The Kingdom of Hawaii basketball organization, Ke Aupuni Hawaii Athletics, is the first member to join the newly-created International Basketball Union.
Ke Aupuni Hawaii has played abroad since 2018 with men’s and women’s teams. Coach Kawika Villa, a former Chaminade assistant coach, has taken his men’s and women’s teams to New Zealand and Australia — with a mix of veterans like Derrick Low and Shawna Kuehu — and young talent still in high school.
IBU has a long list of interested teams across the world, all with indigenous roots. Since Ke Aupuni Hawaii accepted the IBU invitation, White Mountain Apache Nation of Arizona has become the second charter member.
IBU is operated by St. Anthony (Maui) graduate Alan Walls.
Ke Aupuni Hawaii has an indigenous component for IBU competition.
“Our criteria is born in Hawaii or grandparent or parent born in Hawaii, or Native Hawaiian,” Villa said. “For IBU, we’ll use more of an indigenous team. They are Native Hawaiian.”
That’s different from the Ke Aupuni Hawaii national team, which plays other FIBA teams.
“A lot of these indigenous tournaments, like the World Indigenous Classic, you have to be indigenous,” Villa said. “We don’t do any DNA testing, but I will ask for a birth certificate.”
The restrictive environment caused by the COVID-19 pandemic means far fewer games, if any.
“There’s some parts of the world that are OK to travel to. We’re all subject to travel and playing restrictions, but look at Sons of Hawaii,” Villa said of the youth team that is playing a series of games in Arizona. “They didn’t have to go overseas. I told Alan, if it’s too difficult to travel (overseas), I’m willing to host.”
Hosting games would entail testing and all protocols according to state and City and County standards.
The Kingdom of Hawaii teams have played exhibition games in years past against HPU and Hawaii-Hilo.
“There’s younger kids coming up every year, some in JC. We have Kameron Ng, Josiah Villa, Kobe Young, Kupaa Harrison,” Villa said.
Ng plays for Hawaii. Villa and Young are at Chaminade, while Harrison is making his mark in the Spanish pro league.
“We’ve got guys in that 20-year-old age group. They are the present. The future are the younger kids,” Villa noted. “I won’t let this fail.”
For a basketball lifer like Low, a three-time all-state player of the year, standout at Washington State and longtime professional player across the globe, supporting the Kingdom team is a given.
“I’ve been involved in this with Kawika from the beginning. I totally support it. Everybody in Hawaii should be motivated to want to play for the national team,” Low said. “I always told Kawika that he should have the younger kids play. I’m always down to play, but give the younger ones experience. If they need me, then yeah, why not. I’d prefer the spot go to someone younger who can gain experience.
But that is precisely why Villa will always want Low in the program. His talent and skills are still elite, but his leadership and experience are a natural fit for the team.
Villa had wondered long ago why Hawaii didn’t have a representative team outside of its college programs.
“Shannon Lee, Alika Smith, Kalia McGee, how come nobody did this for them? I was coaching at Chaminade, recruiting from all around the world. All these island (nations) have national teams and we don’t have one,” Villa said. “FIBA said we couldn’t receive a sanction since we’re part of the USA, but they allowed me to play friendly exhibitions against FIBA teams. With IBU, we’ll be in another sanctioning body.”
What’s good for the men has been equally good for the women.
“I think it’s awesome,” said Kuehu, the former all-state player of the year at Punahou who went on to a stellar career at Hawaii. “We don’t have anything else here. To be a part of it, it can only go up. The sky’s the limit. It’s a great opportunity for local girls to represent Hawaii. That’s important to me. We needed something like this.”
Kuehu, who coaches the girls basketball team at Kealakehe, works out with her daughter and a few other young, aspiring hoopsters. She vividly recalls her experience with the Kingdom of Hawaii team two years ago.
“I went to New Zealand (in 2019). It was different, playing different competition. Our Hawaii girls are up there, especially when we get into shape. If we’re in college shape and playing our best basketball, we can play with them,” Kuehu said.
Indigenous basketball organizations are growing. In Australia, Patty Mills of the San Antonio Spurs is a one-man force.
“He sponsored their indigenous team, Indigenous Basketball Australia. We have a great relationship with them. We want to bring them and New Zealand here. If it doesn’t happen in 2021, definitely 2022,” Villa said.
Ke Aupuni Hawaii doesn’t have a sponsor. That’s where Villa puts his skills to work. His teams are not training right now, but eventually, will need to prepare when games are lined up.
“Gym availability is scarce. The most consistent place is the hongwanji (in Nuuanu). I worked out a deal,” he said.
Fundraising is arguably the key part of Villa’s role.
“I’ve worked with national teams and most people have the wrong impression. Small Pacific islands, I see their fundraising and it comes out of athletes’ pockets. Even in the USA, less popular sports, athletes are paying out of pocket, too. It makes it difficult to get players, but I’ve been able to field teams. Do you want these amazing, once-in-a-lifetime experiences? Usually, the out-of-pocket cost is minimal.”
Sponsorships, Villa noted, would be a blessing. Ke Aupuni Hawaii would be content with simple help.
“I understand that businesses are tightening their belts. Some of the more popular businesses are not ready to engage in this type of sponsorship, but if a hotel chain can help us with a couple of rooms, that helps,” he said. “Patty Mills doesn’t turn down any events. It would be awesome if our players who want to play are also our best. We’re dying to play on the international stage.”
Low has played everywhere from China to Eastern Europe. There really isn’t a place on Earth he still longs to see, but he cherishes his basketball journey.
“It’s the most valuable experience, especially if you’re an aspiring basketball player. When is the next time you’re going to play other indigenous teams? Technically, we’re not a ‘national’ team, but we are representing Hawaii. It’s fun. It means something,” said Low, who works with another ‘Iolani alum and former POY, Kyle Pape, as coaches for the PROformance youth basketball club.
“In New Zealand, we had a whole cultural experience. There was a presentation where each country sang a song. The Maori opened with their haka and a couple of songs. The Australian team did their aboriginal dance. We did a couple of our native songs. It’s very fun to go there and represent Hawaii, and you join other indigenous people. We all can relate on that level. It’s a great tool for a great cultural experience. It’s not just us who went through a bunch of things,” Low said.
Kuehu, 31, intends to play as long as possible.
“I love basketball. I want other people to love it, too. I saw this video and I got so encouraged by these older leagues. They’re 80, 90 years old playing in games. They inspire me so much,” she said. “I’m committed for life.”