Sports, Community, and History: Reflections on Recording the Japanese American Experience in Chicago By Alec Yoshio MacDonald

Outside, the bone-chilling February winds are blowing fiercely off of Lake Michigan, but inside, the buzz of the crowd seems to provide as much insulation as the sturdy brick walls of the old gymnasium. The spectators draw their energy from the teams’ frenzied movements down on the basketball court, as the players in turn feed off of the cheers from the stands and pick up their intensity. Due to the heated atmosphere of the game, everyone forgets the icy Chicago winter for the moment. Virtually no one in attendance was born in a place where they had to endure such a harsh climate, so the diversion from the inhospitable weather is welcomed all the more. The squeak of sneaker soles, the thump of the old leather ball, and the occasional swish of a made basket create a sense of revitalization, pushing back the mundane concerns that everyone must face tomorrow, after the weekend is over…

This is one image I have of the Chicago Nisei Athletic Association, a collection of sports leagues formed in 1946 by Japanese Americans who, after leaving World War II internment camps, resettled in Chicago. My various impressions of the CNAA come from reading about it, perusing its archival photos, and – most notably – talking to its former members. In total, I recorded conversations with ten individuals who had been involved during the organization’s first decade. Those interviews now constitute the basis of an on-line multimedia gallery entitled “Japanese American Team Spirit: The Chicago Nisei Athletic Association” that is being hosted by the Chicago Japanese American Historical Society. At the request of the CJAHS, I am offering this brief article to explain how and why the gallery came together.

First inspired by a CJAHS photo exhibition on the CNAA, I set out to learn more about it from the original players. Obtaining interviews presented a bit of a challenge, as many of the folks who had participated in those early years have either passed away or returned to the places they lived before the war. The people whom I did get into contact with, however, were very accommodating, and provided me with a wealth of intriguing and exciting information. These older men and women graciously let me into their homes to share a glimpse of their past, allowing me the pleasure to sit down with them and delve into the history of the Japanese American community.

They told me of journeys that started in childhood out west, moved through assembly centers and internment camps during the war, and eventually led along circuitous paths to the Windy City. Here in Chicago, they made new homes for themselves in a completely different environment than that which they knew previously, settling into what residences were available, reentering school or finding work, and developing routines to live by. And as young people, they naturally sought out a little fun and recreation as well. It was the CNAA which helped fulfill this need, furnishing a space where they could meet others with similar backgrounds and keep physically active in spirited competition.

I mainly asked about basketball, since it had been the CNAA’s hallmark sport from the beginning. The interviewees told me what they could remember about their playing days – which teams they were on, how the leagues were structured, who the sponsors were, when and where games were scheduled, and so forth. They spoke of winter Sundays at the Olivet Institute on the north side of town, where droves of Nisei gathered to watch boys’ teams (such as the Broncos and the Collegians) or girls’ teams (like the Debonaires or the Silhouettes) match up on the hardwood. They talked about meeting with friends at league dance parties on nights before games, and hanging out at the soda fountain after a lengthy slate of action wrapped up on game days. And they went on to describe how CNAA squads on occasion traveled to tournaments across the country in search of fresh opposition (although one of the most intriguing non-league contests occurred within city limits, as the CNAA’s Huskies had the chance to square off at the old Chicago Stadium against the semi-pro Stags – the precursor to today’s NBA Bulls franchise!).

The interviewees didn’t recollect every single solitary detail from those far-off days, but they all displayed an air of fond nostalgia that communicated volumes. It’s easy to fathom not only how the CNAA brought plenty of personal enjoyment to its individual members, but also how it produced a broader feeling of kinship within the Japanese American community. Following an internment experience that told these folks to be ashamed of their collective ethnic heritage, it seems like the CNAA filled in to try and reconstruct the foundations of Nikkei group identity. I will say that, from what the interviewees said, it sounds like the organization did little to dissolve the subtle barrier between Issei and Nisei that had formed during camp; however, the leagues certainly created a solid social network that greatly benefited the younger generation. Within this network, Nisei were able to find friendships and a sense of belonging that gave them the stability and strength necessary to thrive in what was unfamiliar and intimidating territory. Beyond the years spent adjusting to relocation, though, the bonds they forged then would last a lifetime (and in fact, some participants even met their future spouses through the leagues). I have to believe that the CNAA played an important role in keeping the community intact, helping prevent it from falling apart after the devastating effects of internment had shaken it to its core.

Healing and rebuilding, I think, are the aspects of the CNAA’s legacy that reveal why the organization deserves attention and recognition. Studies of Japanese American history tend to revolve around interment, and while that terrible event must not be forgotten, neither must the memories of how people found ways to recover from it. Those memories contain more than treasured moments from the past, but also lessons about how we progress into the future, showing us the effort, teamwork, and spirit required to keep a community alive.

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