top of page

Chasing Basketball Dream from China to Sunrise - Story of Big Joe (Yijiong Zhang)

By: Steven Pham

Wichita, KS. - As Joe Zhang wraps up his four-year tenure at Sunrise Christian Academy, let's reflect on his journey. Joe is the son of Yanling Lou (mother) and Yong Zhang (father). Born and raised in Jinan, China, Joe was surrounded by basketball early on in his life.

3 year old Joe in Jinan, Shandong, China in 2008.

His parents, aunt, uncle, and grandparents all played the sport. Joe’s parents and uncle trained him from an early age because his primary school did not have a basketball team. Apart from basketball, Joe's other hobbies included video games and drawing.

Joe draws a self-portrait in art class at Sunrise in 2022.

Joe’s journey to the U.S. was on a scholarship from Brooklyn Nets owner Joe Tsai. “The scholarship process started by sending in your highlights to the program organized by The Joe Tsai Foundation and the Chinese Basketball Association (CBA). Only 200 people were selected for the next round,” Joe Zhang said. “From those 200 people; they selected 30 to go to a basketball camp, then they selected 10 people from the camp, and only 4 of the 10 got awarded a scholarship, and I was one of them.”

Joe competing at the elite selection basketball camp in Beijing, China on March 2019.

Joe receiving the scholarship by Yao Ming in Beijing, China on May 2019.

The four scholarship winners were sent to four different elite high school basketball teams across the U.S. The teams were Montverde Academy (FL), Wasatch Academy (UT), Sierra Canyon (CA), and Sunrise Christian Academy (KS).

Joe Tsai honoring Joe Zhang to a Brooklyn Net game on Thanksgiving in 2019.

Joe and his family believed a smaller city in Kansas would be more beneficial for his growth on and off the court. “My parents didn't want to endanger me, and I was only 13 years old at the time,” Zhang said. “Imagine me in Los Angeles all by myself, it is not as safe as Wichita, KS.”

The education system in China is longer and tougher than in the U.S. “We have school the whole day from 8 to 5,” Joe said. “Chinese math is hard, the math I learned in [Chinese] middle school is the math I learned in [U.S.] high school.”

International students are required to take placement exams to determine which level of classes they enroll in when they first come to Sunrise. Joe struggled to interpret the questions due to his language barrier. “I looked at the math questions and took 10 minutes to understand the question but did the question in two seconds,” Zhang said. Fortunately, he received help from teachers at Sunrise, who was with Joe throughout his whole journey.

Joe taking the placement test on his first day at Sunrise in August 2019.

When Joe first arrived in the States, teachers and host family were at the airport to pick him up and sign him off because he was under 15 years old and was escorted by airline staff. He kept on asking where all the people went and was told it was midnight. Joe said, “But in China, there are even more people on the street at night.” He was told that this is Kansas, not LA or NYC.

When Joe was first interviewed for Sunrise, “He memorized a sheet sharing who he is in English,” Dr. Lindstead said. “Once we started asking him questions, he started asking the translator for help.” Coach Luke kept on saying, “He is so young! He is so young!” “Yes, he is so nervous too,” Ms. Jean said.

Joe arrived in August 2019, and his parents visited him during Christmas break. His parents flew back home during the early stages of 2020 before COVID-19 hit. His parents decided not to fly him (Joe) home and were hoping he could fly home that summer. Nobody knew COVID would happen, and he never got to go home all four years.

Mom and Dad visiting Joe at Sunrise on Christmas in 2019.

Joe was a fast learner and picked up things rather quickly. “He is so young and absorbs things easily,” Coach Kyle Lindsted said. “He is very coachable and teachable.” Joe believed Chinese was harder than English. “When I first came here I didn’t know English, and then I never talked in Chinese to anybody anymore,” Zhang said. “All you hear is English. Once I started conversations with people, I got better at English so fast.”

Many teachers and coaches spent a lot of time tutoring Joe in English, and he was able to communicate with his classmates and teachers in no time. “Nobody thought he would come to this point, and it was a long way to go for him,” many teachers resound. “He made it, and we are very proud of him.”

Other players transferred to different high schools, but Joe and his family decided to stay loyal at Sunrise. “It’s very safe here and a very loving and caring family environment,” Jean said. “His parents are very pleased with and thankful for Sunrise since we discipline him as our kids like any other American teenage boy. He was surrounded by numerous godly role models and mentors from the whole Wichita community living a genuine life right there with him day in and day out.”

Joe stayed all four years at Sunrise thanks to his parents, coaches, and teachers. “My father told me, if you choose to go somewhere then you’re not going to look back,” Zhang said, “If you transfer to another school then it's a restart.” Coach Luke expressed, “It is teamwork, from the coaching staff, administrators, faculty, and staff, we work as a team to have each other’s back to train our players on and off the court. And we won as a team in the end!!!” 

What a blessing to practice in our alumnus Buddy Hield's gym before our scrimmages on November 2022. Family opens their doors for family.

We hope to potentially host many more Chinese basketball players at Sunrise in the future. I asked Joe and others why players should commit to Sunrise. “Sunrise is special and a place to improve yourself and join a family environment,” Zhang said. “In China, I never felt this [family] experience before as a team. Even now, I’m still in contact with my former teammates who graduated from Sunrise and moved on to colleges or NBA, and it's like a family bond.”

Some teachers believe, “Kansas is a very safe environment and if you want your kids to study, learn, and grow then Kansas is a good spot. We have teachers that care for them [students] and help individual development.” Some respond, “There is no better place to start your basketball career and faith journey than Sunrise. Especially in this time of age, there is so much chaos and confusion. Sunrise is the place to give young people the truth and direction for their future on and off the court. ”

Joe graduating from Sunrise on May 19th, 2023.

Apart from improving his language skills, Joe also gained valuable basketball skills and knowledge at Sunrise. Basketball is his love and passion. He plans to play college basketball in the U.S. and then return to China to play professionally on the national team. After his basketball career as a player, Joe plans to stay involved with basketball as a career.

(School pictures of Joe: Freshman, Sophomore, Junior, Senior year)

In conclusion, Joe Zhang's journey at Sunrise Christian Academy was a remarkable one. He overcame many challenges (e.g. language barrier, culture shock, homesickness, injury, Covid, etc.) and learned valuable lessons both on and off the court. He grew from a little teen boy to an amazing young man. He earned multiple offers from colleges with his great academic achievement, elite basketball play, and great character. He decided to commit to William Jewell College where he will be most valued and developed by a great coach and team. We wish Joe the best of luck in his future endeavors!

Joe signing his letter of intent to William Jewell College on May 18th, 2023.

277 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All
bottom of page