SANTA CLARA, Calif. — Ashley Hiraki began playing in the Japanese American basketball leagues in the first grade for the San Jose Community Youth Service, and later, in the fifth grade, for the San Jose Ninjas. Now, the Santa Clara Broncos junior guard said her JA basketball experiences have helped her become a more well-rounded player.
“I feel like with Ninjas and those organizations, I learned just how to play better team basketball, how to look for open people on the court, and just kind of share the basketball,” Hiraki told the Nichi Bei Weekly. She said those experiences helped her get to where she is today.
Many players are happy when they score 20 points, but Hiraki is more of a defensive player. She believes “getting a steal or blocking someone’s shot, or getting a charge is much more motivating than knocking down a three…”
She added, “defensive stops are what wins games.”
With Santa Clara up two in the waning moments of the Nov. 11 overtime game against California State University, Fullerton, Hiraki intercepted a pass off the inbounds and drew a foul. The Broncos won the game 76-72 in overtime for their first win of the season.
“I feel like for me, in those moments, (that’s) what I want to do in a game. That defines my game,” Hiraki said of getting the steal in overtime.
Hiraki also inspires her younger sister and other young girls who want to play basketball at a high level. “I’ve had kids come up to me and be like, ‘You’re Ashley, you played at Mitty and now you’re at Santa Clara.’”
Along with learning how to be a better team player, Hiraki realized how “fun” Japanese American league basketball could be. However, she felt as though the sport was a “pain” because of its intensity, when she played Amateur Athletic Union basketball and trained with her dad or other coaches.
“It made me realize there’s more to basketball. My friends are important, the connections I make in it, so I feel like it’s just upped my game even more, because even though I’m still taking it seriously, it doesn’t control who I am,” Hiraki explained.
Hiraki played for Archbishop Mitty High School in San Jose, Calif., following in the footsteps of Kristin Iwanaga and Kerri Nakamoto, two Santa Clara women’s assistant basketball coaches. Iwanaga also coached at Mitty for a year.
“It’s great. I mean we’re huge fans of Mitty…But Hiraki is awesome. She’s a great person, (has a) great family, so it’s fun to do it in our hometown,” Nakamoto told the Nichi Bei Weekly.
Meanwhile, Iwanaga said she’s known Hiraki “almost since she was born,” having played basketball with Hiraki’s aunt Sheri Hiraki. Iwanaga said she enjoyed watching Hiraki develop into the player she’s become, and coaching her now.
Iwanaga, a four-year starter at point guard for University of California, Berkeley, said Hiraki has a lot of the “same basketball knowledge that we have and she’s just someone you love to coach — the way she plays, how hard she plays, how passionate she is about the game, how she always wants to get better.”
Similar to Hiraki, Iwanaga played for CYS and Ninjas in her youth. She said meeting people through Japanese American basketball, including Nakamoto, helped shape her experiences as a player and a coach. Iwanaga, who called Nakamoto her “oldest friend,” said “it’s a joy to be around people you’ve known for so long and that are friends.”
Nakamoto started playing basketball for the Tri City Youth Group, as her father was involved in the Mountain View Buddhist Temple. Later, she played for Ninjas, where she met Iwanaga. She also played for the other San Jose Japanese American basketball club team, the San Jose Zebra Youth Foundation.
Nakamoto enjoys coaching college players and does not have pro coaching level aspirations. However, she thinks it would be “cool” to be involved in other countries’ national teams.
Iwanaga, on the other hand, would enjoy coaching in the WNBA if Oakland, Calif. were to get a WNBA team. If the opportunity were to arise, Iwanaga “definitely would” coach at the professional level.
Hiraki, who said she’s graduating this year, says she has to figure out which one or two-year grad program she wants to pursue, since she has two years of eligibility left due to the NCAA’s COVID-19 policy. In the future, she said she would love to play pro basketball in Europe.
“I’ve always wanted to play in Europe. I feel like that’s one of the coolest places to go to,” Hiraki said.