Buddhists Got Game

Happy Asian American Heritage Month!

Bekeley Ohtani boy’s team, 1941

In my Angry Asian post, I slipped in a small bit about basketball. I did it to make a point — but I really don’t know much about the game. For many of my friends, though, basketball was a major component of their Buddhist American experience, played out on the courts at their childhood temples.

The most well-known Buddhist basketball groups are in the Japanese American community. Most of these teams can be found in the SF Bay Area. Temple basketball associations include Berkeley Ohtani, Berkeley Buddhist Temple’s Sangha basketball, the Buddhist Church of Oakland Youth Club, the Buddhist Church of San Franscisco Youth Athletic Organization, and of course the Sacramento Betsuin, among others. And they do not just play each other!

Outside of the JA community, Buddhist basketball groups are harder to find (at least with Google). Many GĐPT youth groups play basketball in tournaments against each other, but I couldn’t find any tournament web page. These Vietnamese teams are often of a different organizational caliber compared to the decades-old Nikkei associations. They are also usually inward-looking, only playing other Vietnamese Buddhists.

And then beyond these networks, I found one Khmer team! Hanuman (click and scroll down) is organized with the San Jose Cambodian Buddhist Society. But I’m not sure if this team is still around, and if so, who they play. I wouldn’t be surprised to find Chinese Buddhist basketball teams too, but I have yet to find them!

When I first heard my friends speak about these teams, I wasn’t particularly thrilled. I felt it cheapened the purpose of the Buddhist community. (“The Buddha Dharma isn’t a game!”) But over time the idea has really grown on me. It’s a great way to motivate youth to go to temple. And what a great way to get the Buddhist community involved in the lives of its youth!

The final thought is that maybe basketball has the potential to transform the American Buddhist community. It’s hard (and maybe also wrong) to force kids to meditate. It’s not so hard to get them to hit the courts. For one great NBA coach, Buddhist philosophy was deemed integral to his team’s success (see here and here). A network of Buddhist basketball teams could give both youth and adults a great reason to reach across lines of tradition, culture and language. In the shadow of the current Olympic controversy, it’s easy to forget that sports really do have the power to unite us, but only if we also choose to unite.

Are you game?