Chicago '9-Man' volleyball team grows sport rooted in Chinatowns and exclusion

CHICAGO (WLS) -- On a patch of concrete in Bridgeport in the shadow of Sox Park, the action is fast-paced and intense. Players have gathered for a kind of street ball called "9-man," and everyone is proudly playing with a chip on their shoulder.

"There's a lot of banter," said player Matthew Zhang. "We definitely do a lot of trash talking."

At first glance, this match in Armour Square Park looks like any other volleyball game. But 9-man is different. While as uniquely American as baseball or football, the sport was forged from a different experience.

"There's not a lot of stakes that Asian Americans can lay claim to in the sporting world as really being their own," said Zhang. "It's really special to be able to really call this sport, or at least this subset of a sport, ours."

Nine-man's history is rooted in Chinatowns dating back to the 1930s, when Chinese immigrants were often excluded from much of American society.

"Chinese Americans didn't have the best experience." said filmmaker Ursula Liang, whose 2014 documentary "9-Man: A Streetball Battle in the Heart of Chinatown" chronicles the sport's history and evolution.

"[Chinese immigrants] were being treated as 'other.' They were working very difficult jobs, many, many hours. They ended up in things like laundry business and restaurant work," said Liang. "Those guys were putting up with so much that they needed an emotional and physical release."

What began as pickup games during smoke breaks evolved into serious competition, and an international tournament that now draws more than 150 U.S. and Canadian teams in its 77th year.

"Traditionally, it's been played outside on concrete because, historically, Chinese were not allowed into the YMCA's or in the gyms, so they did what they can. They set up laundry nets. They put a bunch of t-shirts in balls, and they just played wherever," said Tony Chan.

Inspired by Liang's film, in 2017 Chan formed Chicago United, this city's first 9-man team since the mid-1960s, marking the sport's resurgence here. Many of Chicago United's members played volleyball competitively in college or high school.

"There's a level of depth, the history, the people that came before us, the ability to connect, and there's just tradition that just brings us in year after year," said Chan.

How is 9-man different from "regular" volleyball?

As the name suggests, there are nine players on each side of the net rather than six. The 9-man court is wider and longer. Players don't rotate, allowing for specialization, and carrying or hooking of the ball is allowed, leading to extended rallies.

"The game definitely moves a lot quicker," said Zhang. "When you add three additional people on each side of the court, there's a lot more chaos."

After competing internationally, Chicago United wants to bring the coveted 9-man tournament to Chicago.

"Bring all the cities here," said Chan. "Have them see how great our Chinatown is and how great Chicago is."

If you'd like to watch the sport in person, Chicago United is hosting its first ever 9-man exhibition on Sunday, May 22 in Chinatown Square from 12-5 p.m.
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