Forgive Natalie Chou for having a fangirl moment. The 6' 1" sophomore Baylor guard gets positively giddy at the mention of the Nets’ Jeremy Lin—even more so when she thinks about the possibility of meeting him. “I would say, ‘I’m a huge fan, you’re amazing, you’re doing great,’ ” Chou, 19, says with a giggle.
Lin isn’t just some player Chou looks up to. Like him, she is changing the perception of Asian-American basketball players. Chou was born in Texas, but her mom, Quanli Li, grew up in China during the Cultural Revolution and was a member of Beijing’s best girls’ team, which led to Quanli being moved away from her family to train with the national team when she was 13. By 18 she was playing professionally in China. Ultimately she moved to Texas in the mid‑1990s with her husband, Joseph, who was studying at Lamar University in Beaumont. Three years later Natalie was born. “They didn’t really have anything, they didn’t know anyone, they didn’t speak English that well,” Chou says.
One thing Quanli had was basketball, and so she became her daughter’s coach. “We got into a lot of fights,” Chou says. “We wouldn’t talk. It was hard; usually with coaches, you just see them in practice, but then you can go home. With my mom, I was with her 24/7.” (Natalie did get a break from Mom when Natalie played for NBA veteran Jason Terry on his Lady Jets AAU team from sixth through ninth grades.)
All those grueling workouts paid off. At Plano West High, Chou was a McDonald’s All-American in 2016. Even with that success, though, she didn’t always command the respect of her opponents. “In middle school,” Chou says, “[defenders] were like, Oh, O.K., I got her. They thought [guarding me] would be easy—but that fueled my fire. I wanted to show them, You don’t know what you’re talking about.”
As a freshman last season Chou averaged 4.7 points off the bench, and she led Baylor in three-point percentage (42.3). She hopes that by playing for a top D-I program, she can inspire more Asian-Americans to get involved in college athletics. According to the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sports, Asian-Americans made up just 2.4% of female athletes across all three collegiate divisions in 2015–16, the most recent year for which data is available. In men’s sports, the number was even lower: 1.8%. “My Asian-American friends, they love basketball, but their main focus is academics,” says Chou. “Branching out culturally and excelling in both would be a great opportunity.”
Chou is expected to play a bigger role this year for the No. 3–ranked Bears, and she should get a lot of open looks with 6’ 7″ Kalani Brown and 6’ 4″ Lauren Cox in the frontcourt. And when she gets it: “Don’t judge a book by its cover,” she says. “You don’t see a lot of us. But once we’re out there, you better watch out.”