An American coach and a gruesome injury inspired Chen Yue's journey

Despite making history, Cal's Chen just aspires to be the best version of herself (4:05)

The story behind Cal's Chen Yue, who fell in love with basketball and made history. (4:05)

In an early September afternoon inside a UC Berkeley auxiliary practice court, 6-foot-7 Chen Yue, her uniform drenched, her breathing heavy, toiled with her teammates from Cal's women's basketball team.

The shuttle run and post drills, along with a weightlifting session that followed, have been staples for the 20-year-old trailblazing center from China. In her third year at Cal (21-10), Chen saw action in 11 games. She relishes the opportunity for her team to once again compete in the Women's NCAA Tournament.

As the first Chinese player in NCAA Division I women's basketball history, the tournament simply marks the continuation of her amazing journey in the United States, and a unique opportunity to showcase the best version of herself.

The journey

Growing up in Beijing, Chen was born into a basketball family and exposed to the sport at an early age. Both her father Chen Bin and mother Liu Xiaoyun played professionally in China. She was discovered in 2009 at a Jr. NBA camp in Beijing, where a 12-year-old Chen caught the eyes of Richard Smith, a Utah Jazz executive who was coaching at the event. Aside from her 6-foot-2 stature -- already taller than many boys at the camp -- something else jumped out to Smith.

"There's something in her spirit," Smith said of Chen, who was one of only two girls among 78 boys at the camp. "She puts herself in an uncomfortable situation by playing alongside the boys. It takes someone [special] to stay here all week long but also play hard. Her personal approach and fortitude should be rewarded."

After four days full of skills drills and scrimmages, Smith selected her over dozens of boys into a final 10-player team. He even consulted a friend in China to make sure there were no cultural issues having a girl on a team full of boys. The squad later won a trip to the 2010 NBA All-Star Game in Dallas.

To Smith, then Utah's director of basketball operations and a longtime scout, Chen was only one of many young players he had instructed. But to Chen, the knowledgeable and charismatic Smith was her first U.S. coach and she relished it.

"I had never received any professional basketball training, and I never imagined having a basketball coach like this who would give me a hug on the first meeting," said Chen, adding that coaches in China tend to be more rigid and distant.

Chen remained on simmer, but she kept in touch with her mentor. Four years later, in 2013, after watching former Louisville player Kevin Ware's gruesome leg injury on TV, Chen's passion for playing basketball in the U.S. was sparked after seeing how Ware handled the injury and subsequent recovery.

"At that moment, I was deeply moved by [Ware's] fighting spirit," Chen said. "I truly fell in love with basketball."

Which led to a random email popping up in Smith's inbox. It read: "I am Chenyue. How are you now, I miss you so much. ..." Chen's writing had some minor grammatical errors but her message was clear: She wanted to play NCAA basketball.

"It's astounding that it came from a 16-year-old, let alone someone doing it from half a world away," Smith said.

Smith was unfamiliar with the college recruiting process for women's basketball, so he started making phone calls to contacts in the United States and the NBA's China office. Smith and Chen kept in touch, but due to his NBA responsibilities, Smith lost track of the process, and Chen, over the next two years.

However, Cal got hold of a highlight tape of Chen's high school games -- she played for one of Beijing's best basketball programs -- and was immediately impressed. Through Skype interviews and a visit to China by Cal associate head coach Charmin Smith, Cal's coaching staff saw Chen as a great fit for the Bears.

"Chen displayed a great touch and good potential in the tape," Cal head coach Lindsay Gottlieb said. "But more importantly, we got the feeling that she is a happy and warm person. She was smiling the entire time."

"I was actually quite nervous," said Chen, referring to the Skype interviews. "And my English wasn't that fluent back then."

After an official campus visit to Cal with her parents, Chen picked the school over UNC and Georgia Tech, making headlines for making history. When finally seeing their recruit in person, Cal's coaching staff discovered something else impressive: She embraces her physique.

"Some kids feel awkward about being tall so they would hunch their back," Gottlieb said. "But Chen has always been very confident of herself, from the very first time I met her."

In October 2015, when Richard Smith randomly noticed Chen's name on Cal's 2015-16 women's basketball roster, he was "dumbfounded."

"You've got to be kidding me," he said of his reaction at the time.

The two shared a reunion in January 2016, when Cal traveled to Utah for a Pac-12 game. In the team's hotel lobby, Smith met a tearful Chen, who hugged her mentor who she hadn't seen in six years. The two shared their story with the rest of the team.

Living in America

For most students, college is a time when they learn to do many things on their own for the first time, whether that's laundry or opening a bank account. Making these steps to adulthood thousands of miles away from family was difficult for Chen, who at one point was so overwhelmed by cultural differences and loneliness she wanted to quit playing basketball.

"I was sitting in my advisor's office and crying," Chen said. "I was also on the phone with our head coach and associate head coach for one hour each. They took me to the counseling services on campus."

With help from Cal's coaching staff and her teammates, Chen began to embrace her new environment.

"It's the optimism and positivity in her personality that helped her," Gottlieb said. "She didn't hide all her feelings inside. Instead, she let them come out and asked us for help."

The challenges didn't stop there. In her freshman season, Chen played in just eight games before breaking her foot in practice. The setback did not derail her.

"It made her stronger, and gave her more opportunities to learn the game," Charmin Smith said. "She was young and still developing, so the period allowed her to master the basketball language."

Another challenge for Chen was learning to play the American style game. In China, pace is much slower and coaches prefer to run traditional half-court offense. In the U.S., Chen had to adjust to Cal's up-tempo style, be more physical and add a mid-range jumper to her offensive game.

"I think Chen Yue has what it takes to become a great athlete," Chen's father told ESPN's partner site Tencent. "She hates losing. She has ambition and she works very hard. This is what's unique about her."

As a sophomore, she played 13 games and received the Golden Bear Achievement Award for having the highest GPA (3.8) on the team.

Having a double major in business and statistics, Chen strives to maintain a balance between athletic and academic excellence, learning how to manage time conflicts on the road. She even once took a test on the team bus.

Chen's parents emphasized academics but her father also urged her to participate in sports for at least one hour every day.

"Academics and athletics go hand in hand," Chen said. "Playing basketball gives me a healthy body and allows me to study better. Studying has allowed me to better understand basketball."

Smith, now Utah's executive director of global scouting, will sometimes travel to the Bay Area to visit Chen and attend her home games. He is always amazed by Chen's personal and basketball development over the years.

"To me, her internal drive is unbelievable," Smith said. "I have a hard time doing it, even as an adult. You have to have belief in yourself as well as self-awareness in order to [achieve what she has]. She has opened up an enormous world to herself and her career."

Chen remains worry-free and open to all opportunities, whether they include professional basketball, finding a job or earning her Ph.D.

"I rarely regret past decisions. I would rather cherish the moment in the present, " she said. "It's really been great for me so far."