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Tucson Weekly Hoop Dreams

Keiko Yoshimine Is One Of A Kind.

By Tom Danehy

JUNE 14, 1999:  EVERYBODY LIKES TO feel special. You know, a little bit unique, a little bit different. Not out there, creepy, trench-coat different, just a shade off-center.

It's great to be part of society, to be a tiny cog in a huge machine that inches forward every now and then. It's like being part of a team. But deep down we all celebrate our individuality and those things that make us unique.

For instance, I've always taken a certain amount of inner satisfaction in knowing that I'm half Irish and I don't drink. And I also take pride in being half Italian and...well, not drinking.

Being half Irish and half Italian is really no big deal. I can name as many as one other person who is that same mix. (Believe it or not, Bruce Springsteen is similarly ethnically confused.) Over the years I've met people with some amazing backgrounds. Bill, one of the guys I play basketball with, is an African-American gentleman with the bluest damn eyes you've ever seen. He looks like he saw The Mummy, then went out and mugged Paul Newman.

If he starred in a movie, it would be like, Stepford Shaft.

I have another friend who's half Italian and half French. That's not all that unique. I just figure that when he was a kid, his first words were, "I surrender."

No, when it comes to unique, I've got the all-timer for you. I have a friend with whom I've been coaching this summer who is (try to get through this without pausing): a 5-foot-10 Japanese-American female basketball player who is also a Mormon. Can you imagine the identity crises waged in this kid's head every day?

Actually, she's quite well-adjusted, although in the interest of factuality, I'll stop short of the word "normal."

Keiko Yoshimine (Kay-ko Yo-she-me-nay), barely 19 years old, will be entering her junior year of college this fall, attempting to make the Northern Arizona University Lady Lumberjacks team as a walk-on. The odds are against her, but this is only basketball. You want long odds, try 5-foot-10 female Japanese-American Mormon. The Cray people wouldn't even want to calculate that one.

Being the nosy sucker that I am, I had to pry. (As Cleavon Little said in Blazing Saddles, "I must! I must!")

Anyway, her white-bread Mormon uncle went on a mission to Japan, where he was well-received, "well-received" being a relative term. In the case of Mormon missionaries, it means he wasn't cooked and/or eaten.

While in Japan, he became friends with the man who would become Keiko's dad, a Japanese citizen who had been converted to Mormonism earlier and was working with visiting missionaries. (Why an ethnic person would have become a Mormon back before 1978, when then-Prophet Spencer Kimball reversed the LDS church's stance on blacks and the priesthood, is anybody's guess. So as not to offend anyone, let's just file it under "The Lord works in mysterious ways.")

Anyway, the uncle had a sister whom he wanted to introduce to the Japanese guy. He basically said, "I've got the hook-up, nuh-nah, nuh-nah," although I'm not certain how that would come out in Japanese and/or Mormon.

Both guys went to the United States, introductions were made, and the rest is Love History. Keiko's Japanese dad and Utah Mormon mom were married, causing Joseph Smith to rotate 2.3 times in his grave. Not long after, the uncle took a Japanese wife, and another sibling married someone from the Philippines, ultimately prompting Smith to achieve a maximum of 175 rpm.

"When we have family get-togethers, there's only one non-Asian cousin," says Keiko. "He's like the white sheep of the family."

Her dad got a job with IBM and moved the family to Tucson, settling on the southside. Growing up, Keiko played a lot of basketball, as do a lot of LDS kids. (Virtually all Mormon meeting places, or "stake houses," have indoor basketball courts.)

She made the Varsity team during her freshman year at Sunnyside High School, but eventually began butting heads with her eccentric coach. She then transferred over to the Sunnyside District's sister school, Desert View, where she starred for three years on some really bad teams.

With her scholarship opportunities limited by Desert View's lack of success, Keiko ended up at Pima College, where she led the Aztecs in scoring and three-point shooting.

She has great ball-handling skills, a deadly outside shot, and most noticeably, epicanthic folds on her eyes.

"People often do a double-take," she admits. "I'll be on the court at some other school and players just walk up and say stuff like, 'I've never played against a Chinese girl before.'

"So I'll say, 'Well, you still haven't.' "

When she tells them she's Japanese, some even ask what's the difference. "So I tell them that Chinese ballplayers drive to the basket, Koreans shoot from outside, but Japanese have the complete game and can do either one."

Does anybody believe her? "I don't know," she says. "But I hope so."

So, after playing on a sucko team at Sunnyside, three sucko teams at Desert View and two more at Pima, why not call it a career and move on to modeling or something?

"I still want to play. I hope my basketball career is far from over. I want to play on a great team at least once in my life. I'm not knocking the teams I've played on; we all worked hard and tried our best. It just didn't work out.

"My main goal now is to make the team at NAU, get some playing time, and help the team make it to the NCAAs. But if my mother's reading this, I want to get a good education and meet a nice Mormon guy."

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