A ‘gentle giant’: Hawaii mourns loss of Punahou legend Ia Saipaia

Ia Saipaia scored 38 points in the boys basketball state tournament final in 1975, a record that still stands. Punahou edged Kailua, 77-70, for the title.

It was an era when guards rarely dominated from long range.

Ia Saipaia found a way. Scoring on the baseline. Pump-faking and driving through narrow gaps. Hitting 22-footers off the dribble. Finding open teammates. The young hoopster from Kuhio Park Terrace didn’t say a whole lot.

A man of action.


Saipaia died on Monday from COVID-19 symptoms, just 63. He died of COVID-19 symptoms and was fully vaccinated, according to his wife, Jean Miyashiro-Saipaia.

“Hopefully, it is a lesson to others,” she said.

It was in the 1975 boys basketball state final when Punahou met Kailua for a second year in a row. Saipaia’s 38 points, along with Duane Akina‘s 21, powered the Buffanblu to a second crown in a row.

The way he played the game at such a young age, learning from Dennis Agena and his clinic, then at Punahou under Bud Scott and Chris McLachlin, was much the way he lived life. Quietly. Persistently. Effectively.

Saipaia’s playing career included stops at San Diego State, Santa Rosa Junior College (Calif.) and, finally, UH-Hilo. At that final destination, he was a classic playmaker as a sixth man, 6 feet, 3 inches and 225 pounds of unstoppable offensive force. Coach Jimmy Yagi‘s system thrived on teamwork and precision. Saipaia’s court vision and versatility flourished — he still ranks No. 4 in career assists — as the Vulcans won the district title in his senior season.

“Ia wasn’t a very verbal person. Very quiet, doesn’t say much. He just does whatever you ask him to do,” Yagi said. “Ia was a strong man and his presence on the floor, he was not afraid to drive to the basket. It was like a truck coming through. He was just a great athlete, one of the greatest in Hawaii history. He was just unstoppable.”

The Saipaia children, Davis and Angie, grew up in sports, as well. Davis Miyashiro-Saipaia decided at a young age to pursue basketball and football, and went on to play football at Oregon. He first got wind of his father’s legendary status at Kalakaua Clinic.


“To me, he was dad. The first time I heard about him was from Dennis Agena when I started going to his clinics. I told dad I wanted to play basketball. Coach Agena said, ‘Do you know who your dad is?’ I said, he was a pretty good player. He said, ‘Pretty good? He set the record in the state championship game.’ That was when I was 6 or 7,” he said.

In time, the game became second nature to the son.

“I remember growing up and a little bit more when I got into high school, him and his Kalakaua guys like Blane Gaison, Kai Enos, Kimo Bajet, Randy Canencia and a bunch of others, too, they’d always play basketball every Saturday morning at Kamehameha. The early morning runs. I remember going there a lot as a kid. Because he worked a lot, there was the times we got to hang out and learn the game a little bit. He’d work on the side with me a little bit. He never pushed me into sports, but once I made a commitment to it, that’s when the coach in him kicked in.”

Saipaia was employed at Matson for years.

“He was one of our bosses,” Toma Savea said. “He passed away on Monday. We got a text from his wife. He got me hired at Matson. I met him at the golf course. Talk story with him and he asked me, ‘Aren’t you that Repo guy? I need somebody like you to come work for us.’ He’s a good guy. Gentle giant. A good boss. A good man, humble. He knows his work.”

The outpouring of support from the sports community has been widespread.


“We want to thank everyone for all their support. We really appreciate them,” Davis Miyashiro-Saipaia said. “It’s a hard time for us, but dad would always say, ‘Find a way. Figure it out.’ ”

Read the full story in Thursday’s edition of the Honolulu Star-Advertiser.

COMMENTS

  1. Scott B Young September 5, 2021 10:47 am

    The early Kalakaua Gym days with Dennis Agena and the boys will always miss you, RIP Ia.


  2. Danny Moe September 22, 2021 4:08 am

    Got the text from Dennis & couldn’t believe it. Always remember our early morning saturdays at kalakaua gym & refreshments & lunch at the drive in. It hurts to know you’re gone but I know you’re in a better place. Aloha…til we meet again….Danny.


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