By John Sammon —
Blake Sasaki has been involved in sports almost his entire life, and if you ask him what has been the biggest joy, he will tell you watching athletes develop.
“It (sports) has been my life,” Sasaki said. “It’s my career, my family. If I wasn’t working in sports I don’t know what I would do. The end result is the game, but my greatest joy is seeing a freshman student athlete come into our program still a bit like a child, and then see them graduate as an adult. It’s like watching your own kids grow up.”
San Jose State was the first university west of the Mississippi River.
Sasaki, Senior Associate Athletics Director of External Relations for the San Jose State University Athletics Dept., has seen sports from both sides; the playing field and the home office.
Much of the college’s nationwide success is due to his efforts overseeing the public image of the San Jose State sport programs, external relations, as well as marketing, corporate sponsorship, ticket sales, media relations and fund raising.
“A good image in the community is very important,” Sasaki said. “It makes possible everything else. Despite what some people might believe, colleges are not flush with money. We depend on private donations. In fact the hardest part is the fundraising. The benefit is we support our student athletes.”
Some of the program’s athletes who go on to achieve national recognition come from low-income families and depend on financial aid the university can provide.
The past year has not been the best of times for college sports with the COVID-19 pandemic. Currently San Jose State football is being played without an audience in the stands but can be watched on television on channels including FOX Sports, CBS and ESPN.
Other fall sports at the campus have been put on hold, to resume in the spring of 2021.
Sasaki manages a staff of 15 who report to him.
From his childhood he lived and breathed sports.
“When I was a kid my dad would come home from work and we would play ball,” Sasaki said. “I watched sports, I played it.”
His ancestors came from the Hiroshima area of Japan.
Sasaki’s grandfather on his mother’s side, John Sasaki, had been a peach farmer in Marysville, a small agricultural community in Yuba County north of Sacramento. His grandparents on his father’s side had been Buddhist ministers.
At the start of World War II when the U.S. Government ordered 120,000 mostly American citizens of Japanese ancestry to be stripped of their jobs and property and locked in barbed-wire-enclosed prison camps, all four of his grandparents were incarcerated at Tule Lake War Relocation Center. Located in a remote area near the California-Oregon border in Siskiyou County, the camp was a prison for those deemed to be “trouble makers,” usually because they had “protested” their illegal imprisonment.
“During the war my grandad (John Sasaki) lost a lot of the land he owned (peach farming) and his property was looted by thieves,” Sasaki said. “But he was determined. When he got out of Tule Lake after the war he got some acreage back and resumed peach farming.”
Sasaki’s parents Rey Sasaki and his wife Gladys had both been one year old when they and his grandparents entered Tule Lake. His father would become a barber in a little town near Marysville called Gridley, and his mother an administrative assistant for a law firm and then at Yuba College.
“I was born in 1969 in Marysville,” Sasaki said.
He said growing up in a mostly Anglo community and taking part in organized sports he saw some racism directed against him.
“It (racism) was mostly from other schools and their athletes I was competing against in sports, rather than my teammates, classmates or friends,” he recalled.
Sasaki loved sports as a boy. Pretty much whatever sport was being played, that’s what he played.
“I played Little League (baseball) from the age of 9 to 15,” he said. “In high school I played football, basketball and tennis. I was a tight-end on offense on the varsity football team for the Marysville Indians and a linebacker on defense. I was the only full-on Asian player. Two others were hapas (mixed race).”
In basketball the high school had winning seasons in the late 1980’s.
“I was a guard in basketball and we (Indians) were at the top of our league. We made the sections (playoff championships),” Sasaki said.
Sasaki said when sports came to an end at the end of the school year, he would often face a let-down.
“Of the three sports I played, tennis was the last sport in the spring,” he said. “After that, the day would come where I didn’t have a practice to go to the next day. I felt a loss. I didn’t know what to do.”
Sasaki said his ability to be an effective player overall rather than just fast was a reason he was good at sports. It was also due to endless practice.
“Back in the day there were not a lot of private coaches like we have today,” he said. “We just went out and played.”
At Yuba College a community college in Marysville, Sasaki played varsity tennis and then after two years transferred to the University of California at Davis where he played varsity lacrosse.
“I used to watch lacrosse on television and it looked like a fun sport,” Sasaki said. “It’s kind of like a combination of football and soccer, a full-contact sport.”
He achieved a Bachelor of Science Degree in exercise science from Davis.
“I thought I wanted to be a PE teacher or physical therapist,” Sasaki said. “Then I discovered I could get a Master’s Degree in sports administration.”
Sasaki served in internships where he learned the business of running a sports team, for the Sacramento Kings a professional basketball team, the Sacramento Capitals a World Team Tennis franchise and the Sports Dept. at UC Davis.
“With the Kings I did community outreach, with the Capitals I did public relations and with Davis, media relations,” Sasaki said.
In 2013 he learned of a job posting at San Jose State University for Senior Associate Athletics Director of External Relations.
“It was a higher position for me and my wife and I were living in San Francisco,” Sasaki said. “My wife was born and raised in San Jose, so I got the job and we moved.”
Staci Sasaki works for the Adobe Co. (computer software) in business and finance.
The couple has two children, Cole, aged 10, and Max, aged 7.
“My kids are playing more sports than I did when I was their age,” Sasaki said.
Among notable Asian athletes from San Jose State the most legendary is Yosh Uchida (born 1920), a former judo coach at the University for over 70 years. Today he is 100 years old.
“Anyone in the judo world knows Yosh Uchida,” Sasaki said.
Donations to the San Jose State University sport programs are gratefully accepted. People can go online to the “Spartan Athletic Fund” website at sjsuspartans.com/feature/saf.
Sasaki said the friendships he has made in the program are lifetime.
“I have a lot of fun in my job,” he said. “At San Jose State University we are truly a family environment, and these athletes, I’m around them every day. Watching them grow, that’s the best.”
Photo of Blake and his wife Staci, with some cheerleaders and the San Jose State mascot. Photos courtesy of Blake Sasaki