Get with the Program: Hoops and Opportunity For Asian Americans

Sansei-Yonsei Athletic Association is a basketball clinic based on the North Side of Chicago. Run inside the gymnasium of a Methodist church, it serves just a few dozen elementary and middle school kids for a couple late winter months. The clinic’s name indicates its Japanese American foundation and honors its predecessor, the Chicago Nisei Athletic Association, which launched in the 1940s to offer myriad recreational opportunities for the droves of young people migrating in from World War II internment camps. SYAA’s vastly smaller scope reflects how the local community has thinned out drastically since then, but the clinic still retains a sense of Japanese American identity, a hint of culture for its participants to connect with as they learn basketball fundamentals.

I volunteered for SYAA ten years ago, leading uncoordinated little kids through various shooting, passing, and dribbling drills on Saturdays. I was recruited into the clinic by Brandon Mita, a student activist at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Although he gravitated more to soccer and judo than basketball, Brandon came up through SYAA, and he felt an obligation to help keep it alive and well.

A similar impulse motivated Brandon to organize at UIC, where his campus group coordinated protests about the school’s lack of courses in Asian American studies. With Asian Americans making up 25 percent of the undergraduate population, this deficiency felt particularly glaring. Thanks in part to the early groundwork laid by Brandon and his collaborators, UIC eventually implemented a program in which students could earn a minor in the discipline.

Brandon eventually went on to earn a law degree from Howard University, and now works for a prominent firm in the Washington, D.C. area. Living on opposite coasts, we rarely see each other anymore, but he had business in San Francisco earlier this month, so we met up in Japantown for lunch. He shared updates on various community institutions back in Chicago, including SYAA, which is doing well, and UIC’s Asian American studies program, which is not.

Two days later, he sent me an e-mail with more details about the problems at UIC, where administrators have decided to cancel a hiring search that could bring in more Asian American studies faculty. Apparently, ongoing budget difficulties prompted university officials to reconsider investing in academic areas that they believe generate negligible student interest. In response to this situation, Brandon wrote me, “I really care about making sure this program succeeds and am angered that it hasn’t been given the full chance to blossom.”

I’ve reached out to folks at UIC in an attempt to get the latest information and determine what will happen next. The semester’s end has everyone scrambling to wrap up their assorted responsibilities, but I learned that students already held a public demonstration and have been working on a related campaign. For the time being, anyone who wants to find out more and support this campaign should visit the program’s website and refer to the contact page.

By this point, many of the kids who Brandon and I coached a decade ago are contemplating college. Some of them might actually be preparing to enroll this fall, perhaps even at UIC. And, if on those SYAA Saturdays of their childhood, they did manage to forge a connection with something bigger than basketball, then it would be a real shame for them to miss out on the opportunity to more fully explore that connection now. Here’s hoping that UIC does the right thing and grants them that opportunity.


Alec MacDonald is a writer and editor who lives in Oakland, California. Alec is a 2015 Dat Winning fellow.

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