The fight to keep Ohtani basketball alive

Increasing housing costs and the pandemic threaten an important tradition in the Japanese American community.

This story was produced with support from AAJA-SF Bay Area and Comcast California’s Rising with the Tides fellowship, a storytelling project aimed at amplifying Asian American Pacific Islander stories and voices.

On a Saturday night in January, a community gym in Walnut Creek, California, was packed. Two high school teams, Ohtani and Diablo, were squaring off, and dozens had come to watch them play. Cheers from the stands mixed with the beat of basketballs against hardwood floors. On the sideline, Ohtani coach Eiji Kinoshita watched as his son, Kai, raced down the court. 


It was a familiar scene for Kinoshita, who had lapped similar courts hundreds of times himself. He’d spent Saturdays playing basketball in tiny gyms across Northern California since 1971. The Kinoshita family had just moved from San Francisco to the tiny port city of Richmond when their neighbors, the Kuwadas, asked Eiji, who was in third grade, to join their local Japanese American basketball program. By then, the league had been around for over 20 years. Kinoshita spent his childhood and a good fraction of his adult life on the team. He grew tall, made lifelong friends, strengthened his Buddhist faith and formed a lasting connection to his Japanese American identity. “It was all because of Ohtani basketball,” he told me.

Now, Kinoshita’s hair was streaked with white and gray at the temples — and still, here he was at a basketball court on a Saturday night.

For generations, teams like Kinoshita’s have met in gyms across the state to compete and carry on the long tradition of Japanese American basketball leagues in California. At its height, Northern California had more than 200 teams, from Sacramento to the San Fernando Valley. The leagues served as a stronghold where community members could gather and weather ongoing racism while passing down cultural traditions — and a love for basketball.

(left) Eiji Kinoshita, center left, asks for volunteers for a drill during a practice with his daughter Sara Kinoshita’s team at Longfellow Middle School in Berkeley, California. Eiji and other parents make up the coaching staff for Ohtani’s different teams. (right) Kai Kinoshita, Eiji Kinoshita’s son, takes a shot during a practice drill at Longfellow Middle School in Berkeley, California. Kai’s team and Sara’s team both practice at Longfellow on Friday nights.

In recent decades though, the leagues have faced mounting challenges. Historic Japanese American communities have dispersed as cities like San Francisco redeveloped their neighborhoods, and the residents moved outward toward the suburbs. Then the pandemic arrived and dealt a major blow to basketball, forcing many indoor sports programs to shut down and leading people to turn to other options.

Standing on that sideline in January, Kinoshita frowned. Ohtani had won the first four games of the season, but that night they were down by more than 20 points. He wasn’t sure if they could come back.

Sara’s teammate Elsa Applen Aycock takes a shot during a practice scrimmage at Longfellow Middle School in Berkeley, California.

Trophies from league championships as far back as 1941 sit atop a storage cabinet upstairs at the Berkeley Higashi-Honganji Temple in Berkeley, California.

that provided solace and refuge for Japanese American communities have deep roots in California. In the years before World War II, the state was home to three-quarters of all people of Japanese descent living on the U.S. mainland. When the war arrived on American shores in 1941, the U.S. government forced Japanese Americans into remote federal incarceration camps. There, behind barbed wire, they played basketball. Across the West, the sport gained popularity at several incarceration sites, including Heart Mountain in northern Wyoming, where 35 teams met in three separate leagues. When the war ended and the camps closed, thousands of families returned to their homes in cities on the West Coast. They had little to their names, but many fought to keep that spark of basketball and community alive. The challenges were substantial: Prejudice remained fierce, and they struggled to find recreation centers, clubs or other athletic organizations that would allow them to play.

In 1946, Iwao Kawakami, a newspaper editor at the San Francisco-based Nichi Bei Times, proposed a solution: Create a league for Japanese Americans. His suggestion took hold; a Southern California league formed, and other programs sprang up around temples and churches and community centers. A total of 10 teams participated in the inaugural Northern California season, including the San Jose Zebras, the San Francisco Drakes and the Sacramento Rockets. In the following decades, thousands of players joined, and the Saturday night games drew massive crowds. For a community dealing with the trauma of wartime incarceration and the challenges of postwar discrimination, the leagues were something to celebrate.

Reverend Ken Yamada shows a photograph of the 1941 Berkeley Ohtani team at Berkeley Higashi-Honganji Temple in Berkeley, California. Yamada is the former minister of the temple, Ohtani Basketball’s parent organization.

(left) Parents of players and other volunteers watch Karen Morioka scatter flour across the counter during Mochitsuki, a tradition for the Ohtani basketball program, at the Berkeley Higashi Honganji temple in Berkeley, California. The annual event pulls together parents, players, alumni and other volunteers to make hundreds of plates of mochi to raise funds for the program. (right) Kai and a teammate fill trays with mochi during Mochitsuki at the Berkeley Higashi Honganji temple in Berkeley, California.

(left) From left, Sara’s teammates Evelyn Yu, Mira Dorman, Adie Choi and Elsa Applen Aycock cool off after a practice scrimmage at Longfellow Middle School in Berkeley, California. (right) Sara plays cards with her teammates on the bleachers during a break between their games at the Ohtani Jamboree at Berkeley High School in Berkeley, California.

By the time Kinoshita’s family moved across San Francisco Bay in the 1970s, basketball had become part of the Japanese American identity in California. There were three pillars of the community: the temples and churches, the local ethnic newspapers — and Saturday night, when you went down to the court to watch the local game. “The generation before them was like, ‘What camp were you in?’” said Steve Chin, a Bay Area historian and former Ohtani player and coach. “But for the generation after, it was, ‘Who did you play for?’”

Decades later, though, housing laws changed, and the cost of living rose. The neighborhoods that harbored the basketball programs transformed as families migrated to the suburbs. Enrollment in churches and temples fell, and basketball programs struggled to fill their rosters. The Sangha and Sycamore programs in the Bay Area cut their teams completely. The pandemic disrupted programs like Ohtani’s, and for two seasons, the leagues shut down.

Families mingle in the lobby of the Berkeley High School gym in Berkeley, California, during the Ohtani Jamboree. The Jamboree, a large tournament that brings together teams from across Northern California, returned for the first time since the beginning of the pandemic this year.

Families talk during the games at the Ohtani Jamboree at Berkeley High School in Berkeley, California.

Eiji, Kai and the team of scorekeepers watch as Sara’s team runs down the court during a game at John Muir Middle School in San Leandro, California.

To adapt, Lisa Toyama, a key organizer of the Ohtani program, and other organizers have loosened some requirements; players no longer have to have Japanese heritage, for example, a change that has drawn in more families from outside the Japanese American community. Once, being part of Ohtani basketball meant becoming a member of the Berkeley Higashi Honganji Buddhist Temple and attending services every Sunday. Now, Toyama estimates that only a small percentage of families involved in the program participate in religious services.

And many programs are still reeling from the pandemic; Sacramento’s church league, a former stronghold for Japanese American basketball, did not have enough teams to start up again this year. Ohtani, though, came back this year with a set of teams for the season. Other events, such as the traditional fundraiser Mochitsuki, also returned. On a clear December morning this season, the basement of a church filled with steam as dozens of parents, players and alumni assembled plates of mochi for sale.

Eiji issues directions to Kai’s team during a game against Diablo at Tice Valley Community Center in Walnut Creek, California.

(left) Parker Nomura, one of Kai’s teammates, goes in for a layup during a game against Diablo, a rival program, at Tice Valley Community Center in Walnut Creek, California. (right) An Eden player tries to block Sara’s teammate Zoe McNulty from taking a shot during a game at John Muir Middle School in San Leandro, California. The Eden basketball program is based at Eden Japanese Community Center in nearby Ashland, California.

Like Kinoshita and Chin, Toyama also grew up in the leagues. Some of her earliest memories are of standing on old wooden bleachers with her cousins watching her father and uncle play in a gym near San Pablo Avenue. When she was in seventh grade, Toyama joined the league, too. And when she became a parent, Toyama rejoined Ohtani in the hopes of giving her son the same experience she had. “You know that these kids are making relationships that are going to last forever regardless of basketball,” she said. “I want to be able to pass that on.”

From left, Ohtani teammates Tyler Tsuji, Parker Nomura, Tyler Chin and Seigo Lee walk off the court as their game ends at Tice Valley Community Center in Walnut Creek, California.

Sara and her teammates high-five each other after a game at John Muir Middle School in San Leandro, California.

Sara’s teammates Mira Dorman, right, and Adie Choi hug after Adie received a spirit medal during an awards ceremony at the Ohtani Jamboree at Berkeley High School in Berkeley, California. The Jamboree marks the end of the season for Sara’s team.

Kori Suzuki is a Japanese American photographer and multimedia journalist currently based in Berkeley, California. His work focuses on climate change, housing and identity. We welcome reader letters. Email High Country News at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor. See our letters to the editor policy.