NBA draft prospect Zach Edey takes pride in his Chinese and Canadian heritage

Home » NBA draft prospect Zach Edey takes pride in his Chinese and Canadian heritage
NBA draft prospect Zach Edey takes pride in his Chinese and Canadian heritage

CHICAGO – At 7-foot-4, NBA draft prospect Zach Edey can’t go many places without people noticing him, but for more than just for the reason you think.

“It really started coming out when I started playing basketball,” Edey told Andscape. “That’s kind when I started realizing I’m very different from people because I grew up in a very white neighborhood when I started playing basketball. All of a sudden you just see everything and then you realize, ‘Hey, I’m Chinese.’

“You just embrace it. You kind of discover yourself a little more.”

Edey is one of the top prospects in the 2024 NBA draft with the first round to be held Wednesday in the Brooklyn borough of New York (8 p.m. ET, ABC/ESPN/ESPN+).

At Purdue, Edey was the first unanimous National Player of the Year since Bill Walton in 1973. The Toronto native led the nation in scoring at 25.2 points per game and finished second in rebounding at 12.2 rebounds per game. Purdue’s all-time scoring leader led the No. 1 seed Boilermakers to the 2024 NCAA championship game.

ESPN NBA draft analyst Jonathan Givony projected Wednesday that Edey would be selected 17th overall by the Los Angeles Lakers. An NBA scout told Andscape that Edey’s success in the league will weigh heavily on how committed his new team is to be implementing his inside game.

“He’s a monster. Purdue figured out a way how to play him and use him. It was kind of like an old-school throwback big,” an NBA scout told Andscape. “Wait for him to get down the floor, throw the ball into him and give him an opportunity. If he had to repost, give it back to him. They fed him. Used him. They had a plan for him. He repaid it by being super-productive scoring, in the post, nice touch. He rebounds everything.

“Whoever takes him, you just got to know what you’re going to do with him. You don’t take him to take him because he was the player of the year and he’s so big. Figure out how to utilize him.”

Edey is on the training camp roster for Canadian Olympic men’s basketball team this summer at the 2024 Paris Games. Meanwhile, China basketball fans are also still figuring out how to support Edey, whose maternal grandparents emigrated from China to Canada.

Purdue center Zach Edey is introduced against Connecticut in the NCAA men’s tournament national championship game at State Farm Stadium on April 8 in Glendale, Arizona.

Jamie Schwaberow/NCAA Photos via Getty Images

Basketball was the most watched televised sport in China in 2023 for 58% of people ages 18 and older, according to the 2023 Kagan China Consumer insights online survey. Chinese basketball fans have been eager to find someone with Chinese ties to root for since the retirement of Basketball Hall of Famer Yao Ming. Chinese sports journalist Lisa Hsu says China basketball fans are curious about Edey’s “emotional link” to China and his potential connection.

“As far as I know, Chinese fans still have a superficial understanding of Zach,” said Hsu, an NBA reporter, director and producer whose American-based company, ProLogue, produces NBA content for China. “For example, they know that he is half-Chinese, but they are not very clear about how much emotional link he has with China. They paid attention to his college and draft performance because he has Chinese ancestry, but they were not very invested in too much emotion.

“Many Chinese fans hope that having a player of Chinese descent join the Chinese men’s basketball team can help the ailing national team improve and fulfill its goal of returning to the Olympics. But from the news of various media, they do not seem to feel that [Edey] has this emotional tendency. So, for Chinese fans, it is difficult for them to really regard him as a part of the expectation or give him too much attention and emotion.”

Perhaps those feelings about Edey will change as Chinese basketball fans learn more about his family story, with NBA success and perhaps a visit to China.

The parents of Julia Edey, Edey’s mother, are from Guangdong, known as Canton when they lived there. She said her parents left China for Canada before the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949. Julia Edey and her siblings were all born in Canada and her parents didn’t talk much about the past.

“We didn’t talk about it, oddly enough,” Julia Edey, 56, said. “It was a very hard time in terms of the country itself with real changes happening. I grew up in Canada with a lot of cousins. They didn’t talk a heck of a lot about it other than being on the young side starting a family.”

Julia Edey said she grew up in a family-oriented Chinese culture in Toronto with her parents and four siblings. During her youth at Canada’s version of spring break, her parents often would rent a big cottage for four or five days with their cousins. Through that family time, there would be a lot of great Chinese meals, games and culture.

Julia Edey, who is 6-3, always stood out due to her height for a woman and being Chinese. Toronto has been recognized as the most diverse city in the world by the BBC and the United Nations. During her childhood, however, Julia recalls that Toronto was not quite diverse yet. She also recalls dealing with racism and some violence with her siblings in their downtown neighborhood.

“Whenever you’re different, and I’ve told this to Zach before, people are going to find something different if they really want to,” Julia Edey said. “It could be glasses. It could be curly hair. They pick out when you’re ethically different. We grew up Canadian Chinese. Our neighborhood didn’t have that many Asian kids …

“There were two brothers who didn’t particularly like us. They followed us home. Called us names. I remember even one time they threw rocks at us. That certainly isn’t stuff you see much of now.”

Through the racism, Julia gained confidence and pride in herself. That also gave her a blueprint of how to help her kids go through similar situations.

“She went through some stuff,” Edey said. “So, she kind of told me how she dealt with it by being confident in yourself. That’s one thing I’ve taken from it. I’m not out here to please everybody. I value the people that value me. I appreciate the people that appreciate me, and if you don’t, you can kick rocks.”

Purdue center Zach Edey (right) with his mom, Julia Edey (left), before he won the Naismith Men’s College Basketball Player of the Year award during the Naismith Awards Brunch at Phoenix Art Museum on April 7 in Phoenix.

Chris Coduto/Getty Images

Julia Edey’s father owned a Chinese restaurant in Toronto with other family members where she used to work as a teenager on the weekends. It gave an opportunity to not only get closer to her family members working there, but also be around Chinese culture and delicious native food.

“It was a very family-owned restaurant,” Julia Edey said. “It was another place where the family incidentally connected there on the weekends when we were expected to work there in middle school and high school. But it was also nice because you got a sense of working somewhere early and it gave you some extra spending money.”

Julia Edey attended Chinese school during her youth, but has since found difficulty learning how to read and write in Chinese. At 18, she and her brother went to China for a five-week camp sponsored by the Chinese and Canadian governments to learn about their heritage. During her only visit to China, they went to Shanghai, Shenzhen and Beijing and learned a lot about Chinese history. They knew some light Cantonese already, and took Mandarin lessons.

“It was an amazing experience,” Julia Edey said. “It was an interesting experience because you realized you grew up in a different culture. You realized that what you knew but there was also a disconnection because you grew up somewhere else. You had a foot in both places and you learn. I didn’t know what I didn’t know.

“It was really fascinating seeing the Great Wall of China. But it also made me realize that I very much grew up a Canadian Chinese, and was a person born in Canada. I really felt that when I got to the Great Wall of China that there was a connection.”

NBA prospect Zach Edey’s first loves were baseball and hockey as a kid growing up in Toronto.

The edey family

Julia Edey hoped to take a trip to China with her parents, but it never happened. Since then, she hasn’t been back to China primarily due to the distance and the expense.

Edey was born May 14, 2002, in Toronto to a Chinese mother and a white father, Glen Edey. He was nicknamed, “Little Buddha,” by his family as a child for being big and chubby at that time. He also learned from his parents about the story of Buddha and was given a jade emblem.

Edey recalls spending time as a young child at the family restaurant. He enjoyed jiuye noodles, fried squid and octopus and tofu dishes. He also developed a very close bond with his grandmother, who taught him a lot about Chinese culture. He also bonded with his grandparents who used to babysit him and his siblings at home when his parents left to play volleyball. Edey attended the Chinese New Year’s parade and other Chinese cultural events in Toronto.

“A lot of my early memories probably came from my grandma,” Edey said. “She was very Chinese. It was still her first language. She’s tried to speak English, obviously, but she didn’t grow up in Canada. She was still Chinese. She still loved that culture. She did everything, took me all the good Chinese food spots every year, celebrating Chinese New Year …

“She was just like a real kind soul. She’d be the one to take us out to Chuck E. Cheese or take us to the arcade or to the museum. She didn’t fully understand American culture and everything, but she tried her best and that’s all that really matters. She always would try to make time for us and try to have a good time. She was that kind of person.”

Julia Edey was surprised to learn that the Chinese cultural events had a tremendous impact on her son. With her kids immersed in sports, however, she never enrolled them in a Chinese school similar to the one she attended.

“I took them a few times to check out the festivals they were having and they had the dragons dancing,” Julia Edey said. “We went with my parents a few times to check out the festivals when they were happening. It was centered around a lot of food. I don’t even know that I was trying to instill Chinese pride or not in any conscious way or expose them to their culture. But that was something that we did every year. We’d get together as an excuse for Chinese New Year … It’s just another family gathering where you wish well and reflect on what your year brought and wish each other success.”

Purdue center Zach Edey (right) celebrates with his mother, Julia Edey (left), after defeating Tennessee in the Elite Eight round of the NCAA men’s tournament at Little Caesars Arena on March 31 in Detroit.

Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

Edey was always noticeably taller than the other children in the Toronto neighborhood of Leaside. His initial first sports love wasn’t basketball. It was actually baseball, where he pitched, and hockey. Being tall, and Asian, Edey has stuck out since he was a little boy. He was even teased and called “Yao.”

“His height made him stick out, but being Chinese made him even more noticeable,” Julia Edey said. “He’d be noticeable as a non-Chinese person. I’m 6-3 and it was even more noticeable because people think a tall woman is one thing. But a tall Asian woman sets you out more and separates you.

“I don’t think Zach faced too much harassment. But when he was younger, there were people that would make off-color jokes. Nowadays, the needle has moved in terms of understanding what is now seen as an appropriate and inappropriate comment. Even within their generation they have seen a lot of change in that, which is a positive.”

Throughout his childhood, there were times when he was uncomfortable with his height and size. He noticed all the onlookers and received odd questions. Julia Edey, however, gave her son some words of wisdom that helped him handle that unwanted attention.

“Zach’s biggest challenge was that he always has been a really big kid,” Julia Edey said. “We used to send him and his brother to summer camps that were a week here and a week there. He was going to one of the camps around grade 3 or grade 4 and he hesitated and didn’t want to go. I asked him why he didn’t want to go. He said, ‘What if the other kids ask me why I’m so freakishly tall?’ I remember my heart sinking as a mother and thinking, ‘Whoa, where did that term come from?’

“I joked with him and said, ‘If they ask you, say to look at your mother, because I could be viewed as freakishly tall, too.’ And I think that put things in perspective for him because he thought, ‘I never looked at you as freakishly tall.’ We had a conversation where we talked about how people will always find something different if they want to.”

Edey says he’s not bothered when people call him “Yao Ming” now and it takes a lot to get under his skin with words now. He and his mom were amused when they encountered someone who thought he was Yao.

“One time I was flying back from a U camp in Houston and the flight attendant was like, ‘oh, sir, if you’re who I think you are, it’s a pleasure to have you on board.’ My mom was right next to me too. We mostly started laughing. I was like, ‘Oh, that’s not me,’ ” Edey said.

Despite his height, Edey didn’t have much interest in playing basketball during his youth. His mother, who was a standout high school basketball player, continued to tell herself that basketball would eventually find him if it was meant to be. Basketball did find him in the 10th grade at Leaside High School in Toronto.

After being discovered playing AAU basketball, Edey moved to the United States to play for IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida. It was there that the tall, yet green center caught the eye of Purdue University and received a full basketball scholarship.

Before arriving at Purdue in 2020, Edey saw Jeremy Lin, a Taiwanese American, play for the Toronto Raptors. Lin played sparingly when the Raptors won their only NBA title in 2019. The former Harvard guard’s hot-scoring stretch with the New York Knicks, when he averaged 22.5 points and 8.7 assists, turned their 2011-12 season around and he was nicknamed “Linsanity.”

During his early years at Purdue, Edey met Lin at an Asian youth basketball camp in Toronto and was impressed by his humility.

“He’s one of the greatest Asian basketball players of all time,” Edey said. “He came to say hi to my mom, say hi to me. Before anything. I was a decent college basketball player at the time, but I wasn’t anything crazy. And the fact that he kind of took his time to say hi to me, I took that to heart.”

Purdue center Zach Edey (right) is guarded by UConn center (left) Donovan Clingan in the second half during the NCAA men’s tournament national championship game at State Farm Stadium on April 8 in Glendale, Arizona.

Jamie Squire/Getty Images

As Edey became a star at Purdue and attention grew, countless kids wanted to get autographs and take pictures with him after games. With Lin in mind, Edey made a point to make himself available and show humility. Julia Edey said kids of all races are interested in meeting her son, and when the child is Asian, there is a unique connection. Edey also supports the Canadian Chinese Youth Athletic Association, a nonprofit organization whose main objectives include “promoting sports, fair play, and a sense of community for youth across the Greater Toronto Area.”

“Zach has a real affinity for wanting to help kids,” Julia Edey said. “He used to stay after home games and sign everything. If there was a little kid, he would make sure he stopped to sign. It’s his way of giving back and thinking that this little kid is literally looking up at me. Everybody does. But they are looking up to me in a different way.

“I’m not comparing Zach to Jeremy Lin. But I think it is kind of neat for someone who looks like me to see me doing something that is not normally done by people who look like me.”

The 2024 NBA draft begins Wednesday night. Edey and his family will not be at the Barclays Center in the green room with other top selections. Rather, they will be watching the draft via a draft party in Lafayette, Indiana, at Purdue University among family, friends and faculty.

While Edey will miss the moment to shake NBA commissioner Adam Silver’s hand after being drafted, he looks forward to being among his loved ones.

“I’ve watched people go through the process and go through the draft and I think you get drafted and you got to go the next day,” Edey said. “For me, I’ve been at Purdue for four years, so I’d want to say bye to everyone, like my tutor, obviously all my coaches. I’d want to have a final goodbye to everyone. So, I’d want to have it at Purdue so I could do that.

“Excited. It is going to be a ton of fun. You only get drafted once.”

Edey also looks forward to making an impact in basketball in China. He only knows a few words in Cantonese and won’t be on the Chinese national team. But Edey told Andscape that he would like to go to China.

“I’m always going to keep basketball the main thing,” Edey said. “I wouldn’t go and do any China tours right now. I’m trying to establish myself in the NBA, first and foremost. And then when I get established, get comfortable, find a rhythm in the NBA, then I might do those things …

“I’ve never been [to China]. I want to go. I’ve never been. It’s been on my bucket list for a long time. I probably want to go to, I feel like Beijing is the boring answer, but that’s the big city I probably want to see. I’d ask [my grandfather] where he would recommend.”

Edey said he is often approached by Asian fans in Toronto and was also approached by several in Chicago during the NBA pre-draft camp. He says he has a lot of pride in his Chinese, Canadian and family heritage and believes he must hold himself to a high standard as an NBA player.

“I’m Canadian, but I’m Asian and I got to represent both groups,” Edey said. “When people see me and they talk to me for the first time, I want their interaction. If they’ve never spoken to a Canadian person before, they never spoken to an Asian person before, I want them to have a positive [experience]. I take that to heart and I take that representation seriously.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.