The two were biking in late 2011 through a poorer neighborhood with government housing, and, shortly after they locked up their bikes, someone yelled out to them, “Hey white boys, do you want to play us?” There was a group of young men playing pickup basketball nearby, and the two Mormons, eager to break up the monotony of their day, decided they would humor them.
Unbeknownst to those who had called out to them, both Miyasaki and Lambson were experienced basketball players. Both had played in high school and Lambson, who you can see towering over the other players in the game, stands at six foot eight. A 2009 YouTube video shows a highlight reel of Miyasaki, then a student at Sugar Salem High School in Idaho, scoring point after point, and in an online bio of him at Mormon.org he professes that “I’m too competitive” and “I love basketball, seriously.”
“At first everyone watching was just telling the other two not to get embarrassed by the Mormons in the suits,” Miyasaki said. “They scored the first two points and started to get a little bit cocky. When we finally started to score a few everyone went crazy when we made an easy layup. From there every time we scored everyone went crazy.”
The surprise when that first point is scored is palpable. Here are two white men in a neighborhood where suit-and-tie white people don’t normally venture. They begin to dominate in a game that, judging by the demographic makeup of the NBA, white people are not known for excelling at. But what’s striking about the video isn’t just the juxtaposition of black and white players, but also the economic and cultural disparities that form a gulf between the two teams. The two Mormons are religious tourists who will eventually unlock their bikes and venture back to their home states where they’ll go to college and probably move on to white collar jobs and middle class lives. But the men they leave behind? It’s impossible to extrapolate based on shaky video coverage and Miyasaki’s recounting, but based on what we know about upward mobility and the entrenching tentacles of poverty, many of them face a steep uphill climb. What should be just a simple basketball game becomes compelling because it represents a clash between two worlds that will likely never encounter each other again. “I have always loved basketball and I figured it would be a great way to break down the barrier of a robotic missionary and really show that I was a normal guy who loved to meet new people,” Miyasaki told me.
Since Miyasaki uploaded the video to YouTube, it has garnered over 50,000 views. Another similar video uploaded late last month shows two missionaries in Dallas, Texas similarly dominating their game of streetball while dressed in their traditional Mormon shirt and tie. That video has racked up nearly 400,000 views.
Eventually, his mission did end and Miyasaki traveled back to Idaho. He now attends the Brigham Young University campus in that state (Lambson, who he didn’t know prior to the mission, also is a student there). While Googling Miyasaki’s name I had come across the Mormon.org profile where he tells of how his mother died when he was only 17 years old. “The knowledge of the Plan of Salvation and understanding the Atonement of Jesus Christ helped me get through this trial,” he wrote. “As I put my trust in the Lord my feelings of sadness and fear were replaced with hope and love. “
I asked Miyasaki, now 22, what he felt like he had learned from the entire experience in Atlanta. After all, most the people he approached were likely unmoved by his religious advocacy and many of them he’ll never see again. “I learned so many things about myself,” he replied. “I learned self-discipline, hard work, kindness, and respect. The one thing I found was how loving most people were. No matter what neighborhood I was in I knew I was safe and would find someone there who I could call my brother or sister. Some of them even hooked us up with some sodas or food.” And at the end of the day, he got to play a game of pickup basketball, one that he, and those who screamed out in surprise when he made his first layup, would never forget.