By MIKEY HIRANO CULROSS, Rafu Staff Writer
The festivities had ended and a somewhat weary Wat Misaka slowly made his way through the vacated reception lobby toward the escalator. He hadn’t made any speeches or taken part in any strenuous activities, but he knew the value of his presence.
“I didn’t have to say much, but I think it was important just for me to be here. I’m happy I could come,” said Misaka, who in 1947 became the first Asian American to play in the National Basketball Association.
Misaka was one of the sports figures who were celebrated during the Japanese American Museum’s 2014 gala and silent auction fundraiser, held April 12 at the Century Plaza Hotel.
The theme of this year’s installment of the annual event focused on the impact of sports on connecting community, and how those institutions continue to bring generations of Japanese Americans to a common understanding.
“Any time you play a sport, or in a sports organization, it creates a second family,” said Natalie Nakase, a former star guard at UCLA who currently works in production for the Los Angeles Clippers.
Nakase was among the featured athletes on hand for the gala, as she is the first woman to serve as head coach for a men’s major basketball team in Japan. It is widely known that she has a keen desire to reach the same position in the NBA.
Speeches and videos shown during the dinner illustrated how sports have been integral to the experience of Japanese Americans, from the first immigrants who loved sumo and embraced baseball, to how athletics helped to quell the suffering of imprisonment in the wartime internment camps, to the continuing popularity of local youth basketball leagues.
Jamie Hagiya, the record-setting former guard from USC, is herself a product of those local basketball organizations.
“It’s been a link to our past. My grandfather has talked to me quite a lot about sports in the camps,” she said. “Those pastimes were an enormous help in their situation.”
Hagiya, who is currently training to compete on the world-class level in the growing sport of cross fit, took the stage along with Misaka and Nakase to make comments during the evening’s program. Hagiya emphasized the role parents played in encouraging their kids to play, and the support they routinely provided. She also paid tribute to those who have paved the way for athletes like herself, notably the one standing to her left.
“Without pioneers like Wat, Natalie and I wouldn’t be here,” Hagiya said.
Former NFL player Scott Fujita had been scheduled to appear, but unexpected family matters interceded. He sent a message via video, in which he called JANM a connection point for the community.
“The challenge is to bring the larger community into the Japanese American community,” said Fujita, who won a Super Bowl with the New Orleans Saints and — despite being Caucasian — has been a tireless educator about the Japanese American experience. He is the adopted son of a former Gila River internee and the grandson of a veteran of the famed 442nd Regimental Combat Team.
“I’m alway happy to take any opportunity to explain family and the values of the Japanese American community,” Fujita said in his comments.
Several other local sports luminaries were in attendance at the gala hosted by KTLA news anchor Frank Buckley, including former L.A. Dodgers manager Tommy Lasorda, who seemed to spend the bulk of the night chatting and posing for photos with fans.
JANM Vice President of External Relations Cindy Villaseñor said the mission of the museum is being expanded to include communities outside of those of Japanese heritage.
“Our goal is to be more relevant and reach out, not just to be about World War II,” she said.
Photos by MARIO G. REYES/Rafu Shimpo