In another basketball world, Kupaa Harrison is 1.95 meters tall.
The former UH-Hilo and Kalaheo standout signed with Usal La Antigua and will make his professional debut this fall in Salamanca, Spain.
“I’m not in Spain yet, but I will be heading out there in the middle of September,” Harrison said on Wednesday morning. “Right now, I’m back on Oahu spending time with family and then I will be heading to California to try and get some proper training in. I can’t really train here with the new (COVID-19) restrictions on Oahu.”
As a senior at UH-Hilo, the 6-foot-5 wing averaged 17.7 points and 8.1 rebounds per game. In a report by La Cronica de Salamanca, Usal La Antigua coach Oscar Nunez expressed high hopes for Harrison.
“He has a lot of talent abroad. He is a scorer who can give us many points by being able to generate his own shots and offering options to his teammates. He is humble and hard-working, capable of helping rebound and sacrificing himself in defensive tasks,” Nunez said.
UH-Hilo assistant coach Aukai Wong is ecstatic for Harrison.
“This is so awesome in so many ways. Kupaa has matured over the years and he is able to continue to play this beautiful game of basketball. He’s been coached by some of the best, and lucky to have a dad who showed him how to play the game the right way,” Wong said, referring to longtime high school coach Tim Harrison.
Kupaa Harrison is a two-time Star-Advertiser All-State selection and 2015 Gatorade Hawaii player of the year. He had a gritty senior season in high school, playing through the state tournament on a badly sprained ankle as Kalaheo captured the championship. Kaleb Gilmore was voted all-state player of the year and later played with Harrison at UH-Hilo.
It was Harrison’s second state title; the first came during his sophomore year when he came off the bench to hit timely long-range shots.
Then it was off to Division III Lewis and Clark College, then to Orange Coast College in Mesa, Calif. At OCC, he was the Orange Empire Conference co-MVP and a California JUCO first-team selection. At UH-Hilo, Harrison’s penchant for clutch shooting resurfaced with three game-winning shots as a senior. His ability to see the floor, basically as a point forward, is a key in his role going forward.
“I don’t know if I’ve necessarily added anything completely new to my game since arriving in Hilo, but I do think I have refined my game a lot and taken it to a different level of efficiency, really honing in my skills,” he said. “I’ve studied a lot more film the last couple of years compared to when I was at the D-III and junior college levels. That has shown me a better idea of what skills I’m really good at and how to fully use those tools.”
The journey was worthwhile.
“The jump from D-III or JC to D-II is a pretty serious one and if you want to excel as a player, it takes a lot more attention to detail and commitment to make it happen. I think since arriving at UH-Hilo, my coaches demanded a lot out of me, but as a player, that is exactly what you should want. They asked a lot of me, but also gave me a lot of confidence and freedom, which has definitely helped me have a good couple of seasons.”
Vulcans assistant coach Yev Dyachenko played in Italy after concluding his playing career at UH-Hilo.
“I was first put in contact with the team through Coach Yev. I was able to put out a highlight tape and he was the one who connected the dots for me and had the team reach out to me,” Harrison said. “And then from there, it was just a matter of coming to an agreement.”
Harrison earned a bachelor’s degree in Psychology this year. Where he’s going, he’ll get to practice his handle on Spanish.
Usal La Antigua plays in the Liga EBA (Liga Española de Baloncesto Aficionado), a Spanish league that is the fourth-tier level in the system. The club is in Conference A, which has 29 teams total. Its home city of Salamanca is located in western Spain in the hills near the Tormes River. The population of Salamanca is roughly 144,000.
“I feel very fortunate and I owe a lot of people thanks that I am in the position I’m in. My coaches at UH-Hilo, G.E. Coleman, Aukai Wong and Yev Dyachenko, especially, have been a lot of help in developing me these last couple of years and opening doors for me. I think I’m extremely blessed, especially with everything going on in the world right now, but I also feel like I can trust I’ve put the time in,” Harrison said. “I still feel like I have not really accomplished anything yet, though. I still have a lot of work to do and a lot of room to grow.”
Wong says it was all about timing and confidence.
“Kupaa just needed more people to believe in him. I saw on film what he did in high school and at Orange Coast College, and immediately know he was a winner. He had coaches and systems that believed in him. It was only a matter of time that his confidence grew and it was all in his hands from there,” Wong said. “His ability to score in different ways really surprised us. He could shoot off the dribble, catch and shoot, post up and knock down big shots.
Harrison also excelled in the classroom with a 3.5 grade-point average.
“That was the best part of Kupaa for me to see, honestly,” Wong added. “Kupaa is a coach’s dream. He is very intelligent and competitive, the one-two punch you need in sports. With the help of Kawika Villa, I was able to get in contact with Kupaa and recruit him.”
Harrison joins a short list of former Hawaii high school hoopsters who went on to play at the pro level. Among them, Derrick Low recently returned to Europe to resume his career. Konawaena’s Brandon Cablay went from Vanguard University (Calif.) to a prominent career in the Philippines Basketball Association.
“I don’t want to seem like I have everything figured out, but I would like to say to other aspiring basketball players coming up in Hawaii that no matter if we live on a little rock in the middle of the ocean, don’t use that as an excuse, or cover up what stands in the way of reaching your goals,” Harrison said. “If you are serious about playing at the next level, don’t lie to yourself. If you can honestly say that you have worked hard and done things the right way, then the chips will fall where they should. If you can play ball, and put your trust in people that really know what they’re talking about, then schools and teams will find you.”
Harrison believes there are very good players in the islands.
“If the offers don’t come right out of high school, keep grinding and don’t get discouraged. Don’t think that just because you don’t have the D-I offers and publicity that is the end of the road. Junior college, NAIA, D-III and D-II can all be really high levels of ball, so don’t discredit them or you’re in for a rude awakening like what happened to me at the start of my college journey,” Harrison said.