A brief history of Japanese American basketball in the Bay Area

Berkeley Ohtani vs. Sacramento Counts, circa late 1950s or early 1960s. photo courtesy of Tom Morioka

First Quarter
Unlike baseball, which was introduced to Japan by the United States in 1873 and played by the immigrant Issei, Japanese American basketball was a predominantly Nisei sport and truly a Japanese American phenomenon.

Basketball in the Japanese American community started gaining popularity in the 1920s with recreational teams forming wherever there were significant numbers of young Japanese American men in California: the San Francisco Bay Area, the Sacramento region, the Central Valley, and the Los Angeles area. Teams were sponsored and organized by YMCAs (Young Men’s Christian Associations), YMBAs (Young Men’s Buddhist Associations) and/or private Japanese American social clubs.

In 1933, with the urging of the immigrant/ethnic press, the Japanese Amateur Athletic Union in both Northern and Southern California started to sponsor basketball, forming formal leagues for the top rated teams in each region. By posting schedules, scores, and stories that showcased and promoted local teams and heroes the immigrant press helped bridge the urban and rural Japanese American communities.

Japanese American basketball flourished between 1934 and 1941, but all league play throughout the state came to an abrupt end as the result of Executive Order 9066 issued by President Franklin Roosevelt, which called for the forced relocation and wartime incarceration of some 110,000 persons of Japanese ancestry from the West Coast. There was no league play during the war period, but basketball was still popular and played within the wartime camps.

Following the war, Japanese Americans returned to the West Coast and the Nisei formed clubs to meet their recreational and social needs. Basketball, however, was relegated to pick-up games, barnstorming exhibitions, and tournaments during this early resettlement period due to the Japanese Amateur Athletic Union disbanding at the start of the war and the limited and/or lack of communication between organizations and teams. The NAU (Nisei Athletic Union) quickly succeeded the JAAU when Akira Komai, Paul Uyemura, Yuichi Hirata, and Paul Izumida with aid from the Rafu Shimpo formed the SCNAU (Southern California Nisei Athletic Union), and Min Sano, Tad Hirota, and Iwao Kawakami of the now-defunct Nichi Bei Times formed the NCNAU (Northern California Nisei Athletic Union).

Focusing on the Bay Area, Iwao Kawakami of the Nichi Bei Times was greatly instrumental in forming and organizing the Northern California Nisei Athletic Union the year following the wartime incarceration. During the resettlement year he received requests from the community to “do something about a Nisei league.” Using his position as sports editor, Kawakami made a call out specifically to the Japanese American communities in the San Francisco area and the East Bay Area looking for teams wanting to participate in an organized basketball league, as teams in the Central Valley were already organized and sponsored by the Central California Young Buddhist League. On Nov. 27, 1946, Kawakami published an article and posited the question, “How About A Nisei Basketball League?” and with the help of Joe Masaoka of the Japanese American Citizens League and Tad Hirota, the ex-president of the old JAU, the NCNAU was formed.

On Dec. 17, 1946 the Nichi Bei Times officially announced the formation of the Northern California Nisei Athletic Union with the following teams participating in the inaugural season: San Jose Zebras, Berkeley Nissei (fielded two teams, Nissei Green and Nissei White), Berkeley Royals A.C., San Francisco Drakes, San Francisco Jolly Cats, Sacramento Rockets, Sacramento Maroons, Oakland Paramounts, and the Lodi YBA. These 10 teams participated and played at the ‘AA’ level, which is the highest in athletic ability and skill.

‘A’ level leagues were created soon after for teams that did not have the caliber athletes to compete at the ‘AA’ level but wanted to play in an organized structure. The Coast ‘A’ level league and the Bay Region Class ‘A’ league were also established in 1946. The Coast ‘A’ league fielded nine teams: Gilroy, Madrone, Palo Alto, San Mateo, Mountain View, San Jose Nittos, San Jose Zebras, Watsonville, and Monterey, while the Bay Region ‘A’ league fielded 10 teams: Berkeley Nissei Grey, Berkeley Emanons, San Francisco Jolly Cats, San Francisco Blue Jays, San Francisco Ramblers, San Francisco Dukes, San Francisco Pinballs, San Francisco Junior Gales, San Francisco Royals and Richmond Nisei. In all 29 Nisei teams participated in organized league play around the Bay Area in the 1946-47 season.

Second Quarter
The popularity of basketball within the Japanese American community grew rapidly during resettlement and the decades that followed.

Due to demand, the NAU added a ‘B’ level division for the 1949 to ’50 season for high school-aged Japanese Americans. The inaugural NAU Bay Region B league consisted of the Emanon Hi Y of Berkeley, Oakland YBA, Richmond Blues, Richmond Scamps, San Francisco Barons, San Francisco Cardinals, San Francisco Celtics, San Francisco Junior Gales and San Lorenzo.

The 1950s was a decade of decline, growth, and growing pains for Japanese American basketball as the number of teams participating in leagues throughout Northern California were in flux due to the demographic shifts of each region; with Japanese Americans from rural areas (the Central Valley, Sierra Foothills, etc.) moving into more urban areas (the Bay Area and Sacramento). The number of ‘A’ and ‘B’ level teams also increased as Japanese American Christian (Berkeley Methodist, Berkeley Free Methodist) and Buddhist churches (Berkeley Ohtani, Berkeley Sangha) started to participate in NAU play on a consistent basis, while the number or ‘AA’ level teams decreased as players were drafted and/or enlisted in the armed services during Korean War.

The 1960s was a decade of change, transition, and even more growth as the Japanese American population began to grow with the baby boomer generation starting families and moving to suburban areas. This shift coincided with San Francisco Japantown’s redevelopment, and more affordable and accessible housing in areas outside of historical Japanese ethnic enclaves. The popularity of basketball among all ages and gender was evident in the East Bay with the introduction of a boys ‘C’ level leagues in 1962, the creation of the East Bay Girls Athletic League in 1964, and the formation of ‘D’ level leagues in 1966. The number of teams in the East Bay Area greatly increased during this time, most noticeably with new teams from the Diablo Valley (Concord) and a large contingent of teams from the Berkeley area.

From the mid-1960s going into the 1970s, Berkeley was a hotbed for Japanese American basketball, producing almost as many teams as the San Francisco area, and could be debated as the pinnacle of Japanese American basketball of that era. The size, scope and high caliber of Japanese American basketball during the 1960s can be exemplified by the four separate occasions that Berkeley was the site of international ethnic basketball as it hosted the Japanese Olympic basketball team in 1963 and 1967, the Korean Olympic basketball team in 1968, and the Chinese Olympic basketball team in 1969 in exhibition play. Perennial powerhouse teams like the San Francisco Associates and Berkeley Cleaners, as well as Nisei All-star teams tested their international contemporaries in front capacity filled gyms.

Basketball was extremely popular in the Japanese American community in the 1970s, and its popularity is reflected in the number of teams mentioned and noted in the Nichi Bei Times. However, consistent coverage was difficult because of so many teams and news was often regulated to just standings, scores, and an occasional box score. The most detailed articles were written toward the end of each season that focused on the championship games. Based on my research, Japanese American basketball hit its peak in terms of number of teams and press coverage ratio in the mid-1970s.

For the 1973-74 season, based on standings and scores posted, there were 162 Japanese American basketball teams in the Bay Area alone; participating in NAU Bay Region (Nisei Athletic Union), EBYAL (East Bay Youth Athletic League), EBGAL (East Bay Girls Athletic League) and the PYAL (Peninsula Youth Athletic League). Another 42 teams participated in the Sacramento Church League (SCC) bringing the total to 204 teams that participated in Japanese American basketball in Northern California alone.

The attendance at games were at an all-time high as basketball was a premier social event for the Japanese American community, often drawing standing room only crowds in the hundreds at Garfield Gym in Berkeley (now Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School).

Mike Yatabe, a Sansei who played basketball in the 1970s and continues to be involved in Japanese American basketball, recalls:
“The Japanese league was so popular and so huge when I was playing in the 1970s that we (Mike and his friends) made the decision… do we want to make the high school team and sit the bench or do we want to play and be one of the better players on the team. And so most of us played church ball … We used to fill gyms with fans and there would be wall-to-wall people at our tournaments.”

Japanese American basketball leagues stayed on course through the 1980s, 1990s and 2000s, but the trend of less coverage of league play continued as coverage was often limited to just scores and final season standings. Occasional highlights would be covered, such as league championships and sportsmanship award winners but it all depended on whether or not league representatives supplied the information. The Nichi Bei Times continued to showcase Nikkei athletes that were successful in mainstream sports (Rex Walters for example), and helped elevate them to sports hero status among the Japanese American community, but they did not have the resources to cover the large Japanese American basketball landscape in great detail.

Steven D. Chin, former East Bay Youth Athletic League (EBYAL) player (Ohtani) and former East Bay Girls Athletic League (EBGAL) coach/board member, studied at San Francisco State University with a B.A. in Asian American Studies and M.A. in Ethnic Studies. He is currently a stay-at-home dad raising two amazing kids in the East Bay Area. The preceding article is a combination of excerpts from his master’s thesis, “The East Bay Japanese American Basketball Community: A Look at Community Culture” (2013), and current interviews.

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