Globe-trotters hold court

Thirty students flew to Wilson Middle School from the other side of the globe this week to play a little basketball.

The youth were members of a student all-star basketball team from the city of Higashiosaka in Japan. They visited Wilson for the seventh year as part of a cultural exchange program that included four games of basketball, visits to American classes and an art lesson in Japanese calligraphy.

The school’s relationship with the Japanese team began when the group was headed to Glendale years ago and they were looking to play other students in basketball, said Richard Lucas, the school’s principal. One of the assistant superintendents in the school district at the time suggested Wilson might be interested, and the partnership has stuck.

“It’s quite a cultural exchange,” Lucas said.

The visit began Wednesday with two basketball games, one between the girls’ teams from Higashiosaka and Glendale, the other between the boys’ teams. The two Japanese teams are made up of students from several schools around Higashiosaka, said Andy Naoki, who assists the visitors during their annual trip to Glendale.

The Wilson boys team bested the Japanese boys team in Wednesday’s game, but the all-girls Japanese team beat the Wilson girls team.

The guys from Japan were quick and sharp, but the Wilson boys team had a size advantage, said Scott Knapp, who coached the Wilson intramural team.

“They’re excellent players, they’re just not quite as big and strong,” Knapp said of the competitors.

The games were exciting because they attracted a sizable audience of fellow students and had an international feel to them, Knapp said.

While students did keep score, the object of the game certainly wasn’t winning, but rather checking out different playing styles and enjoying an international camaraderie, he said.

“It’s kind of a goodwill game,” he said.

Mariam Navasardyan, 13, who plays on Wilson’s girls’ team, said she was impressed with her counterparts from Japan.

“They have good defense, and they know what they’re doing out there,” she said.

Off the court, the American and Japanese students interacted over lunch, and during calligraphy lessons led by the visitors. But most of the time, the students didn’t know each other’s native tongues, and communication wasn’t easy.

During a break between classes, Tina Vartananian, 12, tried to say, “Hello,” and “How are you?” to the visitors in Japanese using a phrase sheet her teacher handed out. In return, the visitors bowed and seemed to understand her attempt, she said.

“It’s pretty fun to have them here,” she said.

But even if verbal communication didn’t always work, the game of basketball seemed to be well understood by both parties.

“It allows them to see that sport is universal,” said Jessica Briggs, who coaches Wilson’s girls’ team.

 ANGELA HOKANSON covers education. She may be reached at (818) 637-3238 or by e-mail at

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