AB Tsai-Turton says when she was at her low point, the girls on her Montgomery County-based traveling basketball team helped pick her up.
The eighth grader had suffered a bad ankle injury while making a layup, and even when she had physically recovered enough to play again, her self-confidence still hadn’t bounced back. She made a lot of mistakes at first, she said, but her teammates cheered her on no matter what.
Though AB has played basketball for years, she said she’s never experienced a group as close-knit as Team Final. The 11 players — most of whom are in the eighth grade and from Montgomery County — devote four nights each week to practice, spend many weekends together on the road for tournaments and hang out in their free time.
“We know that not only are we a team when we need to be good on the court, but also off the court, we’re still a family,” she said.
That closeness is one of the team’s strengths, AB and her teammates say, explaining that they share opportunities with each other, play off each other’s strengths and work cohesively on the court.
But even though Team Final players have bagged big wins and are getting noticed by high school coaches, coach Keith Wang said they still often feel like the underdogs. Wang said that with Asian-American players making up more than half of the team, they have a demographic makeup that’s unusual for basketball — and it can lead people to underestimate them.
“We don’t really get the respect, even if we win,” said Wang, whose team was highlighted by the county in May to coincide with Asian American Pacific Islander Heritage Month. “So I mean, for us, the best way to prove people wrong is, you know, is to beat them.”
Wang said he’s tried to instill that underdog mentality in his players, one that he believes will serve them well both in sports and in life.
CC Canda, a point guard from Clarksburg, said it’s tough to see so few Asian-Americans represented in basketball — but that only makes her play harder.
And AB said she’s used to people getting surprised when they realize she’s one of the players.
“They don’t think we’re there for basketball,” she said. “But with me having a uniform on they’re like, ‘Oh, wow.’ ”
AB experimented with a few different sports as a young kid. Gymnastics was challenging because of her height, and she hates getting dirty, so soccer wasn’t a good fit either. Basketball was perfect for her, though. On the court, she made friends, built memories and found the sense of camaraderie she’d been looking for.
But she did notice that she was often the only Asian-American player in her basketball camps.
So when she joined Team Final, AB said she was excited to be competing on a team that was so diverse and included other Asian-American players.
“I was like, ‘Oh, yay!’ ” she said.
Wang, a Gaithersburg resident, has been coaching Team Final for about four years now, beginning when his daughter and the other players were in the fourth grade. Though a few people have come and gone over the years, the majority of the team has stayed consistent, he said.
It’s given him an opportunity to watch the girls grow up, he said, and he enjoys teaching them life lessons through the sport they share.
His cousin, Rob Lee, who acts as the assistant coach and “team dad,” said he sees how promising his players are — and as high school and college years roll around, he hopes others see that too. It’s been encouraging to watch as high school coaches begin to notice Team Final’s players and recognize the talent that’s so obvious to Lee and Wang.
“All these girls are breaking barriers,” Lee said.
Alexis Riggs, who’s been playing for Team Final about two years, said she and her teammates put in the extra effort, practicing more than some of the people they compete against. And she firmly believes there’s no limit to how far they can go.
“We’re all gonna make it,” she said.