A League Of Their Own

by twinink on October 25, 2012

(This article appeared in the Oct-Nov 2012, Hana Hou Magazine)

Music pumps over the loudspeakers, drowning out the cheering fans as the players charge onto the court. All the greats are here: numbers 8, 6, 23. Only this is not Madison Square Garden, and the names above those numbers aren’t Bryant, James, Jordan. This is the Pälolo Valley park gym, and the jerseys displaying the star players’ names read Dar Dar, Two An and Yos.

“Welcome to the opening games of the second annual All-Mike Basketball Tournament!” a hyped-up announcer shouts. Close to four hundred people pack the bleachers: uncles, cousins, grandparents, great-grandparents and dozens of jubilant toddlers stamping their feet. Then, as at any sporting event, everyone rises for the national anthem—or in this case anthems—one for each of the three island nations represented on the court: the Federated States of Micronesia, the Republic of Palau and the Republic of the Marshall Islands.

The stakes are high in today’s game: This is the first rematch between last year’s two finalists, defending champs Bang Bang Kosrae and Chuuk State. It’s also the first game in a season that runs eight weeks; in that time, twenty teams will play more than ninety games in gymnasiums throughout town, from Pälolo Valley to the University of Hawai‘i’s Klum Gym. But more than bragging rights, the players in these games earn something deeper: a sense of pride in their identity as strangers in a strange land.

Since their inception two years ago, All-Mike men’s basketball and women’s volleyball tournaments have galvanized the Micronesian community in Hawai‘i. Thousands of people showed up to the inaugural season’s basketball championship at the Blaisdell Arena. “The fact that we were there changed a lot of people’s thinking,” says Dr. Wilfred Alik, head of the Micronesian Health Advisory Coalition (MHAC) and co-chair of the tournament. “It’s often a struggle just to gain access to public courts.” Because of the negative stereotypes surrounding Micronesians in Hawai‘i, many thought that playing in a big venue like the Blaisdell would be impossible. “Many were downright scared,” says Alik, “but sitting in the Blaisdell Arena, the feeling—that sense of empowerment— was palpable.” Word spread across the Pacific, and Micronesian pride rippled throughout the islands of Oceania.

“Players want to fly in, the demand is so high,” Alik laughs. “We didn’t have a choice this year. We had to bring the tournament back.”

Micronesians are the newest kids on the block; they began immigrating to Hawai‘i in earnest in 1986, when the United States ratified a Compact of Free Association (COFA) with several Micronesian states. The treaty gave the citizens of Palau, the Marshall Islands and the Federated States of Micronesia (comprising Chuuk, Pohnpei, Kosrae and Yap) open border access to the United States and granted them access to many of the benefits enjoyed by legal immigrants, including the right to live and work here. The United States in return was granted exclusive military access to the region. Many COFA citizens, particularly those from the Marshall Islands, first came to the United States for health care; between 1946 and 1958, the US military tested nuclear weapons on several of the Marshall Islands—sixtyseven tests in all, the equivalent of 7,000 Hiroshima bombs. The Marshallese, many of whom suffer from radiogenic diseases as a result, comprise the largest segment of the COFA immigrant population in Hawai‘i. Micronesians as a whole remained here, however, for the same reasons most immigrants do: the chance at a better life.

It’s no accident that the largest number of COFA citizens came to Hawai‘i; it’s geographically closer to Micronesia and has an existing Pacific island culture. Because of this, Hawai‘i must pay a lion’s share for the benefits Micronesians receive under the terms of the compact. It costs a hefty $110 million annually to cover the estimated twenty thousand Micronesians in Hawai‘i under the state’s Med-QUEST health plan, which is available to all citizens and legal aliens. State legislators tried to shift that cost to the federal government, reasoning that because health care coverage is mandated by a federal treaty, it’s the federal government’s responsibility to pay for it. However, the state is reimbursed only about 10 percent, which legislators argue constitutes an “unfair burden” on Hawai‘i’s resources. In 2010 Gov. Linda Lingle instituted a $15 million cut to Med-QUEST targeted exclusively at Micronesians. The MHAC sued, and the federal district court ruled in its favor: The cut was unconstitutional on the grounds that it was discriminatory.

All this translates into trouble for Micronesian immigrants trying to fit in. While it’s common for any new immigrant group to suffer discrimination, Micronesians, who make up only 2 percent of the state’s population, have endured more than their share. Some of this is due to rhetoric from the state’s political leaders, rhetoric that has created a widespread perception that Micronesians strain the state’s health care system and contribute nothing in return. Yet while COFA citizens pay state and federal taxes, they remain the only legal immigrants in the country who can never establish residency, vote or receive Medicaid, food stamps and Social Security. “Without those federally funded services,” says Wayne Tanaka, an attorney who has defended the interests of Hawai‘i’s Micronesians, “COFA citizens are basically paying for everyone else’s Social Security, food security and federal public health infrastructure.” Nevertheless, despite the federal court’s ruling against the exclusionary Med-Quest cuts, Gov. Neil Abercrombie has appealed the case.

Which brings us back to basketball: The first All-Mike tournament was launched in response to that appeal, says Alik. “We were looking for ways to raise money to cover the legal fees.” To everyone’s surprise, the greater success was the byproduct: the sense of community and camaraderie that happens on the court. For an immigrant group struggling to assimilate, sports leagues provided a way to belong, a rallying cry.

 

This time around, the second season of All-Mike strives for a higher goal: bringing disparate Pacific island communities together. “We are not ‘Micronesians,’” explains Alik, who calls himself a “citizen of the Marshall Islands.” “People describe us as one ‘Micronesian’ entity, when in fact we are very distant cultures.” Micronesians are divided among two thousand islands making up eight independent entities (the Federated States of Micronesia, the Marshall Islands, Palau, the Northern Mariana Islands, Nauru, Kiribati, Guam and Wake Island). Each has its own language and culture.

The All-Mike tournaments serve then as common ground on which geographic and cultural divides are erased in a flurry of sneaker squeaks and sweat. “It’s less about tearing down external stereotypes and more about strengthening pride from within,” says Noda Lojkar, the consul general of the Marshall Islands. To win on the court requires teamwork and collaboration, and basketball seemed a natural place to begin. “Basketball was introduced to the islands in the late ’60s,” explains Alik, “and it’s huge down there. In the Micronesian Olympics it’s one of the biggest events.” Indeed, the poetry of a cross-pivot layup translates well in any language.

In the first quarter of today’s game, defending champs Bang Bang Kosrae trade run-and-gun baskets against Chuuk State’s perimeter jump shots. It’s a physical game yet fouls are nearly nonexistent. Instead of wild elbows, competitors throw high-fives and encouraging whistles. Alik notes that throughout last year’s season there wasn’t a single fight.

“A lot of these players are leaders in their community, and they want to step up,” says Alik. Unlike the old guard of firstgeneration immigrants, “this new generation has been exposed to each other; they are more integrated, more open-minded.” One such player, David Taulung, team captain of Bang Bang Kosrae, often sees firsthand the camaraderie extending offcourt. “It just brings families and friends together,” Taulung says. “We see each other now and talk. We go down to other teams’ courts to play.”

Beyond tearing down social barriers, the sports leagues also provide players a chance to expand their horizons. Taulung, a talented Kaimukï High School grad who led his varsity team to an all-state victory, was selected to play ball in the Micronesian Olympics for Kosrae. “We won the silver medal,” he beams. “Playing basketball got me to travel and represent my country.” It was the first time Taulung had visited his homeland.

Halfway through the third quarter, Chuuk State makes a run, fortifying its defense, boxing out the perimeter and stealing balls. The energy is cheetah level; the players are not only fast and agile but skilled. As the crowd chants from the bleachers, Bang Bang Kosrae’s star point guard Dar Dar throws a gravity-defying block, cross-dribbles around two defenders and lofts a three-pointer. He pumps a victory fist to his fans, and in that moment something shifts. This is no longer just another Saturday afternoon pickup game; this is great basketball.

By the time the buzzer sounds, Bang Bang has secured its victory with a dizzying volley of layups, hook shots and explosive backboard tips. The Chuuk players accept the loss with big smiles and congratulatory hugs. And as the game ends, a wave of toddlers rush the court, screaming at the top of their lungs. Their sweaty fathers swoop them up in their arms, but the kids squirm away—no time for kisses. There’s a loose ball and a basket. And nothing, parent or otherwise, is going to get in their way.