Natalie Chou understood she had to work twice as hard to make it.
And her mother, Quanli Li, never let her forget it.
“She’s a mom first but a coach second,” said UCLA women’s basketball redshirt junior guard Chou. “She watches every game and she tells me exactly what she thinks.”
With only 1.02% of Division I women’s basketball players identifying as Asian in 2018, Li said she knew she would have to prepare her daughter to face obstacles in her career.
Li recalled an incident during Chou’s younger years when she hit the deck hard during a game.
Tears started streaming down the elementary schooler’s eyes. Parents in attendance and the referee looked at Chou’s coach, Li, to intervene and reassure her daughter.
Instead, Li simply walked up to her and said, “It’s OK, Natalie. Go play.”
Reminiscing on the incident now, Li said she feels like she was too tough on her daughter growing up.
“I’m a really tough coach to her because on the basketball court, there’s no mercy,” Li said. “You just have to go out there and be a soldier. That’s how I thought before. Nowadays, I think about where we came from. I wish I could be more motherly in our training and just between us.”
While Li’s approach may have seemed callous to outsiders, she was merely attempting to replicate her own basketball upbringing.
At 13, Li was sent to Beijing’s top girls’ basketball club – a state-sponsored program. She stayed with the team at the facility, only going home once a week.
“I immediately became a professional,” Li said. “Playing basketball became my job.”
Li viewed her coaches at the club as parental figures, similar to how the lines between mother and coach blurred between Li and Chou.
As Li’s basketball career fizzled out, she went with her husband Joseph, who was studying industrial engineering at the time, to Lamar University in Texas. Li turned toward the universal language of basketball, unable to converse and interact socially because of the language barrier.
Li became a private basketball skills training coach in Plano, Texas, and she brought Chou along – first, just to watch, but once she became old enough, Chou joined in on the workouts.
“I started to join in on those skills sessions and ever since then, she’s been my No. 1 skills coach,” Chou said. “Every time I go home, to this day, I go work out with her.”
When Chou was just 4, she and her mother realized Chou was a quick learner. Li made use of every opportunity to work on her daughter’s basketball fundamentals, and the pair worked out together at QD Academy, a Chinese after-school, and at home, working on dribbling in the corner.
Chou’s precociousness was soon spotted by former Dallas Mavericks guard Jason Terry, who stumbled upon Chou and Li one day during their routine workout regiment at a recreation center.
He presumed that Chou was at least in high school and said he was floored when he discovered she was in sixth grade. Terry immediately asked her to join his Lady Jets Amateur Athletic Union team, where she quickly made a name for herself.
“As far as her opponents, she gained their respect right away,” Terry said. “They see that she’s Asian American and they would try to wear on her physically and psychologically, but she would never break.”
In seventh grade, after a strong showing at an AAU national tournament, Chou said she realized she could potentially play in college and beyond.
Chou committed to Baylor, where she played the first two years of her collegiate career, before she suffered a wrist injury and realized she needed a change of scenery.
“(The injury) kind of changed the dynamics of a lot of the relationships, and I didn’t like that kind of pressure,” Chou said.
Even after she left Texas behind, Chou and Terry have maintained a close relationship, routinely texting back and forth and meeting up for workouts whenever Chou heads back home.
When she made the move to Westwood in 2018, Chou entered an undergraduate student body that was 28% Asian, compared to just around 6% at Baylor.
However, she has remained a minority in athletics, as 2.1% of NCAA student-athletes are Asian in comparison with around 5% of the total American population.
“I often think about that,” Chou said. “You don’t really see any other Asians playing. When I see little Asian girls coming to our games, I feel a sense of duty to represent them well and that they can be where I am today.”
Coach Cori Close said she is cognizant of the significant role Chou can play in furthering Asian American representation in basketball and attributed some of Chou’s fortitude to her mother’s influence.
“One of my favorite things about Chou is that she is not afraid,” Close said. “She wants to be a role model for other Asian women athletes that she didn’t have. Thankfully, her mom was really powerful.”
After being an athletic example for Chou for 20 years, Li traveled with UCLA during its recent road trip to Utah and Colorado.
“It was just neat because I could tell that (Chou’s) spirit was encouraged when she is able to be around her mom,” Close said.
The 6-foot-1 guard is second on the team this season in 3-pointers with 24 and a 3-point percentage at 32.4%. She is the only Bruin to convert from deep in their past two appearances.
Here’s the long ball from @NatalieChou1!
— UCLA W. Basketball (@UCLAWBB) January 25, 2020
But Close’s latest challenge for Chou is for her to grow past her perception of herself as just a shooter.
“She can use her length as a defender,” Close said. “She can be a great rebounder. She can get passion plays for us. She can use her post-up game. She has a great mid-range game.”
If any stat could represent a marriage of instinct and preparation – a byproduct of the countless hours Chou spent with her mother on the court – it would be steals. Halfway through her debut season in Westwood, Chou is averaging a team-high two steals per game.
But, of course, Li’s still not satisfied.
“She has not fully shown who she is yet,” Li said. “If (Chou) becomes (Chou) again she can really help her team so much. So I’m still waiting for that moment, but I’m very proud of her coming out little by little.”