Time to Let a Spark Fly

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With her year on the 2010 Nisei Week Court finished, Jamie Hagiya’s focus is now on the ultimate basketball goal: earning a position on the Los Angeles Sparks of the WNBA. Above, Hagiya pauses on First Street in Little Tokyo, after last Sunday’s Nisei Week closing ceremonies. (MIKEY HIRANO CULROSS/Rafu Shimpo)

By MIKEY HIRANO CULROSS
Rafu Sports Editor

With cheers and a spray of sparkling apple cider, Jamie Hagiya’s year as a member of the Nisei Week Court officially drew to a close last Sunday. Plenty of hugs and a few tears were delivered, and when ceremonies marking the end of Nisei Week were finished, the now-former Miss Tomodachi was already talking about her next goal.

And it’s a goal nothing short of the top.

Next Tuesday, Aug. 30, Hagiya will conduct a youth basketball skills camp at Staples Centers, before the L.A. Sparks’ game against the Seattle Storm that evening. With a coaching staff that will include Joe “Jelly Bean” Bryant, the clinic will be part of the Asian Basketball Night the Sparks are hosting.

Holding a camp is hardly a novelty for Hagiya, who organizes them regularly, at locations across the country. The one at Staples, however, will serve an added purpose, to help gauge the support of a player from the Japanese American community, with an eye on making a Women’s National Basketball Association  roster.

The time for a player – a local player who grew up in the local leagues learning the fundamentals being taught every weekend to thousands of kids for most of the last century – to have her shot at the highest level of women’s basketball in this country has come.

At this point in time, Jamie Hagiya is that player.

For the last several months, Hagiya, the South High School grad who went on to etch her name in the record books at USC, has been training intensely for the biggest challenge of her basketball life. She plans to attend the Sparks’ open tryout next year.

Hagiya is a pure archetype of the Japanese American player, compensating for lack of height with a rock-solid foundation of fundamental skills that any and all teams need. Beginning at age 4, her parents signed her up for leagues that included F.O.R. and OCO. She traveled to Japan with the Yonsei program. Before graduating from South in 2003, she had amassed more than 1,000 points, lettered all four years and led the Spartans to three consecutive Ocean League titles.

As a member of the Women of Troy, she starred at point guard, helping her team reach the NCAA tournament twice and becoming second all-time at USC in three-point field goals and fourth all-time in assists.

At 5-foot-4, however, Hagiya was overlooked post-college, as WNBA teams sought height as an important factor in draftees. Her skills didn’t go unrecognized however, and she signed on for two years with a professional team in Greece, and part of another with a squad in Spain.

Hagiya scored 12 points in USC’s victory over Washington on Jan. 28, 2007. Before leaving the Women of Troy, Hagiya had become second all-time at USC in three-point field goals and fourth all-time in assists. (JUN NAGATA/Rafu Shimpo)

The prospect of actually earning a spot on the Sparks is one that Hagiya realizes is bigger than herself, one that would be a validation for the philosophy that has been at the center of JA basketball for decades.

“Seeing someone from our community on the WNBA stage would be huge, that’s why this is not only about me,” she said Monday. “One of the things that really helped me out when I was playing in high school was when I saw Natalie [Nakase of UCLA] play. When I saw her, I thought, ‘Okay, that’s something I can do.’ If I’m able to make the Sparks, hopefully kids will see me and know that they have a chance to do what they want to do, however high their goals.

“If I don’t make it, maybe this will set the stage for someone else from our community to get there, and that would be great,” she said.

It is simply a matter of time until a player – male or female – from the local leagues appears on the professional stage in the U.S. There have been vast resources of under-explored talent that has been developed through these organizations that has begun to garner more attention at the college level over the past few years. Prime examples of these solid players are Sara Yee, the Troy star who went on to play at Columbia, and Lauren Kamiyama, the brilliantly gritty point guard who essentially rewrote the record books at Chapman University.

“That’s the fun thing about playing with someone like that,” Hagiya said. “They are so aware of the court and they know you’re out there, even if she’s not looking at you.”

Hagiya would not be the first Japanese American player in the WNBA; that distinction belongs to Lindsey Yamasaki, the 6-2 Stanford grad who debuted with the now-defunct Miami Sol in 2002. It is Hagiya’s local pedigree and intimate ties to the SoCal community that would make her a legend as a member of the Sparks.

It is within the fundamentally sound game where Hagiya’s best chance lies to make the Sparks. At the college level, women’s basketball doesn’t attempt to compete with the men’s game. It can’t. Nonetheless, the stands fill with spectators to see the women play, because they know the game will be played as it should be.
The WNBA has at times struggled with its focus from a marketing standpoint. While attempting to compare its game to the men’s product is ill-advised, the demands of a professional organization are different from those of a college team.

For one thing, built-in school loyalty doesn’t exist at the pro level. The current Los Angeles Dodgers, with their proud history are a prime example of how fans will vaporize into the ether if the team is lousy. Play in the WNBA has to be exciting, in order to attract a fan base that has become accustomed to the norms of basketball, as developed by the most prominent form of the game.

Quite possibly the most celebrated moment in the history of the WNBA came in 2002, when the Sparks’ Lisa Leslie, one of the finest basketball players ever to pick up a ball – male or female – dunked during a game. There was a sense that the girls had reached parity with the boys, that the league’s first slogan, “We Got Next” had come to be realized.

The current Sparks feature Candace Parker, who many feel could hold her own on a men’s team. However, the essential question remains as to whether the WNBA needs to aim for emulating the way their male counterparts play the game.

“True basketball fans, those who know the game, love the WNBA, because it’s so based in fundamentals, the passing, the backdoors, the recognition of the offense,” Hagiya said. “Obviously, it can’t compare to the dunks and flying high in the air and alley-oops like in the men’s game. Dunking in the women’s game is exciting, but for the real fans, it’s about appreciating the finer points of the game.”

And it’s the finer points that Hagiya is tuning up, currently working out once, sometimes twice a day. She has teamed up with Charlie Torres of Strike First Development to build strength, has changed her diet to maximize energy and is as much a student of the game as she ever was.

To make it in the WNBA, though, she will simply have to score more than she did at USC, where her primary duties were setting up other players for baskets as well as defense. She flashed the retooled offensive portion of her game at the recent Play For Japan charity event, hitting a three-point shot with 11 seconds remaining on the clock and at least one former NBA player in her face.

Obtaining a spot on a WNBA team has another difference from NBA norms. Lacking the huge budgets of the men, the women’s teams usually only carry 11 players, meaning any player who is injured or otherwise unavailable for an extended period of time will likely be cut, to make way for someone in top condition.

Hagiya said that if she doesn’t make the Sparks, she may attend other teams’ tryouts, including the Chicago Sky, where her best friend and former USC teammate Shay Murphy plays.

Being home, however, would be the best scenario, Hagiya admitted, where the community support is something she felt literally every game while at USC. Her mother, Jan, and grandparents, Joyce and Yas Aochi, attended all her home games and many of the road games. Any given contest regulary found various kids’ Asian leagues teams in attendance as well.

Hagiya coaches young players during a skills camp she held this month at the San Fernando Valley Japanese American Community Center. Teaching kids basketball fundamentals is a primary focus of her life.

Such community support brings up the point that a league such as the WNBA could potentially reap great benefits from featuring a player with strong community ties. For the Japanese American community to have one of their own on the floor at Staples Center would open a valuable untapped market to the team.

The Sparks experienced a rise in interest from the Chinese American community in 1997, when it signed Zheng Haixia, the towering, 6-foot-8 former member of China’s national team. While she lasted barely two seasons with L.A., the “Great Wall” drew fans to witness her brooding presence.

While no professional sports team will ever admit to signing a player because of his or her potential in terms of ticket sales, that strategy is as old as pro sports itself. From a player who stood under 4 feet to Michael Jordan in Major League Baseball, and Georghe Muresan and Manute Bol, whose heights approached 8 feet in the NBA, the unusual tends to put curious butts in seats.

In the same vein, disgraced Olympic athlete Marion Jones was offered a WNBA contract last year by the Tulsa Shock. A former basketball star at North Carolina, Jones lasted just over two months before being released by the team.

“Our general manager’s job is to assemble the best possible players to create the best possible team,” said Diana Imhoff, the Sparks’ vice president in charge of marketing partnerships. “And that is secondary to choosing any particular player for any particular spot on a team.”

Imhoff also explained that for the WNBA, the traditional model of drafting players out of college doesn’t always reveal the best players, which is why teams in the league hold open tryouts.

“With many players going overseas and what not, there can be surprising talent in places we may not have looked,” she said, citing Hagiya as the kind of player that fits such a description.

Imhoff added that celebrating different heritages is an important part of the Sparks’ marketing strategy, and that Asian Basketball Night will provide a good barometer of interest in the Asian American community.

In the case of Hagiya, it’s a safe bet that local interest would be off the charts. At 26, her body can withstand the rigors of playing professionally, and now seems the time to give this dream her best effort.

“After playing overseas, it’s time to make a decision, whether to get a ‘real’ job or give basketball one last shot,” she said. “I’m still young enough to where I can push my body and I love the game, I love to play still. Before I give up playing, I want to be able to walk away knowing that I tried my best at every level.”

In giving her best shot, she will have generations of young players, past and present, pushing right along with her.

Jamie Hagiya will hold her skills camp Tuesday, Aug. 30, at Staples Center from 4:30 to 5:30 p.m., before the Los Angeles Sparks and Seattle Storm game. Kids should wear team jerseys and basketball shoes. Participants can enter via the 11th Street entrance beginning at 4 p.m. Special discounted pricing is available for participating groups, ranging from $7 to $35 per ticket. Visit ticketmaster.com and enter promo code “Jamie,” or call 877-44-SPARKS and mention Asian Basketball Night.

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