The women file into the gym, most in their late 40s to early 60s and most Asian American, every one of them eager for tipoff.
It’s a Sunday morning at a high school in Huntington Beach, but these women have been playing basketball in gyms like this, on mornings like this, for decades.
Today, it’s the High Rollers against Forever Kidz. Both teams are part of the Orange Coast Sports Association, which sponsors a basketball league of mostly Japanese American women age 40 and older. They play today because they still love the game more than they hate the sprained ankles and floor burns that come with it.
But for much of the 1970s and ’80s, the best players from each squad were teammates on Imperials Purple, the most loved, feared and copied women’s basketball team of its day.
In the vibrant world of Japanese American basketball, the Imperials of a certain era were a blend of Showtime Lakers and John Wooden-era UCLA Bruins. Only perhaps even a little more dominant.
“I always knew we were going to win,” said Stacey Honda, an Imperial during that era and after. “It was just a matter of what the score was going to be.”
Yet winning wasn’t even the biggest thing about them.
An Imperials game was an event. Grandmas, babies, mothers, fathers, cousins, siblings, friends – everyone an Imperial player knew might turn out to watch.
In an era when Asian kids sometimes faced hostility and exclusion, the Imperials competed with other basketball teams – and against expectations and bias that everyone cheering for them knew well.
They beat those too.
“Basketball gave the young Japanese girls confidence,” said longtime player Diane Okazaki.
“It was something inside,” she added.
“I could feel it. It gave you confidence in life.”
A WEDDING OR SOMETHING BIG?
Before 2003, when she was named coach of the women’s basketball team at Chapman University, before she was a star player at Cal State Los Angeles and Claremont-Mudd-Scripps in the early 1990s – even before she got married, in April 1993 – Carol Jue was an Imperial.
The team was so important to Jue that she scheduled her wedding for just after the season ended. And as Jue and others played recently in Huntington Beach, it was clear Jue remains connected to the game.
“For us, for all these women,” Jue began, waving at the court, “basketball is a way of life.”
It’s a way of life for their community too.
For decades before the Imperials peaked, American immigrants from Japan – then mostly shut out of white culture – formed dozens of basketball leagues in Japanese-only communities up and down the West Coast.
The leagues initially focused on sumo and baseball, sports the first wave of arrivals learned in Japan. But by World War II, basketball was popular too.
They played hoops as prisoners in Japanese internment camps, and they kept playing it in the decades after, when they were a fast-climbing ethnic group that was moving out of segregated communities that thrived before the war. (READ FULL STORY HERE).