On any given Sunday afternoon in Orange County, you'll find a group of Asian-American women in their 40s, 50s, and 60s gathered on a community basketball court throwing chest passes and launching three-pointers with the best of them.
Basketball has been a part of these women's lives for decades, bringing together community and providing a place for them to prove that the racism and hostility they sometimes faced growing up was not going to hold them back. The team to beat in the '70s and '80s was the Imperials Purple, part of an Asian-American basketball tradition that had its roots in the Manzanar Japanese-American internment camp during World War II. The Imperials were formidable in the '70s and '80s, according to the O.C. Register, winning titles in Japanese American leagues all over California.
Though the Imperials were disbanded years ago, their legacy lives on in many more Asian-American women's teams and leagues that have sprung up in California since. The league that many of the women now play in is a part of the Orange Coast Sports Association. One of the former members of the Imperials, Carol Jue, spoke to me recently about the team, the league, and what young Asian-Americans can learn from them. Jue, now 47, is a college basketball coach at Chapman University and the only Chinese-American head coach for an NCAA team. She still plays every week in her spare time.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
The Imperials had a reunion recently and played a few games. How did that go?
We won the tournament. We ended up beating 20-year-olds, it was really funny. They were saying, 'You could be my mom.' And one of us said, 'I could be your grandma really!' I think they looked at us and they thought, god, look how old they are. They kind of did and they kind of didn’t know what they were dealing with. We’re just that efficient.
You played some basketball in college at California State University, Los Angeles, but when did you originally get involved with the Imperials?
I think in 1987, that’s when I got to the Imperials. You know at the time you don't really appreciate it and know what it meant until you look back. It was hard to be on this team, because at 19 years old I was the youngest one. Everyone was about 10 years older than me. But to see how these women took it seriously, who were older than me, that was great. And at first I was like, 'Hey! I thought I was really good! I’m the one that plays college!' It was rec ball right, and I thought everybody gets a turn. But I had to wait my turn. I had to learn how to play with them.
And what did you learn from them?
What I really learned from them was the mental skills. It was just a recreational team, but we took it seriously, like a business. It taught me about work ethic, and really that goes back to Manzanar days and later. It helped me develop into a college coach, where I took all the ideals and what I learned from the team to my coaching.
How are things different now for young Asian-Americans compared to when you started playing in the '80s?
Here’s the thing, there’s so many leagues now, and kids are starting to play earlier. In the Asian community there are all these organizations and they all start playing when they’re five. I didn’t start playing until I was 10, but I didn’t even play in the Asian league, I played in the park.
All these leagues that are in Southern California and Northern California have been intact for over 50 years. Some of these referees have now been officiating for four generations. The leagues are stronger than ever, especially in the youth parts of them. When I was growing up it was social, and even now this is the way basketball keeps the community tgether.
What could they learn from the Imperials, and from the older players in the league?
It's the work ethic. When I go talk at these different Asian awards, where these girls are getting awards at their high schools, I say, 'You know, back in the day they didn’t have all these leagues. Now you have the training because you started at 5 years old. Not everybody gets that. You’re getting the accolades of that now, of being on your high school or college team, because of the fact that your parents every weekend would take you to basketball or practice or whatever the case may be.'
You coach the Chapman University players, but how often do you play basketball at the moment yourself?
I play with my sister’s team on Sundays. My dad is 75 years old and still plays, I hope to play when I’m 75.
Do you have any traditions with your friends before or after the games?
It’s all about playing hard 'til you can eat good after. We love to get together and eat, it’s all about eating. It really doesn’t matter where, it’s just to talk about the game and everything else.