May 4, 2016, published in the Orange County Register
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.
Even in the early 1970s, long after laws had changed to allow Asians to become citizens, own property and marry whites, Japanese American basketball leagues kept thriving.
The game became a cultural touchstone, played and watched by so many that it was like a common food or a religious ritual.
Chris Komai, whose uncle founded the Nisei Athletic Union, a men’s JA league, describes basketball’s importance this way:
“When two Issei (first-generation Japanese Americans) meet on the street … they eventually ask, “Where in Japan are you from? … When two Nisei (second-generation) strangers meet, they’ll eventually ask, ‘What camp did the government put your family in?’” Komai said.
And when two Sansei (third generation) meet?
“We’ll eventually ask, ‘What team did you play for?’”
Dick Marquis coached guys.
In the 1960s, he’d been connected to the Los Angeles Lakers and the U.S. men’s national team. And he was coaching men in the early 1970s when he saw his first Imperials game.
He liked a lot of what he saw. The way they crouched when they dribbled. The arc of their shots. The intensity.
Soon Marquis was coaching young women. His players, most of whom stood 5-foot-4 or less, practiced four times a week. They were asleep by 9 p.m. during tournaments.
Under Marquis, the Imperials Purple became about speed and brains and heart. The offense was unselfish and functional and lethal.
And defense was its calling card.
When Marquis hollered “CC” – which meant “total combat” – the team would shift into defensive overdrive, forcing the opponent with the ball to pick up her dribble and run until she forgot breathing was possible. Go to the side? Two defenders were there. Go to the middle? Another defender was there.
“I think, before, girls basketball was a little more genteel,” said Denise Ishitani, a longtime Imperial who played for Marquis.
“When Dick brought the full-court press, the man-to-man, the game became really aggressive.”
Though official records weren’t kept, the Imperials won virtually every title in the highest level of the Southern California Women’s Athletic Union, a Japanese American league formed in 1969.
And playing against the champions of the Japanese American league from Northern California, the Imperials won six state titles in the eight-year window from 1979 to ’87.
The measure of their dominance is this: When the Imperials lost a game, in February 1986, the story in the Los Angeles Japanese-language newspaper Rafu Shimpo focused on “the major upset,” not the 14-point win by a team called the Ninjas.
The Imperials did not take it well.
“I felt bad for the next team that played us,” said Stephanie Takata, an Imperial of that era. “They took a beating.”
STILL BLEEDING PURPLE
They’re middle-age now, at this gym in Huntington Beach, and on different teams.
But they still play like Imperials.
Jue snatches a rebound. Debbie Young dives across the wood. Suzie Iwami – still the second-leading scorer in the history of Cal State Los Angeles women’s basketball – pops a jumper.
“We’re still playing,” Iwami said. “And we still enjoy it.”
But they are not made of steel.
Cyndee Cazares has suffered a fractured ankle, torn plantar fascia, swollen Achilles, torn calf and bone spur in her hip. She plays because there’s no expiration date for loving the game. Basketball is as natural to the life cycle as wrinkles and gray hair.
Still, on this Sunday, she grabbed a steal.
Growing up in the 1970s in San Fernando Valley, Debbie Young, who is half-Japanese and half-Chinese, was the only non-Caucasian at her school.
Joining the Imperials opened a new world for her: “It helped me get in touch with my culture,” Young said. “My closest friends are through basketball.
“We bleed purple.”