The Fellows: Alec MacDonald

Back in the Game

In the fall of 2009, a pair of historic Japanese American newspapers bit the dust. Between them, the Hokubei Mainichi and the Nichi Bei Times had piled up more than a century’s worth of reporting out of San Francisco’s Japantown, but the two bilingual publications had begun struggling to remain economically viable, and the Great Recession struck a death blow to both. The twin closings drew scant attention from the wider world, but they reverberated ominously across the landscape of Asian American media.

At least that’s how it felt to me — but as a Nichi Bei Times employee, I was obviously biased. It’s jarring to walk into work one day and find out the whole place is shutting down; you tend to carry that with you, and try to read some larger significance into the experience. My interpretation was that nobody cared much about what we were doing, that few people had interest in the stories we were telling.

Those stories explored just about every facet of Japanese American life, and much more. Sports received keen attention, and that’s where I focused mine after joining the newspaper as a contributor in 2006. My initial assignment was to track college basketball players, scouring the Internet for evidence that a JA kid had got in a little run somewhere. I compiled the results into a column with the cheesy title “Fast Breaks.” Here’s an excerpt from the first one:

Loyola Marymount 61, Long Beach State 38 (Nov. 21)

The young 49ers’ shooting woes continued as they dropped their fifth straight in what has so far been a winless season. Starting in her second consecutive game, freshman guard Lisa Takata was unable to convert on any of her four shots, and made it into the final box score with just one rebound in twenty minutes of action.

Eventually, I began attending live games and talking to players and coaches. I profiled Lindsey Yamasaki, a former two-sport star at Stanford who bounced around the WNBA for a while, and covered the retirements of Gene Nakamura and Doug Kagawa, a couple of well-respected high school hoops coaches in the East Bay. My reporting expanded to other topics, and I started coming in to the newsroom part-time to handle editing and production, but I always stayed on the lookout for sports stories. Pursuing those gave me the chance to interview major leaguers Kurt Suzuki, Dave Roberts, and Hideki Matsui, and to meet the late Wally Yonamine, the first-ever professional football player of Asian ancestry, who debuted at running back for the San Francisco 49ers in 1947 before moving on to a wildly successful baseball career in Japan.

These kinds of opportunities didn’t vanish completely when the Times shut down, because one of the editors spun off a ramshackle English edition, cobbling it together with the maniacal abandon of someone with nothing left to lose. I stuck with that guerilla operation for another year and a half, initially on a volunteer basis, cranking out pages in spare rooms and basements around Japantown, and occasionally venturing out to do some reporting. The reborn newspaper gradually clawed itself up from desperate depths (and continues to publish today as the Nichi Bei Weekly), but I grew weary and frustrated, and decided to bounce. Humping a side gig for pocket change doesn’t seem worth it unless you’re having an awesome time and believe that someone appreciates the effort.

Yet in the years since then, I’ve begun to loosen my grip on that dour attitude. You won’t accomplish much making gloomy pronouncements and whining that no one’s listening. Better to put in some work and try to enjoy that for itself. That’s why I’m here at Dat Winning: to tell some sports stories and have a little fun. And if a handful of people take interest in those stories, I’ll be glad, but I’m not going to over-interpret the significance if they don’t. I just hope to connect to something good again.


Alec MacDonald is a writer and editor who lives in Oakland, California.

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