Joy. Utter joy.
That is the overwhelming vibe emanating from high school basketball gyms this April.
It’s called Friday Night Prime Time and it has to be seen to be believed.
What is it, though? High school basketball in April?
Friday Night Prime Time fills the hardwood with players who typically wouldn’t have had a chance. They are special-needs and at-risk students, with peer mentors joining in.
When you see the players during a game, it’s absolutely incredible. Nearly every one of them is smiling and having fun. And hustling. And competing.
And the fans really get into it and cheer hard for everyone out there.
At Waipahu on Friday night, the Marauders’ band took up the whole end section of gym. The school’s cheerleaders were also there to support the players.
The program, in its fourth year, continues to steadily grow. There are eight public high schools with teams — Aiea, Kaiser, Kalani, McKinley, Moanalua, Pearl City, Roosevelt and Waipahu.
In its inaugural season in 2016, there were only two teams — Roosevelt and Kalani.
Nathan Murata, who was a guiding force in starting it up, is getting calls from other schools interested in participating next season and beyond.
“We wanted to give the kids the exposure to participate in an interscholastic-sanctioned event — not just to play, but to compete to win like everybody else,” he said.
“Kids with special needs and those who are at risk oftentimes may not have that opportunity. This gives them an opportunity to be part of a team, to ride the school bus to away games like regular student-athletes.”
Murata is the Dean of the College of Education at the University of Hawaii, and Friday Night Prime time is run by UH with help of many sponsors.
Friday Night Prime time is an offshoot of Team Prime Time of Los Angeles.
“I spoke to an executive of Team Prime Time and he thought we could do something in Hawaii like they were doing,” said Murata, whose background in education was in adaptive physical therapy.
Murata got together with some colleagues from UH’s kinesiology department and made it work.
“It’s a college-run thing,” he said. “We are working with the OIA to see if they want to pick it up. They’ve been very supportive. Who knows? Maybe they can make it a Division IV in the future.”
As a matter of fact, OIA executive director Raymond Fujino is one of the volunteer referees who has been trained to be flexible with the rules while maintaining authenticity.
“We’re trying to make this as authentic as we possibly can,” Murata said, “with the bottom line of school spirit, school pride and personal pride.”
A newspaper article and a TV news story last year featuring Friday Night Prime Time has helped the program grow.
“The phones started to go off the hook,” Murata said.
On the court, at least one peer mentor is in the game, typically working to distribute the ball to all of the other teammates.
“Sometimes near the end of the game, if things are going well, we pull the peers off,” said Murata, who is an Ohio State graduate.
“It’s a feel-good thing. Everybody cheers for every basket. When the players walk away from it, they wear their jerseys to school. That is the piece that drives me.”
To get ready for the weekend games, the teams also hold practice sessions during the week.
All teams played three games this season. Doubleheaders were held at two sites on April 5 and 12.
On April 13 at McKinley, the four East teams played against the four West teams, and all winning squads got to keep the game ball.
“I had a lot of fun with my partners,” said Aiea player Antonio Kalahiki-Basque after a Friday loss to Pearl City. “We had it … we almost had it, but we lost it. But we’ll get it next time.
“You have to practice every day and it’s really awesome. It’s hard, but you’ll get it when you practice more and more.”
Nathaniel Okamoto, a peer mentor for Aiea, said, “There’s not too many opportunities for them. To see them having fun makes me feel really good and you can tell they’re feeling good about themselves, too.”
“It expands your horizons,” Aiea peer mentor Wyatt Villarmia added. “You help them out with it and it’s really a blessing. Every time they score a basket, you gotta jump up and down and you just gotta get excited because they rarely get to play. They don’t see this kind of thing.”
Pearl City player Reace Porcelli has loved basketball for a long time, but he did not play on a school team previously. He plays the sport a lot, though.
“I like to play with my family (here),” he said with pride after the Chargers’ win over Aiea on Friday. “They don’t go out and watch me (playing pickup games). This is the first time my mom went.”