The moving reason these Japanese-American basketball leagues have thousands of players.
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The cheers grew wilder and more euphoric as Bailey Kurahashi did the seemingly impossible.

Another three-pointer. And another. And another.

She kept launching the basketball through the air, and it kept swishing down through the net. Rapturous fans in the bleachers threw their hands in the air.


"They were pretty hyped," Kurahashi says. "I was feeding off everyone's energy."

Kurahashi (center) playing for the La Verne Leopards. Photo courtesy of Bailey Kurahashi.

All in all, on the afternoon of Jan. 24, Kurahashi nailed 11 three-pointers for the La Verne Leopards women's team at the University of La Verne, near Los Angeles. Kurahashi set a new school record that day for three-pointers made in a single game. And with her scorching-hot hand, she left onlookers astonished.

But her performance wasn't entirely surprising.

Like thousands in the L.A. metro area, Kurahashi had honed her skills for years in Japanese-American basketball leagues.

She was young when she got started — 4, to be exact. And it was in those early years that she got some of her most important training.

"The league is where I started my basic foundation," she says. "Ball handling, my footwork, jump stop, pivots, my shooting form. The super basic things."

It's a form of training that's led many league players to college basketball teams. Japanese-American leagues even helped launch Natalie Nakase, a former UCLA player who later served as an assistant coach for the NBA’s Los Angeles Clippers.

The JA leagues, as insiders call them, are impressive for their sheer size: One estimate is that some 14,000 Japanese-Americans currently play in Southern California leagues. It's common knowledge that everyone in the local Japanese-American community has some connection to JA leagues — either they've played or they have a friend or family member who's played.

That's true for Kurahashi, whose mom, dad, brother, aunt, cousin, and friends all play (or played) in JA leagues.

Yet for many, JA leagues are more than just an opportunity to play sports.

In fact, the basketball leagues have become a kind of cultural glue holding the local Japanese-American community together.

"Good basketball emphasizes team play," says Chris Komai, a former sports editor for Rafu Shimpo, a Japanese-English newspaper in Los Angeles. "It’s the team over the individual. That is totally a Japanese cultural value," he says.

But Komai says it's served an even deeper function. Basketball has helped preserve Japanese culture in America.

Komai's (front row, second from the left) league championship team. Courtesy of Chris Komai.

"My contemporaries wanted their kids to interact with Japanese-American kids, and this was one of the last opportunities to do that," Komai says.

That's been the case for Kurahashi. She says that by playing in JA leagues, she's gotten to meet many other Japanese-Americans.

"You meet people you get to be friends with forever," she says.

But basketball hasn't always served this role for Japanese-Americans.

This tradition is a reverberation from one of America's bleakest moments: the imprisonment of more than 100,000 Japanese-American adults and children in response to the bombing of Pearl Harbor.

When Japanese-Americans were denied their civil liberties and forced to live behind barbed-wire fences, sports helped bring the community together.

Japanese-Americans play volleyball in an internment camp in California. Photo by Ansel Adams/Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division/Wikimedia Commons.

Kids and adults played Western sports like baseball, football, and basketball and also Japanese martial arts like judo. These sports were at once an emotional escape from imprisonment and a way to bond.

After the war ended and the camps were closed, that legacy continued, and Japanese-Americans began building the local sports leagues that continue today.

In basketball, these included clubs like the South Bay Friends of Richard, the Nisei Athletic Union, and — crucial for women athletes like Bailey Kurahashi — the Japanese American Optimist Club.

This club, also known as the JAO, has grown into the largest basketball league for Japanese-American youth in the Los Angeles area. More than a thousand girls currently play in JAO-organized games, according to Leland Lau, the organization's commissioner.

Girls as young as kindergartners can play in JAO games. Teams are grouped by age, and the leagues run year-round — all of which provides girls like Kurahashi years to practice the sport.

And with so many ages playing ball, the sport has become a regular dinner-table conversation in Kurahashi's house.

Kurahashi (bottom right) with her family. Photo courtesy of Bailey Kurahashi.

"That's all we really talk about," she says.

It's the experience of so many Japanese-Americans: Basketball isn't just a game but a cultural tradition that honors a shared history of pain and, ultimately, triumph over persecution.

For decades, Japanese-Americans were excluded from mainstream U.S. life — including from sports. And so they banded together. They formed their own leagues. They played ball.

Yet through the years, as the bigotry began to wane and Japanese-Americans gained more acceptance, the old tradition persisted. It didn't dissolve into the American melting pot because it helps Japanese-Americans feel connected to each other as well as to their heritage.

For Kurahashi, thinking back on her time in the JA leagues and all the friends she made, that's pretty powerful.

“It's a sense of togetherness. It makes you comfortable,” she says. “It's a place where we're all the same, it's a place where we can all connect.”

This story was produced as part of a campaign called "17 Days" with DICK'S Sporting Goods. These stories aim to shine a light on real occurrences of sports bringing people together.

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When Sue Hoppin was in college, she met the man she was going to marry. "I was attending the University of Denver, and he was at the Air Force Academy," she says. "My dad had also attended the University of Denver and warned me not to date those flyboys from the Springs."

"He didn't say anything about marrying one of them," she says. And so began her life as a military spouse.

The life brings some real advantages, like opportunities to live abroad — her family got to live all around the US, Japan, and Germany — but it also comes with some downsides, like having to put your spouse's career over your own goals.

"Though we choose to marry someone in the military, we had career goals before we got married, and those didn't just disappear."

Career aspirations become more difficult to achieve, and progress comes with lots of starts and stops. After experiencing these unique challenges firsthand, Sue founded an organization to help other military spouses in similar situations.

Sue had gotten a degree in international relations because she wanted to pursue a career in diplomacy, but for fourteen years she wasn't able to make any headway — not until they moved back to the DC area. "Eighteen months later, many rejections later, it became apparent that this was going to be more challenging than I could ever imagine," she says.

Eighteen months is halfway through a typical assignment, and by then, most spouses are looking for their next assignment. "If I couldn't find a job in my own 'hometown' with multiple degrees and a great network, this didn't bode well for other military spouses," she says.

She's not wrong. Military spouses spend most of their lives moving with their partners, which means they're often far from family and other support networks. When they do find a job, they often make less than their civilian counterparts — and they're more likely to experience underemployment or unemployment. In fact, on some deployments, spouses are not even allowed to work.

Before the pandemic, military spouse unemployment was 22%. Since the pandemic, it's expected to rise to 35%.

Sue eventually found a job working at a military-focused nonprofit, and it helped her get the experience she needed to create her own dedicated military spouse program. She wrote a book and started saving up enough money to start the National Military Spouse Network (NMSN), which she founded in 2010 as the first organization of its kind.

"I founded the NMSN to help professional military spouses develop flexible careers they could perform from any location."

"Over the years, the program has expanded to include a free digital magazine, professional development events, drafting annual White Papers and organizing national and local advocacy to address the issues of most concern to the professional military spouse community," she says.

Not only was NMSN's mission important to Sue on a personal level she also saw it as part of something bigger than herself.

"Gone are the days when families can thrive on one salary. Like everyone else, most military families rely on two salaries to make ends meet. If a military spouse wants or needs to work, they should be able to," she says.

"When less than one percent of our population serves in the military," she continues, "we need to be able to not only recruit the best and the brightest but also retain them."

"We lose out as a nation when service members leave the force because their spouse is unable to find employment. We see it as a national security issue."

"The NMSN team has worked tirelessly to jumpstart the discussion and keep the challenges affecting military spouses top of mind. We have elevated the conversation to Congress and the White House," she continues. "I'm so proud of the fact that corporations, the government, and the general public are increasingly interested in the issues affecting military spouses and recognizing the employment roadblocks they unfairly have faced."

"We have collectively made other people care, and in doing so, we elevated the issues of military spouse unemployment to a national and global level," she adds. "In the process, we've also empowered military spouses to advocate for themselves and our community so that military spouse employment issues can continue to remain at the forefront."

Not only has NMSN become a sought-after leader in the military spouse employment space, but Sue has also seen the career she dreamed of materializing for herself. She was recently invited to participate in the public re-launch of Joining Forces, a White House initiative supporting military and veteran families, with First Lady Dr. Jill Biden.

She has also had two of her recommendations for practical solutions introduced into legislation just this year. She was the first in the Air Force community to show leadership the power of social media to reach both their airmen and their military families.

That is why Sue is one of Tory Burch's "Empowered Women" this year. The $5,000 donation will be going to The Madeira School, a school that Sue herself attended when she was in high school because, she says, "the lessons I learned there as a student pretty much set the tone for my personal and professional life. It's so meaningful to know that the donation will go towards making a Madeira education more accessible to those who may not otherwise be able to afford it and providing them with a life-changing opportunity."

Most military children will move one to three times during high school so having a continuous four-year experience at one high school can be an important gift. After traveling for much of her formative years, Sue attended Madeira and found herself "in an environment that fostered confidence and empowerment. As young women, we were expected to have a voice and advocate not just for ourselves, but for those around us."

To learn more about Tory Burch and Upworthy's Empowered Women program visit https://www.toryburch.com/empoweredwomen/. Nominate an inspiring woman in your community today!

This article originally appeared on 12.02.19


Just imagine being an 11-year-old boy who's been shuffled through the foster care system. No forever home. No forever family. No idea where you'll be living or who will take care of you in the near future.

Then, a loving couple takes you under their care and chooses to love you forever.

What could one be more thankful for?

That's why when a fifth grader at Deerfield Elementary School in Cedar Hills, Utah was asked by his substitute teacher what he's thankful for this Thanksgiving, he said finally being adopted by his two dads.

via OD Action / Twitter

To the child's shock, the teacher replied, "that's nothing to be thankful for," and then went on a rant in front of 30 students saying that "two men living together is a sin" and "homosexuality is wrong."

While the boy sat there embarrassed, three girls in the class stood up for him by walking out of the room to tell the principal. Shortly after, the substitute was then escorted out of the building.

While on her way out she scolded the boy, saying it was his fault she was removed.

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One of the boy's parents-to-be is Louis van Amstel, is a former dancer on ABC's "Dancing with the Stars." "It's absolutely ridiculous and horrible what she did," he told The Salt Lake Tribune. "We were livid. It's 2019 and this is a public school."

The boy told his parents-to-be he didn't speak up in the classroom because their final adoption hearing is December 19 and he didn't want to do anything that would interfere.

He had already been through two failed adoptions and didn't want it to happen again.

via Loren Javier / Flickr

A spokesperson for the Alpine School District didn't go into detail about the situation but praised the students who spoke out.

"Fellow students saw a need, and they were able to offer support," David Stephenson said. "It's awesome what happened as far as those girls coming forward."

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He also said that "appropriate action has been taken" with the substitute teacher.

"We are concerned about any reports of inappropriate behavior and take these matters very seriously," Kelly Services, the school the contracts out substitute teachers for the district, said in a statement. "We conduct business based on the highest standards of integrity, quality, and professional excellence. We're looking into this situation."

After the incident made the news, the soon-to-be adoptive parents' home was covered in paper hearts that said, "We love you" and "We support you."

Religion is supposed to make us better people.

But what have here is clearly a situation where a woman's judgement about what is good and right was clouded by bigoted dogma. She was more bothered by the idea of two men loving each other than the act of pure love they committed when choosing to adopt a child.