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The Game’s Best Friend: Dean Matsubayashi, from Basketball Star to Dedicated Community Leader

The 1978-79 Venice Bruins featured Dean Matsubayashi (No. 15) and Scott Kurashige, second from left in the front row, above the first E in Venice. (Archival photos provided by Scott Kurashige)

By SCOTT KURASHIGE Special to The Rafu

The devastating loss of Dean Matsubayashi reverberates among Nikkei, the broader Los Angeles community, and advocates for social justice nationwide. Dean was a titanic figure who touched the lives of thousands of people, most recently as executive director of the Little Tokyo Service Center.

To me, Dean was my first friend in the world, and I feel blessed to inhabit this Earth for the 49 years he was on it. Our parents brought us together as babies, so neither of us had any memory of how we met. As such, I can honestly say I’ve never known a world without Dean. There were long stretches of my childhood where I saw him more than my own siblings.

As our lives became intertwined, Dean proposed that we call ourselves “Scean Matsushige.” (It was a running inside joke between us.) Employees at stores used to ask us all the time if we were brothers, though in retrospect, that was probably just a microaggression.

My most lasting childhood memories of growing up in the Venice Buddhist Temple and JA community revolve around times spent with Dean. He was so deeply admired and respected that he was simultaneously my closest peer and my biggest role model. I used to dream about how it would feel, just like in movies, to magically be Dean for a day.

He made friendships with an incredible variety of people across age, gender, religion, and race — even befriending players from our most bitter rival teams. Dean was the one who brought everyone together and figured out what to do.

All dressed and ready for the Venice Buddhist Temple Chigo Parade in 1975 are (from left) Neil Sato, Craig Matsubayashi, Scott and Dean – flashing a big grin.

From an early age, it was unmistakable that he was a leader who always had a vision and a plan.

More than anything else growing up, we lived to play BASKETBALL. I was once pretty good for a Japanese American kid playing in the Crescent Bay Optimist league. But Dean was a L-E-G-E-N-D. He had an outsized reputation that transcends what words can convey. Every kid and parent in Southern California with a team in our age range knew about Dean’s prowess on the court. Our Venice Bruins team went entire years without losing a game, including pre- and post-season.

We eventually were excluded from the Megalopolis tournament (which was intended to bring together the various JA league champions) because we won it too many times. There were so many calls to break us up, you could have mistaken us for AT&T.

In terms of physical talent, we were never vastly superior to everyone else. We excelled because of our team chemistry. Everyone knew their role, and while we had excellent coaches, Dean was the on-court catalyst for everything we did — so much so that we and our parents had panic attacks the year he missed half a season for a knee condition called Osgood-Schlatter.

Dean was literally and figuratively the center of our team and our social circle. As his growth slowed, he moved from playing center to power forward before topping out around 5 feet, 6 inches tall — in other words, shorter than even Spud Webb. Dean had the foresight to know that his future in high school ball would only be at point guard. In his ability to figure out any position, he was like a Sansei LeBron (or Magic from that era). So he spent countless hours practicing, training with his mentor, and learning to handle the ball with his left hand as well he did with his right.

The result was that Dean started and excelled at point guard for all three of his years at Venice High, garnering team MVP his senior year. This was the kind of determination, drive, and dedication he brought to everything he did. Although he exuded self-confidence, Dean was never egotistical or self-promoting. Instead, he made everyone around him better by encouraging us to believe in ourselves and bringing out the best in all of us.

It’s a time-worn (and often false) cliché that leadership qualities from sports can be applied to the rest of life. But Dean made a seamless transition from basketball star to community leader. He served as student body president at Marina Junior High School, helped create what is now the Department of Asian American Studies while attending UC Irvine, and developed into one of the nation’s foremost experts on affordable housing, racial justice, and community-based economic development.

With an overdose of charisma and an advanced degree from the Harvard Kennedy School, Dean could have run for office or aspired to any kind of high-paying positions if he so desired. Instead, he remained grounded in community and focused on serving the people. While it is human instinct to flee crises and danger, Dean was the type of person Grace Lee Boggs called a “solutionary.” He always ran toward problems, whether coming to aid his family and friends or working overtime to remedy societal inequity.

Dean spearheaded countless efforts to bring the Terasaki Budokan to fruition, including a 2013 event featuring NBA legend Jerry West (center). Also pictured are Alan Kosaka (far left), L.A. City Councilmember Jose Huizar and KABC news anchor David Ono, right.(MIKEY HIRANO CULROSS / Rafu Shimpo)

While it is tempting to characterize Dean as a “natural-born leader,” we know from Japanese American and civil rights history that community leadership is always a product of many cooperative efforts to help, encourage, train, and lift up others. Dean’s immediate influences were undoubtedly his parents, Rev. George and Mrs. Kay Matsubayashi, who have worked tirelessly and selflessly on behalf of the community for decades. Everyone knows his dad as “Sensei.” His mom was a career schoolteacher, as are his three siblings, Craig, Tina, and Erik.

In a sermon etched in my memory from childhood, Rev. George taught us that no one ever dies, so long as the impact of their deeds is felt by the living. (And if you’re not Buddhist, the same lesson was essentially conveyed by the animated film “Coco.”) Dean’s presence continues to register all around us. He was truly one of a kind. I don’t know if it will ever feel right to talk about him in the past tense because I still see, hear, and feel Dean everywhere I turn.

When I first learned Dean was battling brain cancer, it brought to mind our most memorable game circa 1981. The guys from Maryknoll got bigger, stronger, and better every year, and they were hungry to beat us after multiple years of falling short. (They even changed their name to Trojans to counter our Bruins team.) That day, they had the edge on us for most of the game, but we kept it close. In a fit of desperation, when we were down by one point, one of our team members scrambled to force a jump ball with only a few seconds remaining.

Dean stepped in front of an opposing player to grab the tipped ball and get a shot up in one motion. As the horn sounded, the ball went straight toward the hoop, but the net was severely frayed and hanging by a few threads.

At right, Dean showed off his skills at Santa Monica Pier in 2017, scoring a pair of toy giraffes for his daughter, Emma (left) and Scott’s daughter, Tula.

The ball passed so quickly through the rim that no one was really sure that Dean made the shot (and won the game) until the referee made it official.

It was a surreal moment that was over in the blink of an eye but felt like you were watching it in slow motion. There’s no video, but I can see like it was yesterday: Dean putting up that shot, then taking all the subsequent adulation in stride like it was just another day at the office.

Maryknoll kept improving, and they eventually won a thrilling game against us a couple years later. But that day, we felt invincible because of Dean’s heroics. After the game, the opposing coach came over to us and said with a sigh of resignation, “Congratulations. You beat us again, Dean.”

Deep down, I think everyone around Dean knew that defeating this pernicious form of cancer might take an even bigger miracle than that last-second shot. Dean’s remarkable will to succeed, however, gave us all hope that if anyone could do it, it would be him. True to form, Dean never gave up because he knew how much there was to live for.

We can honor Dean’s legacy by refusing to give up on the things that mattered most to him: supporting LTSC and Terasaki Budokan, sustaining family and community, and meeting the human needs of vulnerable populations. Above all, Dean would want us to make the world a safe and secure place for his beloved wife, Kim, and children, Emma and Sei.

While Dean is irreplaceable, I will be on Team Dean Matsubayashi forever. I hope you will be too. Now let’s make it happen.

Scott Kurashige is president of the American Studies Association and author of “The Shifting Grounds of Race: Black and Japanese Americans in the Making of Multiethnic Los Angeles.”

Funeral services for Dean Matsubayashi were held last Sunday at Nishi Hongwanji Buddhist Temple in Little Tokyo, with an estimated 1,300 in attendance.

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