More Than Your Average Rec League
An in-depth look at the CalRBA and its community impact.
by Rudy Raya
My first college class ever was “SOC 300: Introduction To Sociology.” The professor spent the day going over the typical syllabus dribble, but in the middle of his introduction, he said something that really caught my attention. His message was as follows:
The United States of America is the most diverse country in the world. California is the most diverse state in the country. Sacramento is the most diverse city in California. And the South Sacramento/Elk Grove area is the most diverse section of the city.
Now, lacking any physical proof, statistics or pie charts to back up his claim, his idea seemed to make a lot of sense. If you’ve ever been to Northern California, mainly the area around the Bay Area and Sacramento, you’ll have noticed a mix of ethnic diversity that you won’t find anywhere else in the world. With strong influences from Mexican, African-American, Asian and European cultures, the identity of the town isn’t narrowed down to one group, but more so a mix of everything and everybody.
While the minority groups are quickly becoming majority groups, trying to label them as any one group is almost impossible, especially with the Asian community. The Asian demographic in California is composed of people from 59 different countries, with many of them being 1st or 2nd generation Americans, meaning most of their customs and cultural identities are still in tact. While the reasons for residing in California are different for each family, instead of trying to explain why each group is here, I will simply state that they are all here–together.
At this point you may be wondering just where basketball comes into play. Well, in this story and this community, it works as a teacher, a unifier, and a common interest across the board. Though the NBA may feature some of the greatest athletes in the world, the game of basketball itself can be played by anybody who has a brain and a ball, and even the absence of one of those is permissible. Throughout California, an almost underground culture of basketball is taking place. Asian basketball leagues have been popping up all around the state and are quickly becoming a staple in almost every Asian community. It isn’t a league in the model of the NBA or any other professional league, but it is far more than just any other recreational league. They may not produce the stars that warrant shoe deals and multi-million dollar contracts, but at the center of each league is the same love for the game of basketball.
In the South Sacramento and Elk Grove area resides CalRBA, California Regional Basketball Association. CalRBA isn’t the biggest of all the Asian basketball leagues in California, but it’s still one of thelargest in the area. The league began as group of young friends, who were all Filipino. The boys would get together on Sundays to play basketball. The small group began to grow and in 1989, they decided to turn the group into a more formal league and eventually a non-profit organization.
“It began as an all Filipino league and primarily the purpose was to get families together on the weekend and to have a good time” says Rolando “Butch” Villarama, the executive officer and one of the original founders of the league.
Once the league established itself as CalRBA and as a true asset to the Filipino community, Villarama saw the potential for the organization as more than just a basketball league. In order to maximize the league’s affect on the community, they went on to accept players of all Asian decent. By expanding their player qualifications, the league is able to bring together people from different countries, with similar circumstances and the very same desire to play the game. Although at on the surface the organization is a form of competitive athletics, Villarama understands the greater influence it has on the community.
“Instead of being involved in drugs or gangs, it lessens the chance, because I have them playing here on Sundays,” says Butch. “That’s the main focus that we have, to keep them away from bad influence and to create strong families here in Elk Grove”
But don’t let all the talk about “family” and “love” fool you, because the competition in the league is fierce. Their games are fast paced and everybody can play. And by “everybody can play”, I mean two things. First off, the league is separated into several pools for different age groups and height classes, allowing everyone that signed up fair competition. And secondly, the competition is no slouch. Most of the teams featured in the league are not strung together like some five-on-five pick-up game at the park, but they are actually teams that have played together in multiple tournaments and leagues. Regardless if the person you are guarding is 16 or 56, they can all play.
After attending one of their weekend tournaments, it is obvious that CalRBA is centered around the concept of family. For every player on the court, there is a small cheering section of parents, grandparents, friends, siblings, cousins, and children, all clamoring every time their favorite player touches the ball. Bringing everybody together on Sundays like morning mass, the Church of CalRBA fills it’s bleachers like pews, and hopes that through the gospel of the game, everybody who steps on the court can take something away from it.
“I think one thing it definitely teaches them is team work, which means to say, learning to work with diversity,” says Villarama. “We are not all white, we are not all Filipinos, we are not all Asians and we have a lot of people that we must interact with.”
CalRBA has made a name for itself as a top Asian basketball league in Northern California, attracting a huge number of teams from places outside of Sacramento, including San Francisco, San Jose and other cities all over the state. Though their growth excites Villarama, he feels that there is always room to expand, inside and outside of California. Villarama is currently attempting to organize two large-scale tournaments in the near future, his first plan is to reach out to the other Asian leagues in California in an attempt to regionalize them and bring them together for one large, annual tournament.
The second of which, in cooperation with the PBA (Philippine Basketball Association), would be an invitational tournament, extended to all 50 states in an attempt to give players all over the country a chance to be seen and to play professional basketball. “We all know that not everyone can play in the NBA, but many can still play professionally, and maybe for some the PBA can be an option.”
The main pre-requisite of most Asian basketball leagues is pretty obvious, you have to be Asian to play. You don’t necessarily have to be full-blooded, but you must be of Asian decent. It’s a common rule in just about every league of its kind, but in the way that it allows many people of a certain group to play together, it is also exclusive to those who are not Asian. Butch believes in the game’s ability to teach and sees room for change. Just as it opened itself to all Asians in the beginning, the league has opened up to people of all races, though on a limited basis. Each team is allotted an “import” or two, which is generally a player on the team that is not of Asian descent. Though it is a small step towards integrating the leagues, it is a step that Butch knows they must take.
“One of the directions I am trying to set my sights on is to be inclusive and get everyone to participate,” says Villarama. “What we have to do is have a design where everybody is playing and accepting of all the other diversity groups that we have; and that is coming.”
With the additions and growth over the past 20 years, the way the league now looks is completely different from anything it could have resembled in the beginning. But if anything, the changes in the league are actually a reflection of the changes in the community itself. If a game like basketball can teach people to be accepting and co-exist with one another, then maybe there is hope for everybody else. Here’s hoping Villarama’s goals for the future of CalRBA are also some indication of coming changes in the California, and slowly, the rest of the world.