The distance from Southern California to Hawaii is far enough.
For Alvin Stephenson, the day he set foot in the islands three decades ago might as well be an ocean away, too. Coming to the islands after turning down an offer from UCLA to play basketball was in his gut. Once he began playing for Tony Sellitto, he may have had second, third and fourth thoughts about the rigorous, demanding persistence of his new coach.
After eight seasons as Damien’s head coach, with a Division II state crown thanks to the Monarchs’ 73-50 win over Farrington on Saturday, Stephenson reflected on the journey. He chatted with Hawaii Prep World on Sunday afternoon.
HPW: Thank you for your patience, Coach. I was on the line with Coach Sellitto. I knew you played at HPU, and I knew Maryknoll coach Kelly Grant played for him at Maryknoll, but I didn’t connect the dots until Coach Kelly mentioned it earlier today.
Stephenson: (Sellitto) called me right before the games on Saturday and Friday and he was, ‘I guess you did learn something from me.’ He said he was proud of me. Sent goose bumps up my spine. Hearing him tell me he was proud of me was, he’s such a tough coach, and here he says something positive. All the years playing for him, of ‘Alvin, you better do this do that, (expletive) my grandmother can do better.’ But I thank him for bringing me to Hawaii. He convinced my mom to let me come to Hawaii. I was a pretty sought after athlete at Marin JC, (but) I had eye surgery. UCLA and HPU was on the table. But UCLA, I wasn’t 100-percent sold on it because Baron Davis was there. Steve Lavin was the coach, he’s from Marin. He heard about me from a trusted friend, put the offer on the table and I had a full ride, so it was my decision. I had two years to play, but to me, I had to play now. I couldn’t sit. Sellitto called me and said I’d be dumb not to come play in Hawaii, there would be sand in my feet, beautiful women everywhere. I got my degree and came to Damien to coach, so I don’t regret it.
HPW: What year was Baron Davis going to be in?
Stephenson: Baron Davis would’ve been a junior.
HPW: Ohh, that makes sense.
Stephenson: That was the best decision for me. Me being at a big school, getting caught up in the hype…
HPW: In LA.
Stephenson: HPU was perfect for me. I grew a lot coming here, learning the aloha spirit, respecting people. A coach from the mainland, you can be arrogant and you’re not going to survive here being like that. I learned how I want to be coached and how I want to coach. If I find myself being super hard on my players, I catch myself, and seeing guys completely shut down, you can break down and not be tough at all. (Sellitto) demanded we be tough. Some survived and some did not. He was that father figure I needed at the time. I didn’t like it, but I look back and it was perfect. That’s why Boogie (Damien sophomore guard Jydon Hall) reminds me a lot of myself, how me and coach wouldn’t agree. I called Coach Sellitto and I apologized.
HPW: Jydon has that fire that drives him to get better, but it got him two technical fouls in the championship game. Two that weren’t demonstrative or overly belligerent, but still something he should learn from as a sophomore.
Stephenson: For Boogie, he’s a very competitive person who spends hours in the gym. I’ll come to school 6 o’clock in the morning and I hear the ball dribbling. The gym is closing and he’s the last one in there working. I know how bad he wants it. That loss in the state championship (to St. Francis in 2018) drove him nuts. I know where he’s coming from, I’ve experienced all the things he does. Some of the things he does on the court drives me nuts, but it’s nothing to disrespect the referees or the game of basketball, he’s just trying to win.
HPW: He doesn’t quite have a filter yet.
Stephenson: He’ll grow up more as a junior. For all of them, the emotion just comes out and they don’t realize the spotlight is on them.
HPW: Well, here’s a question that you don’t have to answer, but when I was a kid, a bunch of guys I knew at Washington Intermediate School and Boys Club got recruited to schools like University and Maryknoll, and a lot of them repeated a grade. It was an honor in our eyes. But there are still people who think repeating a grade is wrong. That players who go to Damien after repeating in middle school, that is cheating.
Stephenson: I actually don’t recruit just because Damien, for some reason, people didn’t want to come there. It was difficult even to ask people to come there. Players just fell into my lap. All these guys are friends. (Former player) Dimonyai Lacey wanted to come to Damien, and then a lot of kids came here because they’re friends. For me, it’s them recruiting each other. I watch games in the summer time, but a lot of the best players want to go to Punahou or ‘Iolani, and if they play football, it’s Saint Louis. I don’t get the cream of the crop, so we have to put in the work. They come here for the education. My average team GPA right now is 3.6. Tanner (Souza) has a 4.5 and Dorien (Penebacker) has a 4.4.
Stephenson: Tanner wants to go into the Navy and his dream is to build a rocket. Dorien wants to go to MIT or Harvard. Lindon (Sevilleja Jr.) has a 3.5 and he wants to play football. Jyden has a 3.7. Hayden (Bayudan) has a 3.7. Jarvis Natividad over 4.0. Jake (Holtz) has a 3.7. Bryce (Forbes) has a 3.5.
HPW: So Bryce has an excellent 3.5, and he’s below the team average?
Stephenson: They compete with their grades. Jake will have frustration if he gets a B. Jarvis was on the side crying really upset because he has a B-plus right now. He said, ‘I have to get it up.’ The standard they hold themselves to has made this more special.
HPW: There’s a lot of online talk about Damien now, mostly positive, but there are bits and pieces that are negative.
Stephenson: I see all the comments and it takes a lot for me to not say anything back, but at the end of the day, how will it affect the kids? I said to them let me hold it on my shoulders and it motivates me as a coach to try harder. But we’ve never won a state championship in basketball and every year we were close or things didn’t operate right. And then we’re good, and people are talking good things or bad things about us. I told the kids it’s good that our team is in people’s mouths. If we stayed in D-II next year, I can see why people would be upset.
HPW: But Damien’s moving up to D-I.
Stephenson: Dorien, Tanner, Lindon have been there for years through all the hard times. The heartache and pain, that’s why they were crying on the sideline (after the championship game). They remember losing to Le Jardin (in 2017), not making states. Junior year, we had some things against our team, backs against the wall and we still made the final.
HPW: Have you had a chance to rest since last night?
Stephenson: I’m so tired, but so happy. Last year, the state final was on a Friday and Dorien said, ‘Coach, I don’t know how I’m going to last.’ He had to go up against Leif (Fautanu of University) in the ILH championship game, then Seabury Hall’s big, and then Kalani’s big in the semifinal. When we won that game it felt like we won the championship. Then we played St. Francis. It was brutal. This year, he came in and he knew what it took.
HPW: I remember hearing from people at Radford, where he started out, that Bryce couldn’t quite commit to the off-season commitment. But he’s fully dedicated at Damien, so the move worked out for him, it seems.
Stephenson: Bryce has grown a lot. When he first came in, I hate to say lazy. He knew he was talented and more skillful, but he took it for granted and took plays off and we would demand you to play hard on defense and be patient on offense. He had to get used to us. Once he did, this state tournament was amazing.
HPW: The way he defended, hit the corner 3’s, ran the floor and finished with authority, those highlight-reel dunks, I hate to say it, Coach, but it wouldn’t surprise me if some mainland program had a connection and tries to lure him to a bigger spotlight.
Stephenson: He’s very loyal. The parents are here in the military. It would just be too hard for him especially with the year he’s having. He has a couple of schools looking at him. Here, he’s a big fish in a small pond. We had Richard Williams last year. He was 6-5, had a growth spurt and he’s 6-10 right now. He moved. He’s only a sophomore so for him it makes more sense. He got picked up by a prep school and he’s getting a few looks from (colleges) in Cali. I get calls from our guys for personal advice, I was completely honest with him, this was good for him. I told him, I’m not mad at you. I’m like an uncle or big brother. You can always come back home if things don’t work out. He sent me a video of his first dunk. I think his team wants to come here for a tournament. He stays in touch with his former teammates. Him and Boogie and a few guys are pretty good friends. They wanted to graduate together. We wish him well and support him.
HPW: My editor wants a historical-impact perspective about Damien and Maryknoll winning the titles this year.
Stephenson: The perfect person to ask would be my assistant coach, Reggie Maldonado. He played basketball at Damien and graduated in ’87. Winning this, I felt a lot of different emotions for all the guys who laced the shoes up and put the Damien uniform on. I could feel their presence. Guys calling and texting Reggie good luck. It made it that much more special. In the eight years that I’ve been here (at Damien), Farrington is like the big brother, Kamehameha is like the big uncle that we all look up to. We never really got the respect that we wanted, so winning this meant a lot. A lot of people talked about the battle of Kalihi, but it was great support for basketball in the city of Kalihi. Raefe (McEnroe) was one of my favorite players, and I didn’t get any sleep at all getting ready to play against him. It was a bittersweet thing. I wanted to see him do well, but I want us to win, too.
HPW: There are very few players with the kind of versatility and playmaking skills at his size.
Stephenson: I’ve told the HPU coach about him. He’s a legit 6-4, 6-5, a big kid who can play the perimeter and post up. His court vision is another thing I love about it.
HPW: I know this is ludicrous, but I still find it fascinating the way Damien has yo-yoed in the rankings, how voters dropped the team and kept them at No. 3 or No. 4 even after the win over Maryknoll in week five. I get the reality that Maryknoll and the rest of ILH D-I had a brutal schedule compared to D-II, so maybe Damien goes 8-4 or 9-3 if you guys had opted to be there. We’ll never know, but it cracks me up to imagine a game between Damien and Maryknoll, a rematch.
Stephenson: We would love to have that. The boys feel so disrespected that people keep denying that we’re one of the top two teams in Hawaii. The comments they see just fuels them. For me, it made them play harder. They said, ‘Coach we beat them, we’ll play them right now.’ This year, we were deep enough to handle the grind of D-I and the tournament. These guys are self-motivated. That’s the beauty of it. I don’t have to tell them take 1,000 shots, and they compete with each other. I wouldn’t be surprised if they were at a park or a gym right now playing basketball.