The key to easing the student blues? Joining the varsity basketball team

The very first days of university or college can be overwhelming and isolating for any student, but for University of British Columbia student Charles Dai, it was especially tough back in 2012 when he was starting out. 

Dai, 26, had left his hometown of Weifeng, China — "a small town, only nine million people," he says, laughing — and arrived in Vancouver, living alone in a house that his parents purchased.

He was still improving his English, and had enrolled at UBC's English Language Institute to transition to regular classes, but things were tough. 

"I was 19 when I got here. [It was] really lonely [and] pretty hard."

Enter basketball. 

Dai already played some basketball back in China, where he attended an academic high school, where school days started at 6:15 a.m. and ended at 9:50 p.m. at night. 

During his lunch break and dinner breaks, Dai would play basketball. 

University of British Columbia

The sport was popular at his school, largely because of Chinese basketball superstar Yao Ming, who played on the NBA's Houston Rockets. 

"For me, I was just like, I want to play basketball because ... I just don't want to sit in the classroom all day," said Dai, a marketing student at UBC's Sauder School of Business who graduated this May.

So when Dai came to UBC, it was natural to make basketball part of his coping strategy. Making the varsity team became the foundational goal underpinning his entire university career.

"I don't think I would graduate without playing basketball. Basketball is just guiding me to there to help me finish a degree because I want it so bad," he said.

In order to make the team, Dai made a checklist of everything he would have to do: maintaining a high-enough GPA so he wouldn't get kicked out of his program, training, eating properly, working out, and showing up to practice. 

Practice makes perfect

He had some obstacles, however. At 5 feet 10 inches, Dai isn't as tall as the average basketball player.

"My wingspan is even shorter than my height. It's like 5'6 or 5'5. My vertical jumping is pretty bad," he said. "[But] I never take this as an excuse — because I'm short, I can't play basketball? That doesn't make sense to me."

Dai focused on what he could do — practice, practice, practice. At tryouts, he didn't make the team in his first few years. But eventually, through sheer persistence, he became a redshirt — a student athlete who practices with the team but doesn't play during competition for the 2016-2017 season.

And then finally, in the 2017-8 season, he donned the UBC Thunderbird uniform.

University of British Columbia

'No one gets promised time'

The best moment, Dai says, came when UBC played against Team China. 

In China, he says, if you are good at sports or talented, you are recruited to play for an international team. He didn't think he'd one day play against this group of people. 

"So many times, [I heard] 'you're never going to play at the highest level,' and ... [then] my senior national team came and I was [playing] against them," he said. 

Dai says he hopes his story can serve as inspiration. In fact, his next goal is to get a movie made about his inspirational journey. 

"No one gets promised time. All we need to do is just be ready."

Listen to the full interview on CBC's The Early Edition: