By JORDAN IKEDA
A simple word that elicits myriad emotions and reactions and thoughts that transcend race, culture, and beliefs. How we define ours speaks volumes.
For me, family is my wife and daughter. My mom, may she rest in peace. My dad and his wife. My sister and bro-in-laws and nieces and nephews. My grandma and aunties and uncles and first and second and third cousins.
Family can certainly be challenging. At times impossibly so. They represent the absolute best and at times worst of me. Bound by DNA, we share experiences in victory and loss with love and anger, during surplus and times of need.
The pandemic and lockdown provided an unwanted glimpse of life without family. Zoom calls helped, but nothing can substitute in-person interaction.
So one of the first things my wife, daughter and I did (when it was safe to do so) was visit family.
My Arizona cousins.
We rented a car and drove out to Gilbert in the middle of July to visit my cousins Mark and Scott so our families could spend time, eat yum food, swim, laugh. Just hang out.
And we did. And it was glorious. Tacos and tacos and tacos and kiddos playing and sleepovers and walks in the park and playing in the monsoon rain. It’s become a semi-tradition to get out to Arizona. Though, it wasn’t always this way.
Scott’s birthday is July 19. Mine is the 21st. And Mark’s is the 24th. But they are 10 and 13 years my senior and technically are my dad’s cousins.
The age gap has closed considerably as we’ve grown old, but when I was in elementary school and they in college, that gap was canyon-esque. Especially as I was born and raised in the San Fernando Valley and they some 400 miles away in the Salt River Valley. I knew about them, but rarely saw them. And we definitely didn’t hang out.
That all changed when Mark invited me to play with him and Scott and their team in the Las Vegas Invitational Basketball Tournament.
I grew up playing hoops my whole life – shout-out to the San Fernando Shoguns and the Samurai. From kindergarten through my senior year of high school, we played in all the tournaments – Tigers and FOR and OCO and CBO and Evergreen and on and on. We even traveled up to tourneys in San Francisco.
But Las Vegas is just different.
Mark welcomed me on his team, Aye Bronze Forever, a team made up of guys he’d been playing with for years. A team that needed an infusion of youth as they’d plateaued in the Bronze division.
Shout-out to Brian Yee and Ryan Yamauchi and their shaved heads and strong play over the years. Shout-out to the Terajis– coming with the entire family to always fill the stands at our games. Shout-out to Steve, Terry and Brian, the latter of whom went on to become a distinguished Golden Arm recipient at the Cal.
I was only 18 that first year, and my older cousins took care of me. Mark paid my entry fee (something he’s done every year since) and paid for me at the Main Street Buffet. My cousin Scott gave up the 21-and-older Vegas experience to chaperone a teenager and ride the rollercoaster at Sahara.
I did my best to pay them back by being somewhat decent on the court. We actually won our division that year. The only year I’ve ever won all three games at the tourney.
That was over two decades ago – and since then, my relationship with Mark and Scott has grown into a brotherhood. I attended their weddings, have gotten to know their amazing wives, watched their kids grow up, and made it a point to spend time together.
None of that would have ever happened without the Las Vegas Invitational.
Founded back in 1993 by Gerald Morita and his nonprofit org Hoops for Friends, the tournament grew to include 200+ teams with over 2,000 players from California, Arizona, Utah, and Hawaii. It became so in demand, there was a long wait list of teams champing at the bit to get in.
“It’s about family and friends getting together and having a good time,” Gerald told me. “Basketball is just secondary.”
Those words ring so true as I think of all the people I’ve played with and gambled with and clubbed with and built memories with (some of them hazy) – shout-out to the MU Strokers and Bobby and Bryce and Byron and Manny. Shout-out to the Parlayers, Ron and Eric, Chris and Ev. Shout-out to Dennis and Dan and The Rafu’s own Mickey and every dude I ever checked in a game whether sober or hung-over. Shout-out to all the dudes I played with. Shout-out to my dad for always coming out and supporting me, even when I played like trash. Shout-out to my cousin-in-law Joy (who met Mark at the tournament) for always supporting us and for ushering in the next generation of ballers to the team.
The tournament has meant so much to me.
So, it was truly a blow when the pandemic took it all away. Especially as I had taken it for granted.
No one knew if it would ever come back.
“I thought we were done after we called it off after 2019,” Jolene Morita told me. Jolene is Gerald’s better half and partner in putting on the tournament. “We had a really great run. We didn’t know if we were going to come back. It was a sense of a job well done, but time to move on.”
“My friend told me I couldn’t go out like that,” Gerald explained. “He said I should go out on my own terms.”
“We kind of differed in our opinions,” Jolene said. “I will always support his decision. I’m sure he took mine into account. In the end, this is his baby. Whatever he wanted to do, I was willing to go ahead.”
Thankfully for the thousands of us who love the tournament, Gerald wanted to run it back. The easy part was getting his longtime committee, his crew, back on board.
Along with Gerald and Jolene, the committee is made up of Janice Jinkawa, a staple in the JA hoops community, Frank Nishimura, Dave Kasai, Robin Kobata, and Brad Onomura, who with his sister Sandy runs the North/South Tournament. Jolene’s brother Randall Fujimoto handles the website and her sister’s husband’s cousin Brennan Ishida does the T-shirt designs.
Together, like Voltron, the group comes together under the umbrella of Hoops for Friends to put on the tournament.
“We are all friends at a different kind of level,” Brad told me. “Everybody enjoys being a part of it still, contributing in whatever way we can. If Gerald asked for something, we don’t even bat an eyelash. We leave the final decisions to him and Jolene.”
“It’s our one time of year that we really let loose,” Frank, who handles the rosters, told me. “We do have a great time with everyone in our organization. We all get along well.”
“It’s a lot of work for Gerald and Jolene,” Frank added. “People don’t realize there’s a lot that has to be taken care of.”
Like securing a host hotel, for example. For the entirety of the tournament, Hoops for Friends has partnered with the California Hotel in Downtown Las Vegas, a connection inherited from Gerald’s father.
“The Cal treated me very well for a long time,” Gerald told me. “They used to donate $50k. Used to give 100 free rooms. Used to feed my referees before the tournament started. They comped my committee dinner at the end of the tournament. Let us store our supplies year-round.”
But this year, under new management and hit hard by the pandemic themselves, the Cal decided to go in another direction. With a huge portion of the funding cut off, a myriad of hard decisions and cuts had to be made in order for the tournament to come back. The referees and scorekeepers had to pay for their own rooms this year, unlike any year before. The All-Star and MVP selections were nixed. As was the program.
Despite that semi-massive setback, Gerald was able to secure the Orleans Hotel as well as 25 gyms across Las Vegas and Henderson this year. Scorekeepers and referees and players all wanted in. The tournament’s comeback was by all accounts a resounding success. And while some things were different, the general feel, the purpose of the tournament lived on.
“After the two-year hiatus, it was nice to hear people tell us they had a great time,” Dave told me. “It makes it all worthwhile. You just appreciate the times you get together when it’s not a funeral. It’s nice to see everyone. Seeing people I haven’t seen in a while. This year, it hit me seeing a lot of kids playing with their parents. That is super cool.”
“A lot of people that go don’t even play basketball,” Janice told me. “Everyone goes because they know everyone is going to be there. Plus, it’s Vegas.”
Still, one of the founding purposes of the tournament took a hit – its charitable donations.
“I’d really like to be able to give something back,” Jolene said. “Because that was the whole purpose.”
All proceeds from the tournament go to a variety of charities. Some local Japanese American orgs like the Gardena Valley Japanese Cultural Institute, the Little Tokyo Service Center, Sansei Baseball, and the Yonsei Basketball Association. Other charities include the American Cancer Society, American Heart Association, and the Alzheimer’s Association.
But, if the tournament only breaks even, those organizations miss out.
Which brings me back to friends and family and not taking things for granted. I want to show my appreciation for a tournament and subsequently the people who have worked behind the scenes to make it happen for 28 years.
I was going to retire this past year. My body doesn’t work the same way. I can’t do the same things on the court and I hadn’t played hoops since 2019. I was worried about injury and embarrassment.
But I went to see Mark. So our families could hang out.
I went because, deep down, I really wanted to go.
As Mark did retire, I’m now the old guy on the team. Funny how time works. Shout-out to Dylan, Mitchell, Jason, Daniel, Riley, and Brendan! These young guns let this guy (who is old enough to be their father) play with them.
And shout-out to Hoops for Friends!
Because of the tournament, I was introduced to Las Vegas. Gained community and friends. Spent time with family. Played a lot of hoops. Had a helluva good time (save some of those Sunday drives back home to L.A.). Made memories and had experiences I will cherish for the rest of my life.
And, most importantly, I’ve gained two older brothers in Mark and Scott, whom I love, respect, and look up to.
Thank you. Glad you are back.
And yeah, I’m looking forward to next year.
For those like me, who’d like to not take things for granted anymore, who want a tangible way to give back, consider donating to Hoops for Friends at http://LVIhoops.org. One of the easiest ways is to sign up for Amazon Smile, which automatically donates a percentage of your purchases towards your chosen charity.