Standing just 5 feet 3, Lauren Saiki was sometimes the smallest player on the basketball court. But her signature thread-the-needle passes and heady ball-handling propelled the point guard and her teams from Alhambra Mark Keppel High to four consecutive playoff appearances, capped by last season’s run to the Division II state championship game, a first for the school.
Saiki, 18, has earned a basketball scholarship to West Virginia.
For all this, she can credit the fundamentals she learned while playing for more than a decade in a Japanese American basketball league.
“That helped build my foundation,” Saiki said. ". . . I really fell in love with basketball.”
Also known as Asian leagues or JA leagues, these organizations — which take up many weekend hours for participants — have been the starting point for many successful high school and now even college careers, particularly for young women.
“Asian leagues give you a great foundation,” said Joe Kikuchi, Saiki’s coach at Keppel. “They’ll go on to play club and high school; they get a head start from everybody else since they’ve been playing since 6 years old.”
Keppel is a consistent contender, even though the average height of its players is usually 5-4 or 5-5. All but one of the girls on Keppel’s team last season played in a Japanese American basketball league. Three of Saiki’s teammates have known her since they were five, growing up on the same team, Tigers Elite.
Rough estimates put the total of youth and adult players in such leagues in California in the several thousands. There are other JA leagues — bowling, baseball, volleyball — but none are as popular as basketball.
Teams come from a variety of organizations — service clubs, Buddhist temples, community centers — and have so many young participants that a few Japanese American churches in L.A. chose to cancel Sunday School.
The Southland’s Japanese American community is smaller than its Chinese, Vietnamese or Korean counterparts. Though cities such as Gardena and Torrance have more Japanese American residents than most, there is no sprawling hub for Japanese Americans similar to the huge swath of the San Gabriel Valley populated by Chinese Americans, or Westminster and Garden Grove for Vietnamese Americans.
“Right now, it seems like basketball is the only thing that holds the community together, like the third and fourth generations,” said George Imamura, past president of the South Bay F.O.R. Junior Sports Assn., the largest Japanese American basketball organization in Southern California. “That’s why I think it’s so important that if that’s all we have right now, to keep it going.”
The legacy of these teams motivates families like the Sugiyamas to make the 30-mile drive from their home in Torrance to Alhambra for basketball. On a Sunday morning earlier this spring, Claire Sugiyama was in the Alhambra High gym bleachers with about a dozen parents and grandparents to watch her daughter Sarah play with the Tigerettes Pulelehua sixth-grade team.
Sarah comes from a long line of Tigers — her grandfather was a founder of the Tigers Youth Club, and her father, who coaches the team, also played basketball with the organization.
“He just felt she needed to play with Tigers,” Claire Sugiyama said. “She was born with stripes.”
The Japanese American Optimist Club girls’ league began about 50 years ago to give children of Japanese American descent the opportunity to play basketball at a time when they were not allowed to play elsewhere, said Leland Lau, league commissioner. When he became commissioner about 20 years ago, there were about 50 girls’ teams. Today, there are nearly 130.
“It’s a factory of point guards,” he said.
The leagues’ success in getting girls onto high school teams has even attracted non-Asian players, Lau said. The high intermarriage rate in the Japanese American community is also a factor in the leagues’ increasing diversity.
Competition can be fierce, said Kiki Yang, 18, a four-year starter at Pasadena Poly High and three-time winner of the Prep League’s most-valuable-player award.
Yang, who will play at Claremont McKenna College next season, learned to play basketball with the Pasadena Bruins when she was in second grade.
“It gave me more confidence,” she said. “It exposes you to the sport and allows you to make friends from different schools.”
The strength of these friendships convinced Kylie Fujioka to transfer to Keppel for her senior year. “There were a lot of closer schools, but the entire varsity team, I’ve known them since elementary school through Asian league,” said Fujioka, who will play for Cal State Monterey Bay in the fall. “Even though I had never played with them before, I had spent my entire life playing against them.”
Kayla Sato, 17, credits the skills she learned on her F.O.R. basketball team with helping her make varsity at West Torrance High.
“This community is like a family,” said Sato, who will play next year at Westmont College. “Through one connection, there were so many doors.”
Sato’s West Torrance team won a CIF Southern Section title this year, as did North and South Torrance highs, all of which have rosters filled with JAO players. Early training in the leagues often teaches players to be quick and nimble ball-handlers and accurate outside shooters.
Saiki’s Keppel teammate Kelli Kamida set a Southern Section record last season with 16 three-pointers in a game against Montebello.
Girls who want more competition often will join club teams to improve their skills before high school. Although basketball is a sport that places a premium on height, the lack of it has not been an impediment for Japanese American girls, Lau said.
Many of the JAO league’s best-known alumni are shorter point guards such as Jamie Hagiya, a former USC point guard who is 5-3, or Natalie Nakase, who played for UCLA and stands 5-1 3/4. Nakase became the first female head coach in Japan’s top professional men’s basketball league, and now serves as the Clippers’ assistant video coordinator.
Confidence is key, said Monica Hang, an alumna of the leagues who played in college and is now coach of the Los Angeles Valley College women’s basketball team.
“Being 5 foot 2 in JAO doesn’t mean you’re a guard,” she said. “Sometimes you have to play the forward or center position so it makes you into a complete basketball player. It taught me how to be 5 foot 2 and play as if I was 6 foot 2.”
That confidence will be important for Saiki as she heads to West Virginia.
“I’m nervous because it’s big-time basketball, but I’m pretty excited because it’s a great experience,” she said. “I’m going to meet a lot of different people and have different experiences than what I’ve had growing up on the West Coast.”
But before she moves 2,500 miles away, she’ll have to graduate and say goodbye to her teammates.
“It’s going to be a bittersweet moment, of course,” Saiki said. “Growing up with them . . . it’s going to be a lot different. I’ll probably stay in touch with them a lot.”