To pursue her dream, Leiah Naeata had to make a heartbreaking decision.
The Kahuku senior relocated to Las Vegas. The two-time Star-Advertiser All-State Fab 15 basketball selection flew to the “ninth island” on Independence Day and has never looked back. She has been busy playing non-stop for the Las Vegas Storm club program and is attending Palo Verde High School.
“I’m feeling great,” she said on Tuesday afternoon. “I just told my close friends and teammates. They understand. It’s just hard (in Hawaii) being a basketball player.”
Naeata averaged 12 points per game last season, often posting double-doubles while playing point guard on offense and center on defense. She was voted by coaches and media No. 6 in the Fab 15. As one of Hawaii’s premier hoopsters, she was certainly one of the most versatile as a junior. She was prepared to lead Kahuku as a senior, but the COVID-19 pandemic changed the location and trajectory of her career on the hardwood.
Locally, there is a dearth of playing opportunities in the offseason. Leagues that offer varsity girls divisions often cancel because of a lack of interest from schools and clubs. The lockdown on Oahu made it difficult for hoopsters to get drills and reps as parks were locked up.
“I think the month before I moved, I decided. It was a hard decision for me and my family. I’ve gotten way more exposure here than I did in Hawaii,” she said. “It first started happening when quarantine started happening, when my (808 Basketball) club coaches, Hinano (Higa) and Bobby (Keanini) told our team there wasn’t going to be any traveling. I was shocked.”
Often, island players get their first serious looks from college coaches in Las Vegas and tournaments like the End of the Trail Tournament in Oregon. The EOT was cancelled, but basketball has continued without much of a hitch in states like Nevada.
“That was supposed to be a huge trip for me. I took the liberty to do some research and talked to my family members (on the mainland). I wanted to have input from them before I talked to my parents (Ford and Leialoha),” Naeata said.
It was a tough sell. Naeata’s mother, grandmother and great-grandmother graduated from Kahuku. Her proposal was to move to Utah or Las Vegas to live with relatives.
“I actually made a slide presentation. I was originally going to live in Utah with my dad’s sister, but he felt it was better to go to Vegas and live with his brother (Mosese Naeata),” she said.
Mom and dad relented.
“It was the hardest decision for me as a father regarding my daughter,” Ford Naeata said. “(Earlier) I was against sending her to private school in Honolulu because I didn’t want her to leave home, yet obviously I went against my own judgment later. She was determined and set on accomplishing her dream to play basketball at the next level, to use it as a tool to help pay for her college.”
Naeata also got input from another former All-State selection, Jalen Tanuvasa, who transferred from Maryknoll to a Las Vegas school last year. She moved up with her family. Tanuvasa parlayed her year-round exposure into a scholarship offer from San Jose State. She committed to the Spartans on Sept. 5.
“Jalen and her dad told me about Las Vegas Storm and they had open arms for her,” Naeata said.
Prior to Tanuvasa, another local player, Dahlis Sablay, moved to Las Vegas due to her mother’s medical issues. The former Mililani point guard is now playing at Southern Oregon.
The Storm, coached by Shay Johnson, have two varsity-level teams, National and Premium. Naeata plays for the stronger team, National. Before arriving, the 5-foot-8 guard had to get temporary guardianship paperwork done.
“It was a very rough month getting everything ready, making sure I’m eligible to go,” she said.
Naeata plans to return to Kahuku after high school basketball season ends, but with no scholarship offers on the table yet, it is wait-and-see mode.
She began practicing with the Storm on July 6, and they practice two to three times per week. There have been two tournaments in Utah, and a tournament in Las Vegas. In October, there will be tourneys in Arizona, Utah and Las Vegas again.
“So far, it’s been around 25 or 30 games. This is a record for me,” she said. “The skill level from Hawaii to Vegas is a major difference. I had to adapt to how they play. It’s more intense, faster and more contact. I just want to get better.”
In addition, her school team plays offseason hoops.
“We have a Palo Verde club team as well, and we’re in a fall league. So every week I play with them. The first game is tomorrow (Wednesday). Our (regular) season is supposed to start in January,” Naeata said.
Her role with the Storm utilizes her multi-position skills.
“I feel like it is very simplified. I don’t really play point guard as much, which is what I wanted to do. Over here, I play shooting guard and play point guard when I need to. I post up on the mismatches when I get the smaller guards,” she said. “Our practice is 7-9 (p.m.). If we finish early we’ll get extra shots up. It’s about how I utilize my time, time management.”
The Storm have age-group teams that keep their facility busy.
“There’s a park nearby. My auntie (Sui) and cousin (Li‘i) like to rebound for me. Me and my auntie go to 24-Hour Fitness and I can get my reps in there,” she said. “Summerlin, it’s different from the North Shore, where it’s loud. In Summerlin, it’s really quiet and mostly elderly people. Really peaceful. We try not to be loud.”
Meanwhile, back in Hawaii, the state’s second lockdown has prolonged the closure of school gyms, City and County gyms and parks.
“Basketball, school and church is pretty much my whole life now. My uncle and auntie (Sui) have two kids, but we have visiting families almost every week and there’s a lot of cousins nearby, so we visit all the time. I’m the oldest grand-daughter on both sides, so there’s a lot of younger kids and it’s a lot of babysitting, but a lot of fun,” Naeata said.
She has offers from schools across the horizon, from Division II to community colleges. Utah Valley, a D-I program, is in contact. She has has some interest in UC Santa Barbara, where former Kamehameha sharpshooter Kiana Vierra plays.
“I’ve been sending them film,” Naeata said. “Kiana is a good friend of mine.”
The transition to a new home hasn’t been easy in the social world. There have been anonymous critics.
“I’ve heard a lot of that since I got here. A lot of people outside, people who believe I should’ve just stayed there, that I wasn’t ready to play on the mainland. I’ve gotten used to it and I love improving from where I was,” Naeata said. “On social, when I used old stories for reference, and people would comment about why am I up here.”
She stays in touch with her family constantly.
“My parents call every day. They do worry a lot. I’ve travelled with my (808 Basketball) team a lot before. They have to work and couldn’t always travel, so that helped me be more independent. I call and I like to talk to my sisters Kaylah and Tajah,” Naeata said. “They’re my best friends.”
It is a big sacrifice, chasing the dream. Naeata, who has a 3.5 grade-point average, doesn’t have a dream school in mind for the next level.
“Honestly, right now, I’d go for any college that would pay for my tuition. That’s my main goal,” she said.
Her other goal is to major in pre-medicine.
“Then go to medical school and take all the steps to become a psychiatrist. I’ve seen how it has helped people I love,” Naeata said. “I just want to give back.”
Top 3 movies/shows
1. “Hawaii 5-0.” “The recent one. My favorite character is Max, the medical examiner. He’s awkwardly funny.”
2. “Grey’s Anatomy.” “I say Jill Wilson.”
3. “The Office.” “My favorite character is Dwight.”
Top 3 food/snack/drinks
1. Cake noodle from Laie Chop Suey. “That would be the first place I would go.”
2. Steak. “My auntie (Sui) makes it at home. Frying pan and butter.”
3. Hot dog and pork and beans. “I had it last week. It’s my favorite meal and it’s so easy to make. I fry the hot dog and add the pork and beans, and brown sugar.”
Top 3 music artists
1. Neyo. “Probably ‘Because of You.’ “
2. Chris Brown. “This Christmas.”
3. Earth Wind & Fire. “Boogie Wonderland.”
New life skill
Naeata: “I know how to use a dishwasher now. I never used one before.”
Naeata: “My sisters. My grandma (Leialoha Finai). My aunties, uncles. My cousins and my family that I live with here.”