The Asian American Basketball Leagues That Helped Create Linsanity

It's estimated that in Southern California alone, there are 14,000 Japanese Americans who play in regular club tournaments. Some teams have been around for more than 50 years.

By Jamilah King Feb 21, 2012

There’s no escaping the hysteria surrounding Jeremy Lin. From the t-shirts and Facebook groups to the fact that "Linsanity" is muscling its way into a permanent parking space in global sports lexicon, the New York Knicks’ surprise second year star is one of the most captivating stories in recent sports history. In less than two weeks, he’s gone from a virtually unknown bench warmer to the leader of a suddenly resurgent team on one of the world’s biggest stages.

One person who’s watching especially close is Jamie Hagiya. A 26-year-old Japanese American basketball player from Southern California, Hagiya played four years at point guard for the University of Southern California’s women’s basketball team. She finished her career ranking in the top 10 in school history for assists (417), 3-point field goals (132) and games played (120). After graduating in 2007, Hagiya played professionally in Greece and Spain before coming back to the United States. These days, she spends her time running basketball clinics and training for a shot to play in the WNBA.

"I could be the next Jeremy Lin," she laughs, before explaining Lin’s real appeal to her. "This is something the Asian American community has been waiting for, for someone to break through and be given a chance."

That Lin inspires other Asian American basketball players isn’t a surprise. What’s worth noting is the reason for his appeal. It’s not just the facts of the story so much as it is the context. Lin has become one of the few Asian American athletes to make it big–from a community that’s long been obsessed with basketball.

California, where Lin grew up, is home to a large and storied network of Asian American basketball leagues that have been around for nearly a century. Though it’s unclear whether Lin played in one when he was younger, the fact that his devoted Asian American fan base has been whisked into the spotlight hints at the much larger role that basketball has played in allowing Asian Americans–particularly those of Japanese and Chinese descent–to forge identities and retain their cultural heritage.

Both Lin and Hagiya are unique. Few Asian American basketball players compete on NCAA Division 1 teams. Less than two dozen of the NCAA’s roughly 4,800 men’s Division 1 players are Asian American. Hagiya began playing in Japanese American basketball leagues when she was 4 years old, where she learned fundamentals and forged lasting friendships. When she joined an area club team in the sixth grade and began playing against kids from other ethnicities, she realized just how much the leagues had protected her. After one game, she remembers, a group of parents from an opposing team said, "Oh, that eskimo sure can play!"

It’s widely accepted that basketball was invented in 1890 by James Naismith, a Canadian American sports coach, at a Springfield, Mass., YMCA. During that time and for the next several decades, baseball was the country’s most popular sport. White players had the Major Leagues, black players had the Negro leagues, and Japanese American players had leagues of their own. 

As basketball became more popular in the early 20th century, Japanese and Chinese American leagues formed to offer a recreational outlet in deeply stratified communities.

"Basketball emerged in a segregated setting," says Kathy Yep, a professor of Sociology and Asian American Studies at Pitzer College in Claremont, Calif., who spent her childhood playing in Asian American leagues just south of San Francisco. Yep is also author of the book "Outside the Paint: When Basketball Ruled at the Chinese Playground." "People were segregated by law in terms of immigration, citizenship and marriage, and then de facto white privilege regarding housing and employment. It made sense for them to have their own leagues in part because of the segregated environment of that time period."

Basketball gained popularity in part because it was cheap: all you needed was one court, one ball and up to 10 people could play at the same time in an area much smaller than a baseball field. It allowed low wage workers a chance to have fun without the prohibitive costs of equipment or specialized individual training. Basketball was an ideal sport given the often cramped spaces of American cities in the early 20th century, Yep explains.

The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 effectively banned immigration from that country, and by 1924 the Act was expanded to restrict immigration from other Asian ethnic groups. That eventually left a new generation of Asian Americans to inhabit an uneasy area in which they had faded connections to their families’ native countries, but still faced widespread prejudice in the United States. Basketball teams took on newfound significance. 

America’s stratified social fabric left patches of ethnic communities to fend for themselves with little to no government infrastructure around to help. Instead, ethnic faith-based and benevolent societies took on the responsibility of aiding those without food, settling internal disputes, and offering recreational activities to men, women and children who had few other outlets. 

The game itself also offered what Yep calls "small moments of liberaton" to workers who toiled long hours in harsh industrial conditions. "The syle of play was really about speed, a lot of give and go, a lot of fast breaks," Yep says. "That in some ways provided, symbolically, a space of empowerment through the collective." This was in contrast to the highly segregated existence in jobs, schools and other social settings, according to Yep.

As crowded Chinatowns and Japantowns sprang up along the western seaboard, sports became an essential vehicle for civic engagement.

That remained a hard and painfully resilient fact after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in December of 1941. Months later, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, which led to the forced internment of over 120,000 Japanese Americans who were deemed domestic threats because of their ethnic heritage. Within days, people were rounded up, forced to leave their homes, schools and jobs. They were then bused off to spend the next four years of their lives split between 10 different internment camps in remote places like Heart Mountain, Wyo.; Rohwer, Ark.; and Mazanar, Calif. 

Basketball suddenly took on the new role of helping to alleviate the crushing monotony of imprisonment. Community-organized games were held on makeshift courts under heavy guard by military police.

Hagiya’s grandparents were interned at camps in Arkansas and Wyoming, where they cultivated their passion for the game and passed it along to future generations. "Even though they had everything taken away from them, they always kept a positive attitude and sports was a huge way for them to get through those days," she says.

In the years following World War II and as Asian American communities gained the mobility to move out of cramped ethnic enclaves, organized basketball leagues became an important way for generations of families stay in touch and retain their cultural identities. There were also other reasons: the games were fun and competitive. They allowed an athletic outlet for players who were, on average, shorter in height and thus often overlooked by high school and college teams.

"A lot of kids live away from the Japantown area, so the thing that brings them back are basketball or the Cherry Blossom festival," basketball historian Randy Otsuki told the San Francsico Chronicle in 2006.

Today, the leagues remain immensely popular. It’s estimated that in Southern California alone, there are 14,000 Japanese Americans who play in regular club and weekend tournaments. Yep, however, warns that the scale of today’s teams isn’t as important as how long they’ve been around, noting that some teams have been around for more than 50 years.

That sort of long-standing tradition is important, according to younger generations.

"For people my age, fourth generation Japanese Americans, [basketball] is in a weird way the main cultural hub and the one commonality that most Japanese Americans have with each other," says Tadashi Nakamura, a filmmaker. 

"It’s not language, it’s not religion. Japanese American basketball leagues have become such institutions that you’re raised in a basketball culture. You go to your older sister or older brother’s games when you’re little. Sometimes even your parents have played against each other."

Nakamura continued, bringing his point home: "I actually knew almost every Japanese American guy at UCLA my freshman year because we’d played against each other in the basketball leagues."

The social benefits of basketball are also felt in the Chinese American leagues. Cynthia Ting is a Chinese American basketball player who grew up just south of San Francisco. Ting says she grew up as a shy kid and had a hard time coming out of her shell. "Asian league basketball has allowed me to form some of my closest friendships," Ting says.

All of those close friendships and generations of playing basketball against each other set the groundwork for today’s brand of Linsanity.

"So many Asian Americans were already huge, die-hard basketball fans," says Nakamura. "I think the fact that he’s becoming such a huge national sensation is just exciting. It’s all what we wished, at some point, we could do."

Nakamura also points out a defining feature of Asian American basketball leagues that, in many ways, sets them apart. "The biggest impact [of the leagues] has been on Japanese American women basketball players," he says, noting that girls and women aren’t usually encouraged to pursue sports. 

"The Jeremy Lin story is fascinating and inspiring, too," Yep says. "But it’s also a story about race and masculinities, particularly hetereosexual masculinities. Not only have Asian Americans played basketball forever in the United States," but that’s especially the case for women who have been redefining femininity throughout the 20th century, Yep says.

As Higiya gears up to make her run at the WNBA, the history of Asian American basketball and the current fixation on Jeremy Lin are helpful motivators. "You just need that chance, that coach, that team that’s willing to give you the opportunity."

All photos, unless otherwise noted, are from Discover Nikkei.