May 22, 2017, published in Game Point Magazine Issue #0
There is a hoop, tall and sturdy. A net, white-grey, with two holes stretched out. Above that, a backboard, grey-black, with trails of original white poking through. Hovering above a driveway, with a slight dip on one side, an advantage or disadvantage depending on who’s on offense and who’s on defense.
“We’ve had some good battles on this court,” said Ken Kikkawa, 52, wearing navy Air Jordans. He grew up here, in Pasadena, California, playing in local Japanese-American leagues. He now plays in a Master’s division for players over 40 years old.
“I can still outshoot him,” Ken said, pointing to his 18-year-old son Kendall, who plays in the leagues and aspires to play college ball.
“I don’t know about that,” said Kendall, who, in addition to his basketball prowess, is also a football player and once scored eight touchdowns in a game for Flintridge Prep.
The one who can out-shoot them both walks over: Robert Kikkawa, 85, a founding member of the Pasadena Bruins organization in 1972. The hoop community calls him Lefty: “I used to shoot marbles left-handed,” he said, clutching a ball next to his son and grandson.
Hoops has bound the Kikkawas and countless other SoCal Japanese-American families together. Unwelcome in mainstream leagues, Japanese Americans sustained their own through internment during World War II and discrimination faced in its aftermath.
Families like the Kikkawas have participated in fundraisers for Budokan of Los Angeles, a project of the Little Tokyo Service Center, which is to be a multi-purpose athletic facility in Little Tokyo that includes a two-court gym for basketball, volleyball and martial arts, and a ground-level garden and event space.
Budokan has raised 90 percent of its $24 million goal, as fundraising efforts surged in 2011 after obtaining a ground lease and will be breaking ground on August 3. The facility hopes to bring young Japanese Americans to play ball, create bonds, and help revitalize Little Tokyo—a community that has persisted for decades despite ongoing threats of gentrification.
Like the court at the Kikkawa’s—beautiful, durable, sacred—Budokan refuses to wither. It reflects the people who will fly up and down its courts: full of love, community and grit.
Standing on Los Angeles Street, between second and third streets, Mike Murase, Director of the Budokan Campaign, faces the future site of Budokan.
Murase wants to make the experience of walking into Budokan special, different from any other high school or municipal gym. He brainstorms about potentially having Japanese-American values like courage, friendship, discipline, intensity stenciled along the gym walls, or implementing Japanese rituals like bowing to the court after subbing out or exchanging gifts before tipoff.
“I can’t wait to get it done,” said Murase, 70. “Right now it’s my life.”
Few thought a gym or recreation center in Little Tokyo, an idea talked about since the 1970s, would ever come into fruition. In 1994, LTSC, under the guidance of its founder, Bill Watanabe, took on the task of exploring suitable sites for the gym. Twenty-five sites were considered before settling on the current location. Organizers hope to open doors by the end of 2018.
“There’s an enduring, persistent desire of a community to have this sports facility,” Murase said.
“I think it’s important that this is not a high-school gym. It’s not a rec-center gym,” Murase said. “It’s a gym in Little Tokyo built by us.”
Sitting at the dining-room table, Ken Kikkawa mentions his father was named the Pasadena area Boy of the Year by a local newspaper in 1949, unheard of for Japanese Americans at the time. Robert Kikkawa excelled at basketball, football, baseball and track.
“They gave me a little trophy and a little recognition,” Robert said, his dark eyes catching the light peeking through the window.
Born in Gardena, CA in 1932, 10-year-old Robert, his parents, two older brothers and one younger sister were forced in 1942 to go to Tulare (California) Assembly Center, before being interned in Gila River (Arizona) and Tule Lake (California) internment camps during the war. They took one suitcase. “Whatever you could carry,” Robert said.
After the war, his family was released with $25 and a train ticket. “We had no place to go,” Robert said. They settled in Goleta, just north of Santa Barbara. His father worked as a lemon picker for three years, moving the family to Pasadena in ’47 when his hands could no longer take the thorns.
In the spirit of shikata ga nai (it cannot be helped) and gaman (to per-severe with dignity in the face of adversity), Japanese Americans who lost most of their assets rebuilt their own schools, businesses, churches and, of course, basketball leagues. Leagues sprouted up and down SoCal, from the San Gabriel Valley to Los Angeles to Orange County to the South Bay.
Hoops exploded because the game was inexpensive and reflected essential Japanese-American values like hard work and teamwork. Organizers fought for gym time and trained their own referees.
“When you’re young, you don’t realize all the prejudice,” Robert said. “The older people did.”
Tying together communities isolated from the war, hoops became a rite of passage for Japanese Americans. It still is. Kim Kawasaki, 32, community gifts manager for Budokan, has played on the same squad for the last 15 years.
“They’re ten of my best friends. We’re raising our families together,” Kawasaki said. “It keeps you connected to the Japanese-American community.”
Half-opened boxes sit toward the back of a large warehouse in Torrance, along with wooden cabinets, dusty bins, curled wires, trash cans, a fire extinguisher and ropes. Amidst the mess, sits a hoop and a glass backboard adorned with the NBA logo. A full-sized court, split into squares of flooring with bright purple and yellow peeking through, are stacked high.
“We say we have Shaq and Kobe’s DNA all over the floor back there,” said Alan Kosaka, 55, Budokan’s capital campaign chairman. The Los Angeles Lakers donated the wood flooring and four backboards in 2014. The purple and gold won three championships on those courts, from Staples Center, from 2000 to ‘02. The goal is to eventually install them at Budokan.
Kosaka, who still plays, grew up playing anywhere there was a game between Sylmar and Orange County. “We’d come home and it would be dark,” said Kosaka, whose two sons play in the leagues.
Chris Komai, long-time board member of the Nisei Athletic Union, a men’s league, also grew up gym hopping. He fantasized about a central facility as early as the ‘80s, when the lottery began in California, vowing to build a court if he won.
He soaked up stories from his uncle, Akira Komai, who founded the NAU in 1947 with two leagues. Chris learned about the resilience of Japanese Americans, about how people rebuilt cultural news-papers and art centers and basketball leagues. “You realize, every one of those things was an act of defiance to what the government was trying to do. The government was trying to stop us from being Japanese,” Komai, 64, said.
“Building the Budokan in Little Tokyo, to me, is a way of our community saying, ‘This is who we are,’” Komai said. “In the face of what we fear is going to be a very difficult period for us in terms of tolerance in this country and appreciation for American multiculturalism, it becomes even more important that this happens, because it is like our parents and grandparents said: ‘This is who we are.’”
“I think the fact that it’s taken 20 years to build the Budokan,” Komai continued, “it represents the most important characteristic of our community: our unwillingness to give up if it’s something we really believe in.”