Washington High star was first Asian-American to land NBA training camp invite 

click to enlarge Norman Owyoung Jang
  • juan pardo/special to the s.f. examiner
  • Norman Owyoung Jang is part of the 2014 San Francisco Prep Hall of Fame Class.

As Linsanity gripped the nation, more than two years ago now, a cluster of Asian-American men who loved basketball came together in San Francisco.

They had a friend who'd starred some 50 years before Jeremy Lin, and they felt that he should be considered as much of a forerunner, at least at the local level, as the former Palo Alto High School and Harvard star.

Soon, a bid for the San Francisco Prep Hall of Fame narrowed into focus.

At first, Norman Owyoung Jang, the man in question, was reticent. He's not too keen on displays of self-promotion, but friends and family convinced him that this would be a chance to show his grandchildren what he'd done. How he was one of the premier prep talents of his age. Jang relented: If it was for his family, he was all in.

He still didn't expect anything would come of it.

But Steve Nakajo, part of that band of friends that has gathered for the past 25 years to play basketball, led a spirited campaign. He nominated Jang to the Hall of Fame committee, and produced a stirring presentation to the board.

This past February, Jang, who starred at Washington High from 1956-59 and became the first Asian-American to try out with the Warriors in '64, received a letter declaring that he was set to be inducted into the San Francisco Prep Hall of Fame.

The 2014 class also includes Walt Arnold (Sacred Heart, football), Paul Fortier (St. Ignatius, basketball), Dave McCall (Mission, basketball), Michele McMahon (Washington, softball), Steve Sewell (Riordan, football-track and field), Ronald Whitaker (Wilson, track and field), Gene Womack (Polytechnic, basketball-track & field), Jeff Thollander (Portrero Hill, Enola Maxwell, coach) and Anne Heiline (former AAA commissioner).

"I feel honored to do it," Jang said. With his wife, Betty, he added, "I usually think I'm too old for something like this."

Since the announcement, Jang's friends and family have accounted for some 100 reservations for the ceremony, which is scheduled for May 17 at the Spanish Cultural Center. All but two of his grandchildren will be in attendance. A daughter will be making the trip from Georgia.

And to think how it all began.

Jang arrived in San Francisco from China just before he turned 10. He quickly took up the sport of basketball, darting around Chinatown to the recreational center, then to the blacktop.

He'd play pick-up games with friends, imitating the dribbling of Boston Celtics great and personal favorite Bob Cousy until his legs grew too tired to move. He developed an unorthodox shooting motion, his hands jutting past the right side of his head, with his release coming at an angle that made it almost impossible to block.

At Francisco Middle, his coach, Tommy Kim, convinced him to pursue the sport. Since Jang's father often worked long hours at the family's grocery business, Kim would invite Jang to have dinner with his family after practice. Jang calls Kim a second father.

Coming out of Francisco Middle, Jang attended Washington, but not after a transcript mix-up meant he would be ineligible to play basketball his freshman year.

When he became eligible, he thrived. Jang helped the Eagles 130s team (the equivalent of JV) win more than 50 games in a row before he was moved to varsity in his junior year. Two losses to Polytechnic in the city championship game stung, but Jang, then 5-foot-4, dazzled audiences with his high-flying, dexterous display.

After Washington, he had an offer from San Jose State, but as a new husband with a baby on the way, he turned it down to enter the workforce. He still starred for the S.F. Saints, a local Chinese team. They played service teams -- Army, Air Force, Navy -- filled with former collegiate All-Americans.

"That's how I got my experience," Jang said. "I played against those big guys."

Betty Jang remembers those games vividly.

"They'd play these teams that would see this group of small guys and think it wouldn't even be a game," she said. "And then, that shocked look on their faces when they saw how well Norman's team could play."

In 1964, the Warriors -- then based in San Francisco -- took note and invited him to training camp. He was the first Chinese-American to do so.

He felt he acquitted himself well but in the end, he was told that at 5-7 (he'd sprouted since high school), he was too short to be a viable option. Owner Frank Mieuli sent a note offering his condolences and noting that Jang would one day become known as a groundbreaker for the Asian community, but that offered little comfort. Jang just wanted to make the team.

So it is with some catharsis that another letter, 50 years later, heralded inclusion into a select group.

Nakajo is a few years younger than Jang, but considers him a hero. "The S.F. Hall of Fame bid felt like unfinished business," Nakajo said. "I told him, 'It's for your children and grandchildren but it's also for our generation, too.' Lin showed America what Asian-Americans can do, but Norman was our guy. He was amazing."

When Jang was honored at the Chinese Historical Society, his granddaughter couldn't hide her surprise.

"I didn't know you played basketball!" she said.

He still plays with his friends at any gym with an available court.

Jang turns 75 this August, but he'll still head to the park with his grandchildren to shoot hoops, or show some dribbling tricks.

"His life is basketball," Betty said.

About The Author

Matthew Snyder

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