They were in black Under Armour shirts and tan khaki shorts.
The Honokaa Dragons had just opened their week-long visit to Oahu. After a 69-57 win over host Roosevelt, the team shook hands with the Rough Riders, disappeared from the gym and emerged in their post-game outfits.
They looked very much like a cohesive unit. Not quite a military squadron, but very streamlined on and off the court.
These are not the usual 21st-century Honokaa Dragons, who have been competitive, but not quite at state-title contending level. Nor are they the early- to mid-1990s Dragons led by long-range bombing, fastbreak blazing scoring machines like Jayme Carvalho, Davin “Taich” Alip and massive (and future NFL lineman) Kaulana Noa.
They aren’t the late ’80s green-and-gold hoopsters, sparked by the physical, skilled ballers like Sy Frazier, Cheyenne Meyer, Clayton Honma.
These Dragons are a new generation, and Carvalho is at the helm, borrowing a blueprint from the previous one. Honokaa is loaded with third-year lettermen in Carvalho’s third year at the helm. They look to run off misses. They look to run off makes. But more than that, the Dragons can go fast or slow.
That showed in the win at Roosevelt. And with wins today over Pearl City (40-36) and Radford (James Alegre Invitational), Honokaa is off to a magical start in a land far away. Carvalho, now in his late 30s, still gets up and down the court even since knee surgery some months back. His vigor and penchant for the uptempo game isn’t all that different from so many pockets around the Big Island.
Fast basketball? No. Just normal, throwback hoops Big Island-style. Kohala did it for decades. So did Hilo until the recent downturn, though Carvalho sees a reborn Vikings program this season thanks to Ben Pana’s move from the girls program to the boys.
Carvalho has maximized his team’s opportunities for this trip — a total of seven games in five days — adding extra exhibition games to go with their set schedule at the Alegre tourney. Honokaa has been to this tourney for years, a natural fit going back to the years when Gentleman Jim was still robust and inspiring his former players and coaching peers (even in sports outside basketball).
Alegre passed on a few years back, but his spirit lives on through the amazing volunteer efforts of coaches and supporters at Radford High School. Sweeping floors. Putting chairs away. Manning the scoreboards and public-address mic. There’s almost nothing like it in all the islands, and it’s a tradition that lives on.
Alegre grew up in Honokaa, played for the Dragons and welcomed them when the tourney was born. Honokaa, not an easy place when it comes to basketball. Fans are hard to please, holding their teams up to an almost impossible standard that goes back through the years. But they also make Lester Bryan Armory one of the toughest gyms to play in for all opponents. When the aunties and grandmothers sitting up in the bleachers can nitpick on referees — usually with accuracy — over questionable or missed calls — it makes for some of the most entertaining and occasionally educational experiences in high school athletics.
And yes, the crowds can be as rowdy as they are sophisticated there.
“We’re trying to bring that energy back. If you don’t have anybody related on the team, you’re still going to come,” Carvalho said. “The community is really buying in on this positive attitude. We’re trying to carry it on, on the court and off.”
Now 6-0, Honokaa has more games on Thursday, Friday and Saturday before heading back to their historic district. Carvalho has all the hope in the world for their upcoming BIIF season. Honokaa is the one place I’d always felt would be the most resistant to “moving down” to Division II. But at this point, the notion is accepted, maybe even embraced. Carvalho believes in his team. A D-II state title? It’s a real possibility.
“That’s a solid team. At the end, we want to play in the D-II state tournament and maybe we’ll meet up with them again. Their press is solid. They run their offense well,” said Roosevelt coach Steve Hathaway, whose young batch of talent could be in the running for a D-II state berth by February.
Freshman guard Micah Visoria drained three of his four 3-pointers in the first half. Hathaway would love to see his team take better care of the ball — sloppy one-handed passing is not going to win him over — but he’s willing to be patient early in preseason.
“My guys are young, but I’m pleased with our team,” he said.
Roosevelt, with one experienced returnee (sophomore Jared Elwin) from last season’s senior-heavy team, is going light on the preseason game schedule. There is a huge value on all the practice time the Rough Riders can get.
“We won’t play again until the 12th,” Hathaway said.
Carvalho was a scrappy, floor-diving, almost reckless player back in the day. But he was also an aggressive, dangerous scorer from anywhere on the court. Unusual combination, perhaps, but more common in the 1990s BIIF than today. It’s no knock on players in this era, but the competition and skill levels were elite for a time.
Games were highly entertaining. Carvalho was one of the BIIF’S rollicking 20-points per game scorers during that era. Gunners like him would crack the 30-point mark more than occasionally.
“I’d rather lose a game 95-85 than 34-30,” Carvalho said to no surprise.
Looks more like the 2015-16 Dragons will be winning more often than losing, by any score.