The Moving Reason These Japanese-American Basketball Leagues Have Thousands Of Players
It's about so much more than sports camaraderie.
By Gabe Rivin
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 kept 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.”
Kurahashi (center) playing for the La Verne Leopards. Photo courtesy of Bailey Kurahashi.
All in all, on the afternoon of Jan. 24, Kurahashi nailed 11 three-pointers for the La Verne Leopards women’s team at the University of La Verne, near Los Angeles. Kurahashi set a new school record that day for three-pointers made in a single game. And with her scorching-hot hand, she left onlookers astonished.
But her performance wasn’t entirely surprising.
Like thousands in the L.A. metro area, Kurahashi had honed her skills 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 form of training that’s led 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 size: 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 mom, dad, brother, aunt, cousin, and friends all play (or played) in JA leagues.
Yet for many, JA leagues are more than just 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 emphasizes 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 totally a Japanese cultural value,” he says.
But Komai says it’s served an even deeper function. Basketball has helped preserve Japanese culture in America.
Komai (front row, second from the left) and an SCNAU league championship team. Courtesy of Chris Komai.
“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 meet many other Japanese-Americans.
“You meet people you get to be friends with forever,” 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 imprisonment 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.
Japanese-Americans play volleyball in an internment camp in California. Photo by Ansel Adams/Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division/Wikimedia Commons.
Kids and adults played Western sports like baseball, football, and basketball and also Japanese martial arts like judo. These sports were at once an emotional escape from imprisonment and a way 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.
In basketball, these included clubs like the South Bay Friends of Richard, the Nisei Athletic Union, and — crucial for women athletes like Bailey Kurahashi — the Japanese American Optimist Club.
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 girls like Kurahashi years to practice the sport.
And with so many ages playing ball, the sport has become a regular dinner-table conversation in Kurahashi’s house.
Kurahashi (bottom right) with her family. Photo courtesy of Bailey Kurahashi.
“That’s all we really talk about,” she says.
It’s the experience of so many Japanese-Americans: Basketball isn’t just a game but a cultural 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 makes you comfortable,” she says. “It’s a place where we’re all the same, it’s a place where we can all connect.”
This story was produced as part of a campaign called "17 Days" with DICK'S Sporting Goods. These stories aim to shine a light on real occurrences of sports bringing people together.
Share image via Bailey Kurahashi.