Young Kim’s Youth Movement: An Unspoken Shame and Secret

was supposed to write a farewell column about my illustrious years in Irvine and how much I’m going to miss this school. Instead I find myself distracted by this party my parents are hosting in the backyard for Circle of Friends, a small non-profit organization that reaches out to children with mental disabilities and social handicaps. I came back home from a Café Night event hosted by my Christian club and expected peace and quiet the moment I walked into the door. But I was greeted by loud Korean music, the aroma of leftover barbeque and dozens of autistic children screaming. Oh yeah, my friend Johnny Kim was there also.


I walk into my room to finish up my column on why I thought our volleyball team is deserving of an ESPN 30 for 30 documentary, but I was interrupted by my mother as she told me to keep Johnny occupied because no one is playing with him. Now Johnny Kim is sitting next to me.

Over the course of my four years at UC Irvine, Johnny barraged me with phone calls, asking me if I could play basketball with him. He called me during class, leaving me embarrassed in the middle of the lecture hall as my phone blasted its ringtone. I left the lecture hall and told him over the phone that I’m in class and to call me later. I set my phone on vibrate as I head back to my seat. Ten minutes later he called again. I ignored. After another ten minutes, the process repeated.

Whenever I was with my friends or in class, I often kept a straight face when my caller ID flashed Johnny’s name for the umpteenth time. Even when I did pick up the phone, talking to him was such a chore. Johnny had a tendency to stammer in his speech and talk fast, which pretty much killed his enunciation. Every question he asked, I responded with a “What?” and “Can you repeat that?” at least five times until I finally understood what he was saying. He would ask me about every single detail that’s going on in my life such as “What are you eating?,” “Who are you watching the movie with?,” and “What time did you sleep?” Then he would ask me if I wanted to play basketball with him. Ninety percent of the time I told him no because I was not in the mood to make a drive from Irvine to Diamond Bar just to play pickup games of basketball with him.

Whenever I did play basketball with Johnny it was pretty hard to watch. For a 25-year-old guy who stands at 5 feet 9 inches with a wide build, clumsy posture and a small head, you would expect this guy to be a spot-up shooter who could grab rebounds … when playing among Asians. He does that, but most of his shots fall a foot short of the basket. He couldn’t play a lick of defense; instead he swings his hands against your arms leaving you with scratch marks before you drive past him for a layup.

I often forget that I’m a Christian first whenever I play basketball with him at the park. It was hard to refrain from cursing when he committed multiple turnovers that cost us the game, leaving us waiting 40 minutes until another pickup game was available for us.

Now regardless of his shortcomings, Johnny isn’t the worst player to have walked onto the court. In fact there are times when Johnny gets streaky and becomes Steve Blake, hitting nothing but the bottom of the net. If you didn’t know Johnny and you watched him play at his best or worst, it wouldn’t cross your mind that he is autistic. If you saw the way he acted off the court, it was obvious that he had trouble communicating. His stammering speech, his short temper and his tendency to respond to you when you’re not talking to him were clear indications that he was autistic.

I knew Johnny eight years back, when I was a volunteer at Circle of Friends. I often took him to the park every weekend to play basketball for volunteer hours. My parents were good friends with his mom, so there were moments when I was forced against my will to play basketball with Johnny.

“Young, Johnny really likes you,” my mom would say in Korean. “It would be nice for you to play basketball with him.”

“But mom, there’s like 40 other volunteers at Circle of Friends,” I would often complain. “Why don’t they play with him?”

And they would, just not as often as I did. It wasn’t until the beginning of my senior year at UCI that I realized how lonely Johnny’s world is. Ever since I left for Irvine, Johnny’s time on the court dropped drastically. Every day he would call through a list of friends to see if anyone was willing to play basketball with him. No one complies. Johnny’s days are normally spent at Mt. San Antonio College and home. The times he does go out of the house are when his mom takes him shopping or to some non-profit outreach program that looks after autistic children. Other than that, the one person he hangs with that’s not affiliated with his family or some non-profit group is me.

I thought my mother was exaggerating when she told me that no one plays basketball with Johnny ever since I left for college. But whenever I did spend that one random day of the month to shoot hoops with him, the rustiness of his shooting led me to believe that he has not been stepping on the court as often.

I regret not being that good of a friend to Johnny as I should have during my time in college. If I knew earlier that this was what he has been going through ever since I left for UC Irvine, I would have taken more effort to make time for him. I have the liberty to do whatever fun I want every day.  He doesn’t since he can’t drive.

While I wish I could say that I have no regrets during my time at UC Irvine, I actually leave with only one. But I have to admit, seeing Johnny’s eyes open wide after telling him that I’m finishing college in two weeks certainly brought a lot of joy in my heart.