In the sixth grade, having fallen in love with the Los Angeles Lakers, their passing wizard Magic Johnson and their five 1980s championships, I asked my father for a basketball hoop in the driveway.
My father was born in Vietnam. In his home country, he was a scholarship boy, a lieutenant and paratrooper and a teacher. In the United States, he sold furniture for a living and grew his own vegetables at home. He was a resourceful man. So instead of going to Big 5 Sporting Goods and buying me a backboard and rim—like any American dad would do—my father actually made my hoop. By hand. One day, he came home with an orange rim, a flat piece of scrap wood and a skill saw. He cut the wood, then screwed the rim into it. Next, he mounted the board directly onto the garage with massive bolts fitted into holes he had drilled into the wall. His finishing touches? Painting the wood white, then stenciling a bright rectangle onto it.
Not long after my dad put up that hoop, a cousin of mine moved to my street. He was six years older than me and a standout basketball player. We connected with two other cousins and began playing on any court we could find that had lights. My cousins were all fatherless Vietnamese young men who had lost their dads to the war, and their sorrow and anger fed into their playing. They moved with skill and speed, but what distinguished them from others was their ferocity. On both offense and defense, they were merciless, a basketball blitzkrieg. They were the kind of players who would win a game, then want to
fight afterward, still full of rage.
My basketball training didn’t begin in a park league, the YMCA or a youth camp, but in pickup games with these young men. Men who knew every subtle trick: how to tug the inside of an opponent’s elbow to get open, how to grab your shirt just enough to slow you down, how to jam your pivot foot with a deftly placed knee. Thanks to my father’s homemade court and my cousins’ tutelage, I made up for my late start. I went on to play through high school in strong programs at Long Beach Jordan and Long Beach Poly High. After college, I joined men’s leagues and pickup games in basketball hotspots like Venice Beach and Harlem’s Rucker Park.
My wife and I eventually settled with our kids in Torrance, California. Torrance, I would learn, is a hub of Japanese American culture; its immigrant community goes back generations, and Toyota, Honda and Nissan have all had their national headquarters in the LA County city. Like New York and Chicago, Torrance is also a basketball mecca. It was fate and literally a basketball jump-stop: I was eager to have our two sons play the game that had meant so much to me, and here we were in a place that embraced the sport.
It’s not widely known, but Torrance and other cities with significant Japanese American communities are home to basketball leagues that go back just over a century. In the sprawling delta of Sacramento, there are venerable programs like the Barons, Warlords and Rebels that have produced hundreds of high school varsity players. Silicon Valley boasts clubs like the Ninjas and Zebras, the latter of which was once a powerhouse team that included former NBA guard Rex Walters, who is Japanese American. And Southern California, a hoops hotbed, is home to—among others—the Hollywood Dodgers, the Tigers and the Jets, which routinely send top players to premier college programs.
Nicknamed the “J League,” the Japanese American basketball leagues are made up of teams from local Japanese churches, Buddhist temples and community centers. Participants start as young as kindergarten and can play into their 50s and beyond. With boys’ and girls’ teams at every grade level, and about eight to ten players per team, it’s safe to say there are hundreds of teams and thousands of participants. Multiply that number by a century of players, coaches and parents, and you can see that the leagues have touched the lives of tens of thousands of people, if not more.
Jamie Hagiya pretty much grew up in the J Leagues. One of the most accomplished players to ever come out of the leagues, Hagiya earned a coveted Division I scholarship to play for the University of Southern California. Her parents and uncles played in the Japanese leagues, and her grandfather coached in them. “For Japanese Americans, you are expected to play basketball,” she said. “I was born into it.”
When I heard that my son had the chance to join a J League team, I was intrigued. I had attended college in Los Angeles and played against many guys from local Japanese leagues. They were all solid players with strong fundamentals and an emphasis on team play. But what interested me most was learning that once a J League team is formed, it can stay together for decades. Teams assembled in kindergarten often continue to play together when the teammates are in their 20s and 30s and older.
And so my oldest son joined a league team in first grade; he’s now in fourth. To make the most of the experience, I offered to coach the team. Now that my youngest son is old enough, I coach his first-grade team, too. The fourth-grade team reflects the diversity of California’s Asian American population. In the last decade or so, the Japanese Leagues have opened admission
to other Asian American players because there simply were not enough Japanese American players to field enough teams. Compared to other Asian American groups, immigration from Japan is nominal and the outmarriage rate of Japanese Americans is the highest among Asian Americans. Among the ten boys are players with Chinese, Japanese, Korean and Vietnamese roots; others are Mexican-American and White.
“Asian only” basketball leagues may sound to some like self-segregation or outright discrimination. Self-segregation, however, was a form of survival. The Asian American basketball leagues have their roots in an older America, in a California that struggled as it grew into the fifth-largest economy in the world. To transform, the state needed labor, and it put out a call for Asian bodies to immigrate here to build railroads, grow and pick crops, clean laundry and cut lawns. In a California that wanted to exploit Asians, sports—basketball in particular—were instead a way to celebrate Asian athletes.
For generations, Asians in the United States were viewed as temporary workers, and California codified this status, prohibiting Asians from owning land, bringing in brides, marrying White people, voting, testifying against White people in court or becoming naturalized citizens. In dire times, Chinatowns were burned down in riots (in Antioch in 1876), and Chinese people were lynched (in Los Angeles in 1871).
After Chinese citizens were banned from immigrating to the US by the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act (the first overt immigration legislation banning a targeted racial group), Japanese immigration to the country increased to meet labor needs. From 1901 to 1908, an estimated 130,000 Japanese relocated to Hawaii and the West Coast. However, they too encountered state-sanctioned segregation (eventually suing for White status, then being denied in the landmark 1922 Supreme Court case Ozawa v. United States). Even their children were banned from attending school with White children in some California cities. In response to this segregation, Asian American communities built their own leagues so that their children could socialize and exercise without being stigmatized by Whites. According to Nicole Willms, author of When Women Rule the Court: Gender, Race, and Japanese American Basketball, Asian leagues date back to the early 1900s. “They provided a safe space for youth to gather and where they did not have to face the racism and segregation of the times,” writes Willms.
Wherever there were Japanese communities—people farming, fishing, logging and mining from Seattle to San Diego and as far inland as Salt Lake City—sports leagues sprouted up among first-generation immigrants and their American-born children, known as Nisei. In Asian American Basketball: A Century of Sport, Community, and Culture, Joel Franks identifies some of the earliest Japanese league teams, including the Nikkei Spartans of San Francisco in the 1910s, the Stockton Busy Bees of the Central Valley in the 1920s and the Zebras and Purplettes of San Jose in the 1930s.During World War II, when the US government forcibly relocated 112,000 Japanese Americans into internment camps, the leagues continued inside the camp’s barbed-wire fences. Along with baseball and volleyball, basketball provided structure, exercise, stress relief and a sense of normalcy—not just for players but also for fans who gathered to watch on dusty outdoor courts.
After the internment, which lasted until 1946, basketball was not just recreation, it was re-creation for Japanese Americans. “That’s the period my grandparents never talk about,” said Jeff Kubo, a J League veteran, dentist and my co-coach for my youngest son’s team. “They tell us about life in the camps, but never about what it was like afterward. How hard it was to have to start their lives all over after losing their house, job, business and car.”“Basketball helped rebuild the Japanese American community in those postwar years,” Willms said. “It links disparate parts of the community that might not otherwise connect, from Christian churches to Buddhist temples, and from VFWs [veterans organizations] to Optimist Clubs.”
In the past four years of coaching, I’ve come to learn that the irony of J League basketball is that it’s not about the game of basketball—it’s the glue that binds together the Japanese American community, the bond that forges a sense of identity from one generation to the next. “In modern life, there aren’t a lot of outlets to build community,” said Willms. “But in the JA community, basketball is like a magic potion to get people involved.”
For us, basketball is not just a game. It is a craft. To overcome size, we use speed. To offset raw strength, we master the fundamentals of dribbling, passing and shooting until it becomes second nature. To defeat athleticism, we use strategy and team play, the game within the game. Basketball is our harbor. It is self-preservation and self-definition. It says: This is my body and it can hoop.
Ky-Phong Tran holds an MA in Asian American Studies from UCLA and an MFA from UC Riverside. His writing has appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle, Zocalo Public Square and the anthology Dismantle.