The cheers grew wilder and more euphoric as Bailey Kurahashi did the seemingly impossible.
Another three-pointer. And another. And another.
She kept launching the basketball through the air, and it maintained swishing down through the net. Rapturous fans in the bleachers threw their hands in the air.
“They were pretty hyped, ” Kurahashi says. “I was feeding off everyone’s energy.”
All in all, on the afternoon of Jan. 24, Kurahashi nailed 11 three-pointers for the La Verne Leopards women’s squad at the University of La Verne, near Los Angeles. Kurahashi defined a new school record that day for three-pointers induced in a single game. And with her scorching-hot hand, she left spectators astonished.
But her performance wasn’t solely surprising.
Like thousands in the L.A. metro area, Kurahashi had sharpened her abilities for years in Japanese-American basketball leagues.
She was young when she got started — 4, to be exact. And it was in those early years that she got some of her most important training.
“The league is where I started my basic foundation, ” she says . “Ball handling, my footwork, jump stop, pivots, my shooting form. The super basic things.”
It’s a kind of training that’s resulted many league players to college basketball teams. Japanese-American leagues even helped launch Natalie Nakase, a former UCLA player who later served as an assistant coach for the NBA’s Los Angeles Clippers.
The JA leagues, as insiders call them, are impressive for their sheer sizing: One estimate is that some 14, 000 Japanese-Americans currently play in Southern California leagues. It’s common knowledge that everyone in the local Japanese-American community has some connection to JA leagues — either they’ve played or they have a friend or family member who’s played.
That’s true for Kurahashi, whose mommy, papa, brother, aunt, cousin, and friends all play( or played) in JA leagues.
Yet for many, JA leagues are more than merely an opportunity to play sports.
In fact, the basketball leagues have become a kind of cultural glue holding the local Japanese-American community together.
“Good basketball underlines team play, ” says Chris Komai, a former sports editor for Rafu Shimpo, a Japanese-English newspaper in Los Angeles. “It’s the team over the individual. That is wholly a Japanese cultural value, ” he says .
But Komai says it’s served an even deeper function. Basketball has helped preserve Japanese culture in America.
“My contemporaries wanted their kids to interact with Japanese-American kids, and this was one of the last opportunities to do that, ” Komai says.
That’s been the case for Kurahashi. She says that by playing in JA leagues, she’s gotten to fulfill many other Japanese-Americans.
“You meet people you get to be friends with eternally, ” she says.
But basketball hasn’t always served this role for Japanese-Americans.
This tradition is a reverberation from one of America’s bleakest moments: the detention of more than 100,000 Japanese-American adults and children in response to the bombing of Pearl Harbor.
When Japanese-Americans were denied their civil liberties and forced to live behind barbed-wire fences, sports helped bring the community together .
Kids and adults played Western athletics like baseball, football, and basketball and also Japanese martial arts like judo. These athletics were at once an emotional escape from imprisonment and a route to bond.
After the war ended and the camps were closed, that legacy continued, and Japanese-Americans began building the local sports leagues that continue today.
This club, also known as the JAO, has grown into the largest basketball league for Japanese-American youth in the Los Angeles area . More than a thousand girls currently play in JAO-organized games, according to Leland Lau, the organization’s commissioner.
Girls as young as kindergartners can play in JAO games. Teams are grouped by age, and the leagues run year-round — all of which provides daughters like Kurahashi years to practise the sport.
And with so many ages playing ball, the sport has become a regular dinner-table conversation in Kurahashi’s house.
“That’s all we really talk about, ” she says.
It’s the experience of so many Japanese-Americans: Basketball isn’t simply a game but a culture tradition that honors a shared history of pain and, ultimately, triumph over persecution.
For decades, Japanese-Americans were excluded from mainstream U.S. life — including from sports. And so they banded together. They formed their own leagues. They played ball.
Yet through the years, as the bigotry began to wane and Japanese-Americans gained more acceptance, the old tradition persisted. It didn’t dissolve into the American melting pot because it helps Japanese-Americans feel connected to each other as well as to their heritage .
For Kurahashi, thinking back on her time in the JA leagues and all the friends she made, that’s pretty powerful.
“It’s a sense of togetherness. It stimulates you comfortable, ” she says. “It’s a place where we’re all the same, it’s a place where we can all connect.”
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