GRANITE FALLS — Chinese exchange student Joyce Sun has long been interested in basketball.
But having grown up in a part of the world where girls basketball teams aren’t as common, her previous experience with the game was limited. In fact, prior to her time in America, Sun had never before played on an organized sports team.
“Not too many girls will play (basketball),” Sun said of where she grew up in China. “They’re not interested in basketball.”
Yet a lack of experience didn’t keep Sun from dreaming big.
Shortly after arriving in her new home of Granite Falls last summer, Sun told her host mother, Ahna Booke, that she wanted to play basketball. Booke initially assumed that meant playing in the more beginner-friendly setting of a physical education class.
But Sun, a senior at Granite Falls High School, had greater aspirations.
She wanted to play for the high school team.
“She’s never been shy about doing anything,” Booke said. “She’s well-adjusted. So even if she’s working through fear, she just does it and is always open to learn and tries really hard.”
Sun lived out her dream this season by playing basketball on the Granite Falls junior varsity squad, and along the way became an inspiration for the entire program.
Sun’s journey reached a pinnacle Friday night, when she suited up and started for the varsity team in its senior-night game against Cedar Park Christian-Bothell. Though she only played a few possessions, it provided a memory that figures to last a lifetime.
“I’ve never had that experience before,” Sun said after the game. “I was so happy to start. It was pretty exciting.”
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As an exchange student, Sun was moving to a foreign land full of strangers who don’t speak her native language. So, understandably, she felt a bit isolated during the beginning of her new-student orientation at Granite Falls.
“I was very embarrassed, because I was alone,” Sun said.
But as fate would have it, Sun ended up in the group of orientation leader Jenasea Hott, a member of the JV basketball team. The two became friends, and when Sun later shared her basketball aspirations, Hott encouraged her to follow through with her dream.
Sun did just that, trying out for the team and making the JV squad.
“When I told her that she was going to (be) on JV, she was the happiest kid in the world just to be part of a team and a sport that she loves to play,” Granite Falls coach Dave Kaupp said. “(It was) pretty cool to see, just a kid being grateful for everything.”
As a first-time basketball player, picking up the game’s fundamentals on the fly was certainly no easy task. But Sun proved up to the challenge, making major strides as the season progressed.
“At first, when the coaches were explaining things to her, she didn’t really understand that well and I had to re-explain to her what it meant,” Hott said. “But now she knows all the drills and can successfully complete all of them. She’s gotten a lot better with her shooting, rebounding and dribbling. I like watching people improve, especially when they have so much heart and effort that they want to put into it.”
Kaupp said one of the biggest factors in Sun’s growth has been her ability to listen and apply what she learns. It wasn’t long before she was incorporating new moves from practice into games.
“She’s a mechanical kid,” Kaupp said. “You tell her to grab the ball, reverse pivot, step and lay the ball up — she does it no problem. So we started showing her post moves, and in games all of a sudden she’s using the post move — and smiling because she knows she’s doing it right, which is pretty cool to see.
“At the beginning, it was a little bit more of a struggle. Now, she’s playing pretty well and coming through. No one would ever guess that she hasn’t really played before.”
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The highlight of Sun’s playing time came during the Tigers’ annual “Catfight” rivalry game against Lakewood, when she suited up for varsity and was chosen by Kaupp to shoot a pair of technical-foul free throws. Sun came through at the line, sinking one of the shots for her first varsity point.
“We all went crazy and everyone was screaming,” senior guard Jerrica Chavez said of the team’s reaction. “It was fun for her, and for all of us.”
Sun’s strong work ethic and passion for the game have made her an endeared member of the program and a favorite among her teammates.
“Joyce is probably one of the most inspirational people ever,” Granite Falls senior standout Maddie Massena said. “She’s probably one of the hardest workers we’ve ever had. She’s always working her best, she’s the quickest learner and is … just so happy to be there.”
Even though Granite Falls qualified for the postseason this winter for the first time in five years, the Tigers (3-17) suffered through many losses. During those rough stretches, Sun’s passion for the game helped provide perspective.
“You kind of feel a little down sometimes if you’re not winning,” Massena said. “You just watch how excited she is to be there, and it really motivates you over the top. You take what you have for granted, and when you watch her, it just really inspires people. She’s the type of person that makes your day, every day.”
Kaupp is among those Sun has touched.
“Honestly, Joyce is one of the reasons why I love to coach,” Kaupp said. “She loves the game so much, and it doesn’t matter — win or loss — she’s happy just to go play. She loves her teammates. … She always gives as much as she’s got and she’s always happy to be on the court. It’s fun to watch.”
Likewise, Sun’s teammates have helped make her feel welcomed and included in the Granite Falls community.
“My teammates, they’re like my family,” Sun said. “I’ve never joined a team (before), so that makes (it) feel like a family.”
Basketball has helped Sun become more outgoing, and along the way she has developed into a bit of a friendly prankster. Kaupp, who makes the rest of the team run if a player is late to practice, recalls an instance a few weeks ago when Sun sent a 5:30 p.m. text message to the entire team ahead of a 6:30 p.m. practice.
“Where are you?” the text read. “Coach is making us run because you’re not here.”
A few minutes later, Sun sent a “haha, I got you” text.
“All the kids freaked out thinking that they were late, but none of them were,” Kaupp said with a laugh. “They were still freaking out when practice started. It was great.”
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Though her basketball experience at Granite Falls is coming to a close, Sun will be able to take home a souvenir of this special time in her life. During the program’s recent Coaches vs. Cancer game, Sun won a raffle for a pink basketball signed by all of her teammates. Overjoyed, she cried after receiving the prize.
“That pink ball is very special for me,” Sun said. “My teammates signed that ball. It’s like a memory.”
Sun, who is considering joining the track team in the spring, will head home to China after graduation. But she would love to return to Washington state for college.
She’s been “living the dream” this year, Booke said, and her basketball experience is a major reason why.
“She loves her teammates,” Booke said. “She’s going to miss those girls. They have welcomed her and made her feel so at home. That team has been great for her. I think she’s been great for them, but I think they have made her time here just phenomenal. It’s just been a totally great experience.”