By MIKEY HIRANO CULROSS
Rafu Sports Editor
BELL.–For whatever reason, the celebration of a sports team’s homecoming has never taken lasting hold outside of football. Sure, there are relatively few games in a football season, and matches on the road are outdoors in enemy territory, waging battle with the elements as well as mortal opponents.
Last week, however, as sincere a homecoming as there ever was took place at Bell High School, and it was the visiting basketball team that garnered the focus and affection.
The Dec. 19 girls’ matchup between Bell and the visiting Saxons of North Torrance was notable not for the contest on the court – it wasn’t much of a contest, really, a 59-19 rout of the home team – but in large part, for the court itself, and the family whose special bond with Bell will live on for generations.
For much of the game, North’s coach, Lauren Kamiyama, took her customary squatting position in front of her team’s bench. In this particular case, she was just a few feet from the name stenciled onto the Bell gymnasium floor – that of her mother, the late Sue Kamiyama.
Sue Kamiyama served as athletic director, coach and perhaps above all, teacher at Bell for more than 30 years, until her untimely death from cancer in 2004. She was only 54 years old, but her inspiration has had a much longer reach.
The gymnasium was remodeled beginning in 2008, and now, both the sports complex and the basketball court bear her name.
Arriving at last Friday night’s game against North, the entire Kamiyama family, who had spent countless hours over the years at Bell playing sports, taking part in campus activities and lending a hand to many of Sue’s projects, returned. Upon their arrival at the gym, they were greeted by large signs outside and in, reading simply, “Welcome home.”
Sue’s husband, Ed, teaches at Gardena High and coaches the Junior Varsity girls at North. He said he hadn’t tipped off his players before the game at Bell.
“We showed up and they saw the name ‘Kamiyama’ all over the place, and didn’t know what was going on,” he said. “I didn’t tell them until we got there, and the JV kids were bumping into each other, trying to figure out why our name was on the walls. They couldn’t believe that was their coach’s wife and Coach Lauren’s mom. It was a real eye-opener.”
He added that many of the Bell parents hadn’t known much about Sue, and after the game expressed what a great honor it was. One former Bell student, Lorena Esparza, couldn’t contain the emotion and was in tears for much of the evening.
“Lorena played volleyball for Sue and softball for me,” Ed explained. “She graduated in the mid-’80s and this was the first time she’d been back to the gym. She was like another daughter to us — they all were.”
Ed’s son, Darin, serves as Lauren’s assist coach for the Varsity girls. The younger son, Stephen, also attended the game with his wife, Lori.
Bell assistant principal Rolf Janssen said the Kamiyamas’ connections to the school are those of family.
“We saw the kids growing up here,” Janssen explained. “They played Japanese league basketball here, they continue to come back for important events, like the awarding of the Sue Kamiyama Scholarship we give to a senior every year, and this being the 10th year since Sue’s passing, we felt it was a great opportunity to do something special.”
A brief ceremony was held prior the game to recognize the Kamiyama family, but it was a simple gesture by the host team that may have been the most poignant. Just before pre-game warm-ups, Bell’s players and coaches gathered their equipment and belongings and vacated the home team bench, allowing Lauren and her North High girls to sit on the home team side. It was an almost unnoticed move that spoke volumes.
Lauren said despite doing her level best as coach to keep her focus on the game at hand, she had been anxious the week leading up to the big night.
“I feel a little pressure to live up to those expectations,” she admitted. “It was kind of crazy, and I was just hoping I wouldn’t cry.”
She then quickly turned the spotlight of the conversation onto her team. It’s a solid squad, despite being relatively young – three seniors, two juniors, seven sophomores and one hot-shooting freshman. They are 9-0 this young season and played last weekend at the West Coast Jamboree tournament near Sacramento, where they reached the final.
The Dec. 19 game was a runaway, and the score will quickly fade into obscurity. The emotions and community embrace for the Kamiyamas are something that will be felt far longer.
Darin Kamiyama put it succinctly: “This is where we came from. This is our home.”