Chicago’s ‘9-Man’ volleyball team develops sport rooted in Chinatowns and immigrant exclusion

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CHICAGO (WLS) — On a concrete plot in Bridgeport in the shadow of Sox Park, the action is fast and intense. The players come together for a kind of street ball called “9-man”, and each proudly plays with a chip on their shoulder.

“There are a lot of jokes,” player Matthew Zhang said. “We certainly talk a lot of trash.”

At first glance, this game at Armor Square Park looks like any other volleyball game. But 9-man is different. Although as quintessentially American as baseball or football, the sport was forged from a different experience.

“There aren’t many issues that Asian Americans can claim in the sports world as truly theirs,” Zhang said. “It’s really special to be able to really call this sport, or at least this subset of a sport, our own.”

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

“Chinese Americans haven’t had the best experience.” said filmmaker Ursula Liang, whose 2014 documentary “9-Man: A Streetball Battle in the Heart of Chinatown” chronicles the history and evolution of the sport.

“[Chinese immigrants] were treated as “others”. They worked very difficult jobs, very long hours. They found themselves in things like laundry and restaurant work,” Liang said. “These guys were putting up with so much that they needed emotional and physical release.”

What started as pick-up games during smoke breaks has turned into serious competition and an international tournament that now attracts more than 150 US and Canadian teams in its 77th year.

“Traditionally we played outside on concrete because historically the Chinese weren’t allowed in YMCAs or gymnasiums, so they did what they could. They put up laundry nets. They put a bunch of t-shirts in bales, and they just played anywhere,” Tony Chan said.

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

“There’s a level of depth, the history, the people who came before us, the ability to connect, and there’s just the lore that brings us year after year,” Chan said.

How is 9-man different from “regular” volleyball?

As the name suggests, there are nine players on each side of the net instead of six. The 9-player field is wider and longer. Players do not rotate, allowing specialization, and carrying or hooking the ball is allowed, leading to extended rallies.

“The game is definitely moving much faster,” Zhang said. “When you add three more people on each side of the pitch, there’s a lot more chaos.”

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

“Bring all the cities here,” Chan said. “Let them see how awesome our Chinatown is and how awesome Chicago is.”

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

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