The Zebra Legacy
Over sixty years ago, the San Jose Zebras were formally organized. It might be considered that the San Jose Y.M.B.A (Young Men’s Buddhist Association) was the unofficial umbrella organization for the team. It was the church which provided a social outlet and gathering place for young Japanese-American adults in the 1930′s. Athletic programs and other opportunities were not as available to those of Japanese origin as they would be in later years. Like young people of all generations, Zebras through the years have been sports enthusiasts. Basketball and baseball proved to be the favorites.
Along with basketball, baseball was played through the 1950′s; first under the name of the San Jose Asahi and later as the Zebras. From among the baseball teams of the past, Russell Hinaga traveled to Japan and pitched against Babe Ruth in an exhibition game. Several others would play on the fringes of semi-pro ball. A few others made the rosters of other sports at the college level. San Jose Municipal Stadium was home to the Zebra baseball team for many years.
The 1930 Zebra basketball team was coached by Everett Roseveare. It was Mr. Roseveare who secured those first striped uniforms which game birth to the name, “Zebras”, an organization which continues to survive to this day. Basketball would continue beyond the 1950′s. Through the years, the Zebra teams would travel the length of the Pacific Coast, from Seattle to Los Angeles. Its teams would play in the mid-west, Salt Lake City, Denver, and Chicago. In the modern era, the San Jose Zebras/Zebraettes would cross the Pacific Ocean to the villages,towns, and cities of Japan. In those early decades, the team members were mostly beyond high school. Some were young parents and most were already in the work force and played basketball in their spare time.
The distaff side of Zebra basketball was not to be left out. By the early 1930′s, the forerunner of the present day “Zebraettes” began playing basketball as the “Purplettes”, using the purple and white colors of the Buddhist Church. Like their male counterparts, team members were, in many cases, out of high school, working, and/or young mothers. During the early postwar years, the Purplettes gave way to the immediate predecessors of the Zebraettes, the “Alphas”. It was in the 1970??s that the Zebraettes were formed and it was also then that the sponsorship of the organization changed hands from the church to the players and their families.
There is what might be called a line of demarcation at the end of the 1950′s; and end of an era as the late 1960′s brought in Zebra teams consisting of high school age players and teams. Prior to this time, there was a wide range of ages and most of the team members were not prep players. In the modern era, beginning with the 1970′s, the Zebras were led by Herman Santo and other old-timers like Chi (“Mr. Zebra”) Akizuki, Clark Taketa, Dan Fukushima (the former President of the United States High School Basketball Coaches Association), Tom Ichishi ta, and many other former players. Hoping to pass on the legacy and tradition of early Zebras, they “re-founded” the organization to meet the needs of the times, thus making it possible once again the opportunity for Japanese youth, this time the Sansei (third) and Yonsei (fourth) generations, to reap the benefits of early and quality preparations for high school basketball, lifelong friendships, Nikkei fellowship, and family activities.
Through the 1970′s and 1980′s the Zebra/Zebraette organization would go through many changes and growing pains. In the 1980′s, the Zebra/Zebraette Organization was one of the very few basketball organizations in existence that participated in the sport beyond CYS and concurrently with high school basketball. At that time, Herman Santo was instrumental in recruiting potential players. The organization at that time consisted of only older high school age teams (Juniors/Seniors). Things were very different then. Although the commitment is still to a small closely knit organization, the organization?s members realized the need to adjust with the times. Within the organization, elementary and middle school teams began forming, always guided by the Zebra philosophy and legacy.
In most recent times, many Zebras and Zebraettes have gone on to play and star on many of the prep basketball teams in the county. Many have been named to various All-Star, All-City, and All-Tournament teams as prep stars and Zebra/Zebraette players. Lee Anne Sera played for the two time NCAA champion USC Trojans. Other Zebraettes who would go on to play basketball in college are Shelby Taketa (Cal Poly), Lisa Imahara (San Jose State), Lori Kozuki (UC Davis), Miranda Seto (UC San Diego), Emily Dinger (Brown), and Paige Song (UC San Diego). On the boys’ side, Rex Walters would play in the NCAA Final Four for the University of Kansas Jayhawks. In 1993, Rex would be the sixteenth player chosen in the NBA draft and went on to sign a multi-year contract with the New Jersey Nets. Rex is currently the head coach for the USF Dons Men’s Basketball team. The Terry Maruyama-coached Zebra team on which Rex played would be named the best Japanese-American basketball team of all time in a Nichi-Bei Times salute to Nikkei athletes and sports.
Today’s Zebras and Zebraettes are the recipients of a torch that has been passed from generation to generation in hope that they will continue the Zebra legacy: the best in athletic performance, sportsmanship of the highest quality, pride in their ethnic background, and adherence to work ethic. In the beginning, the organization had been founded to promote cultural, economic, and social exchange along with equitable ethnic competition. In the 1990′s, the organization reflects the changing and shrinking world in which we live, as the ethnic make-up of the organization has begun to change. Regardless of what changes take place or in what direction the organization moves, it will always be an organization whose players and families keep in mind the Zebra legacy to which they all owe a great deal of gratitude, a deep sense of responsibility, and the utmost respect.