When the Yale men’s basketball team travelled to Shanghai last November for the Pac-12 China Game, the Elis peppered one of their own with requests for translations. Alongside time spent exploring the Yangtze River Delta and preparing for a season-opening win over California, Jameel Alausa ’21 served as a multilingual intermediary between the Bulldogs and local residents.

Now, the 6-foot-7-inch forward, who studied Chinese for most of his time at the University of Chicago Laboratory Schools, is preparing for a return to the region. A little more than six months after competing in the China Game sponsored by the online commerce company Alibaba Group and meeting its co-founder Joseph Tsai ’86 LAW ’90, Alausa will work with Tsai this summer. For the Chinese-speaking, sports-loving economics major who pitched himself to Tsai for a job after Yale’s win over Cal, the opportunity is “once in a lifetime.”

“I had a plan of what I was going to say when I officially met [Tsai], so it was just great to have the opportunity to actually talk to him,” Alausa said. “I started introducing myself in Chinese, talked to him about why I like China, why I like Chinese culture and my relationship with China, the people, the community, and the culture … [I said] hopefully if I could maybe come down here and work with him or for him, I’d definitely appreciate it. It’d be a great opportunity for me to practice my Chinese and also get a better understanding of economics and global economics.”

Tsai was impressed. He gave Alausa his assistant’s contact information when they met, and the Yale forward contacted her soon after he returned to the U.S.

After a few months of figuring out the details with Tsai as the Bulldogs completed trips to Memphis, Miami, Duke, Los Angeles and, of course, the NCAA tournament, Alausa now has his internship in order. He will spend five weeks in the United States before rounding out the summer working in Hong Kong.

The team interacted frequently with Tsai on its trip last fall. He visited the Bulldogs at their hotel in Suzhou, played one-on-one with a few players and hosted both Yale and Cal for a tour of Alibaba’s Hangzhou headquarters and a speech on the Chinese economy. During his lecture to both teams and their respective entourages, the Alibaba co-founder posed a question about measuring gross domestic product to the audience. Alausa, who had just taken a macroeconomics midterm before flying from New Haven, saw a silent room of unraised hands and thought he “might as well just practice [his] econ right now,” listing off the four components of a gross domestic product: consumption, investment, government spending and net exports.

Tsai and his team dubbed him “the econ guy” after their first interaction, Alausa said. But their discussion after the 76–59 win over the Golden Bears was also significant.

“[Alausa] introduced himself to Joe Tsai, and one of the coaches nearby was kind of gassing him up saying, ‘Oh, Jameel speaks Chinese,’” guard Michael Feinberg ’22 said. “So Jameel started talking to him in Chinese, and [Tsai] seemed to be pretty impressed.”

Alausa, who studied at the University of Chicago Laboratory School starting in first grade, laid a strong foundation for his Chinese with movies, plays and other fun activities in the third grade before formally beginning to study the language in eighth grade. He and his family hosted a Chinese exchange student during his sophomore year of high school for about two months, and although a busy summer of basketball prevented Alausa from staying with him in China, the two have kept in touch since.

In a series of three workshops, Ninghui Liang, a senior lector in the Department of East Asian Languages and Literatures, taught the Elis basic phrases and Chinese culture before their departure for the Pac-12 China Game. About a month into the second semester, she received an email from Alausa — who decided to stop taking Chinese at Yale to ease his transition into life as a time-stretched Division I college basketball player — asking if he could review.

“[Alausa] didn’t tell me [he could speak Chinese] at the very beginning [of the workshops], until the last day,” Liang said. “He came to me and he spoke to me in Chinese very fluently. I was so surprised, he was hiding there.”

Liang has since helped the Chicago native refresh his Chinese in preparation for the summer internship. For the past couple months, the duo has shared most Monday lunches in the Benjamin Franklin dining hall, where they casually discuss high school, basketball, the trip and anything else that surfaces.

Alausa said he still plans to practice basketball and improve his game this summer, “attacking the offseason like I attack every offseason.” He is hoping to get the chance to work out at the Barclays Center or a nearby Nets practice facility in New York City after talking with Blue Pool. Similarly, he is hoping to find a place to practice in Hong Kong. 

Head coach James Jones will likely help find a spot for Alausa to work out, the forward said, helping him blend a commitment to his sport with a unique career opportunity. In fact, in the postgame press conference following Yale’s win at the Baoshan Sports Center back in November, a Chinese reporter asked Jones about the Elis’ future goals.

“It’s a mix,” Jones responded, pausing every couple sentences for an interpreter to translate his answer into Chinese. “We have some of our players that have lifelong dreams to play in the NBA, and they work toward that every day… But the other part of it is that — I don’t know who they are — but we’re going to have some great business people, some great politicians, some great doctors, some great lawyers that come through our program … the young men come to Yale because they want to better the next 50 years of their lives. That’s what they’re able to do, and they have dreams in a lot of different areas.”

Tsai, who played lacrosse at Yale, co-founded Alibaba with Jack Ma in 1999.

William McCormack | william.mccormack@yale.edu