(This is the long version of this morning’s story in the Star-Advertiser. Click here for the subscriber story and photos.)
It’s a family thing at Kalaheo.
Before Alika Smith had won a single game as a head coach at his alma mater, game had recognized game.
After going 24-4 as Punahou’s coach, Smith stepped down. Soon after that, he landed at his alma mater. Immediately, then-sophomore guard Josh Ko followed his coach to the Windward side. Kalaheo beat McKinley 57-42 in the final of the Division II state tournament.
A year later, with a blend of homegrown hoopsters and an influx of new contributors — including former ‘Iolani player Kupaa Harrison — the Mustangs won the 2012-13 Division I state championship. Their thrilling 60-54 overtime win over Maryknoll was probably the most exciting final in state-tourney history.
In the 2013-14 season, the Mustangs, led by Harrison, were tall, skilled and young. They got pushed around by heavier teams and worn down by deeper teams. But they were simply building back up, and now they’re at the top of the totem pole.
This season has all the earmarks of Smith’s resounding influence and reach. Kalaheo is No. 1 in the Star-Advertiser Top 10 with a 9-0 record in the rough OIA East (23-2 overall). Harrison, getting by on an injured ankle, has been a cornerstone as a skilled stretch 4/5. Or is he a 2 guard who happens to be a 6-foot-4 post defender? Another key is transfer Kaleb Gilmore, who is having a superb senior year on both ends of the floor. By no coincidence, Gilmore has matured as a distributor and floor leader as he’s gotten older. Smith, a former All-WAC guard at the University of Hawaii, has made his impact on the dynamic Gilmore.
But Kalaheo’s team success goes far beyond Harrison and Gilmore. There are skilled players up and down the roster, and one common thread is more pronounced here than anywhere else: a multitude of players who are sons of coaches or former college stars.
That gives Kalaheo a unique advantage over most opponents.
>> Kaleb Gilmore (17 points per game), son of former Chaminade guard George Gilmore
>> Kupaa Harrison (14 ppg), son of longtime Kalaheo assistant (and former Radford head coach) Tim Harrison
>> Captain Whitlock (sophomore), son of former UH guard Tes Whitlock
>> Ashton Arnold (sophomore), son of former UH coach Gib Arnold
>> Jalen Smith (freshman) and Kekai Smith (7 ppg), son and nephew, respectively, of Alika Smith. Kekai’s dad, Josh, is a former player and assistant coach.
Kalaheo certainly isn’t the only team with familial ties to UH. Maryknoll’s standout sophomore, Justice Sueing Jr., now sees his dad, a former power forward, right on the bench as an assistant coach now. Other dads, like Whitlock’s, are barely heard or seen. Tes Whitlock sits off in a corner during games, practically silent, but usually smiling.
“A lot of these kids have been around basketball for years,” said Smith, who in the gym with his father, legendary coach Pete Smith, from the time he was a toddler. “They understand the game better than the average Joe.”
Being related to the head coach at Kalaheo is a good problem. Kekai Smith, a senior guard, has been in the rotation since his sophomore year, and his leadership as a point guard has been essential as the roster turned over following the state-title season two years ago. With the addition of Gilmore and the ascent of Harrison, Kekai has relished his role.
“There’s definitely expectations you have to live up to. There’s a little pressure. He’s a big role model in my life,” he said. “Sometimes he practices with us and he’s still got that shot. He used to show me (video footage) when I was in eighth grade, showing how a little guy can maneuver around a (college) defense.”
Kekai Smith doesn’t compare himself, though, to his uncle.
“Oh no. I think he’s more offensive-minded, and I’m defensive. Like my grandfather (Pete) said, offense wins games and defense wins championships, so that’s what I try to focus on.”
Jalen Smith, a 6-5 freshman, has faced the challenge of changing positions — two years ago, he was a 5-10 shooting guard — while taking instruction from his dad, Alika.
“It’s pretty difficult, playing with older guys. He’s harder on me than Kekai because Kekai has a lot of experience,” Jalen said. “He wants me to become a better defensive player, playing inside.”
Coach Smith tries to be balanced.
“It’s human nature. You want to see your family do well. You have to get on them, then you find yourself getting on them harder than other players,” he said.
Longtime Kalaheo assistant (and current Kailua head coach) Walter Marciel was on staff for many years.
“Being a coach’s son, even with my two boys, you’re around the game all the time, talking the game, watching tape. That’s a big plus for Alika and Josh growing up, just being around that,” Marciel said. “Alika prepares his team well.”
Marciel’s sons went to ‘Iolani. Wally Jr. went on to pitch at Kansas, where he is now the director of baseball operations. Kela was a three-sport athlete who is now an assistant coach to Dean Shimamoto.
“Alika and Josh were at the gym at 4 or 5 years old at Kalaheo, and my boys were the same way. They grow into the sport, go into college, then they get out of college and they get into coaching,” Marciel said.
Harrison, like Gilmore, grew up playing the game on the Windward side. Returning there after going to ‘Iolani for a few years was a godsend. He was a sophomore off the bench, hitting a key 3-pointer in the state title game. His dad, Tim, is on the staff at Kalaheo, which would be a lot of added weight for some father-son relationships. Not this one.
“It’s kind of like two relationships and you don’t want them to get mixed together. Father and son, that’s really strong, but when you’re at the gym, it’s player to coach. He treats me like all the players,” Kupaa said.
Coming home, having a normal family night — without talk of basketball — is almost impossible.
“My mom talks about how we only talk about basketball. We’ll eat dinner after a game and talk for an hour about what I could’ve done better. Turn on the TV and see if there’s any college or NBA games, talk about that. It’s not like he forced me to be enthusiastic about basketball. I have the same passion for the game that he has,” Harrison said.
For Tim Harrison, who coached Kailua to a Division II state title in 2009, bonding with his seven children hasn’t always centered on basketball.
“I’ve only coached three of them. I coached Peter in 2009. Tyler’s main passion was baseball. With Kupaa, I’ve coached him year-round (on the Hawaii Storm team). We’ve always gone from one game to another and he doesn’t really have an interest in another sport,” he said. “I probably come down harder on him with the Storm. I heard that from my wife. With Kalaheo, Alika calls the shots. Absolutely, I can enjoy the game much better as an assistant coach.”
While Kupaa Harrison and his teammates have a clearly cerebral approach, Gilmore brings that plus verve. He had it at Maryknoll before transferring to the campus at Oneawa Hills.
“It was always up to me, so I played basketball, baseball and I tried volleyball and soccer,” Gilmore said. “I’m going to play baseball this year, but I love basketball.”
His father was a prolific scorer at Chaminade, and Kaleb may end up there, too.
“My dad used to work out with me. Now he kind of just passes it to me when I work out. He always told me to never give up, to play with energy and play my style of basketball,” he said.
The lure of Kalaheo was there for Gilmore even two seasons ago, when a rumor swirled around about the speedy guard transferring. He stayed with the Spartans for one more season — they lost to Farrington in the state semifinals — before opting to make the move.
“We mesh well together because we all played together in Kailua, playing KBA and NJB (Windward),” Gilmore said.
But these Mustangs, who also Alec MacLeod, the brother of former All-State guard/forward Wilson MacLeod, can attribute part of that natural chemistry to heritage and roots. They are, in some ways, basketball nerds to the maximum.
Captain Whitlock is far too young to remember his dad’s miraculous, running corner-3 buzzer-beater that beat BYU on a glorious night at Blaisdell Arena not so long ago. But his game is impressive. The younger Whitlock has poise, makes the right passes and has a consistent 3-point stroke. His skill set helped nicely when Kekai Smith sat for a bit with an ankle injury earlier in the season.
Arnold, though, may be the ultimate hoop nerd.
“I played football and soccer in the same season four years in a row,” said reserve guard Ashton Arnold. “But I enjoy and love basketball a lot. I’d walk into my dad’s room and he’d be watching game film or drawing up plays. I want to coach one day after I play basketball as long as I can. What we have as a team, having talent and growing up knowing how to play the game, it helps a lot, especially at practice.
“It’s always a basketball feel.”
It all starts from that seed planted years ago by Pete Smith, who learned under Merv Lopes, coached at Chaminade for a spell and returned to Kalaheo to march the Mustangs into his dynasty and legacy. Alika coached on his father’s staff when Kalaheo won the state title in 2001 with cousin Skyler Wilson starting at the point.
“Alika’s a little different from his dad,” former Kalaheo boys assistant Chico Furtado said. “He was really cerebral with a knowledge of X’s and O’s. He’s a little more emotional getting his kids to battle. (Pete) was very calm and poised.”
Furtado graduated from ‘Iolani, then played guard at Chaminade in the 1970s, crossing paths with Pete Smith. Then came decades as an assistant boys coach and head girls coach at Kalaheo. He is now the head girls coach at Maryknoll, where he has worked for decades as a counselor. Furtado coached his daughter, Nikki, at Kalaheo.
“She didn’t start playing basketball until ninth grade. She played softball at Maryknoll. She asked if she could transfer to Kalaheo. We were concerned because we wanted her to get a private-school education,” he said.
Nikki Furtado arrived at Kalaheo the same year that Brandy Richardson, a future all-state player of the year, did.
“The good thing is, she was in Brandy’s class, so we had (Nikki) concentrate on doing a couple of things well. With Brandy being the elite player that she was, getting a lot of double teams and defensive help, if you could become a great 3-point shooter, you could be a big help to her and to us. So she shot a lot before and after practice,” Furtado said. “In the state final, she hit four threes against Aiea.”
Alika’s thirst for the game was basically inherited.
“My dad was even-keeled. I say the same things, but I say it louder. We’re doing the same drills that he did back in 1984, fundamental stuff that never gets old. Some kids want to do it the fancy way, the cool way, but we talk about tradition and all those banners my father put up there, and the banners we’re starting to put up there, and these kids get it. They know what it takes. They work hard and it’s all predicated on what he taught me and what I’ve learned from him.
Everyone who knew Pete Smith also knew he was a driven student of the game.
“He said, ‘Don’t ever be satisfied or ever think you can’t learn from an assistant coach each and every day,” Alika Smith said. “Basketball is what bonded my father and I. I took it for granted. When I look back on it, we knew we were a basketball family. With him leaving us so soon, I wish I could’ve had more knowledge from him. My father came across great minds. Merv Lopes. Pete Newell.”
Excelling at the schematics and developing relationships — that’s the biggest combination of challenges in many jobs.
“I was 8, 9 years old and my father treated me like I’m one of the guys. Growing up in that atmosphere, knowing how much my father understood the game, but more than that, how much he understood people. We try to teach the same things. Being a great teammate. Being respectful to your coaches and the guys you play against. Life tools.”