Last Wednesday, Hawai’i forward Kamaka Hepa and I were scheduled to have a phone interview. We spoke for 20 minutes, then an interesting question came out of my mouth. It caught the native Alaskan off guard.
The question was “What is one word you would use to describe your basketball journey?”
After 10 seconds of silence, and a “wow, that’s a question there,” he seemed to get choked up on the other end of the line.
His response eventually: “Surreal.”
The journey began in the northernmost city of Alaska in a small place called Utqiagvik. A remote village that is best known for an eight-part NFL Network series on its local high school football team, the Barrow Whalers, in 2015.
Utqiagvik will always be known as home for Hepa. His mother is a native Alaskan and his father is a native Hawaiian. Now you might ask: How the hell did people in two of the most remote places in the world meet?
After Hurricane Ikini in 1992, Roland Hepa moved up to Alaska with his cousins. He got the call on Wednesday, booked a ticket on Friday, and arrived in Alaska on Saturday. That day, he met Taqulik and the rest was history. Kamaka came a few years later and the Hepa family grew in town.
There were already a few family members around as his mother was native Inupiat, so Kamaka had a lot of cousins to grow up around. In the summer, they would play basketball on the dirt roads that led to nowhere. In the winter, they would go riding on skidoos and four-wheelers.
This created an awesome connection at a young age. They carried that onto the basketball court where they won Alaskan high school state titles in Kamaka’s freshman and sophomore seasons.
“It was a really different experience, but it was very special,” Hepa told Mid-Major Madness. “We all played together, so the chemistry that we had playing since we were in diapers almost kind of trickled through my whole entire career up until I moved to Portland.”
It was all eye-opening from a young age for Hepa. He started taking two-hour flights to play basketball in 2nd grade. They would have to fly an hour or two to either Fairbanks or Anchorage to get anywhere. As I mentioned earlier, they couldn’t take a car because there is no road system that leads anywhere in Utqiagvik.
But with these experiences, he and his cousin found their true potential. In a remote town, it’s tough to decipher just how good you are at something. They tested the waters and did it just for fun. They then started beating teams and realized how good they were.
Through Kamaka’s two years at Barrow High School, he was Alaska’s Gatorade Player of the Year in each while leading Barrow to a state title.
“But it still felt kind of weird, surreal at the time — being that young and getting that recognition,” Hepa said. “Being in Alaska, knowing that coaches aren’t going to be coming up there to find college prospect’s that much, so, I decided that it would be best for me to move someplace closer, really to the mainland.”
High school on the mainland
Hepa embarked on his first new journey, enrolling in Jefferson High School in Portland, Oregon in March 2016.
Although his mother had to stay back in Alaska for work, his father and brother moved with him. She would visit during holidays or during work trips, but everything was a culture shock to Hepa.
“The first couple months, I felt like I was very different in terms of how I dress, how I talk, and how I interacted with people,” Hepa said. “The first time is always the hardest. That was the first time for me moving but looking back on it, I’m very happy.”
He continued to get comfortable. During his junior season, he led Jefferson to the 6A Oregon state title while averaging a double-double on the boards. In his senior year, he was named the Oregon Gatorade Player of the Year while averaging 16.5 points, 10.4 rebounds, and 6.2 blocks per game.
This all culminated in Kamaka being named a four-star recruit and choosing the University of Texas over the likes of Arizona, Miami, Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, Oregon, Stanford, USC, Washington, and many more.
“(The recruitment) was really a surreal feeling for somebody that grew up in such a remote place, somewhere that feels so far away,” he said. “It really capitalized on my love for the game. It added a whole other dimension to it. It was a great experience, it all happened so quick but it was something that was so pivotal to my life in terms of switching up the trajectory of how my life could’ve went, growing up in Alaska.”
Eyes of Texas
In the fall 2018, Hepa started his college journey in Austin, Texas. He was in a place where he not only had a ton of freedom and fun (as does any college student, amirite), but where he felt like he started to become a man.
“I felt like that was where I grew up, kinda started to become more of a man,” he said. “Texas was definitely critical to who I want to be and my progression as a human being.”
On Nov. 6, 2018, he made his college debut against Eastern Illinois. He scored six points, a number that would be his career- high until he made his first start on Feb. 27 against Baylor.
During that game, you could see flashes of his full potential. He played 39 of the 40 minutes, scored 11 points and nabbed in four rebounds.
Next season, he started 10 games and scored a career-high 15 points against Oklahoma State.
That would pretty much be all for his Texas career though. His minutes plummeted his junior season, and Hepa entered his name in the transfer portal, choosing to finish his college career at Hawai’i over offers from Colorado State and San Francisco.
One of Hawai’i Pono’i
“This is where I want to be,” Hepa said during our convestation. “My dad’s from here. Just in regards of being able to see the other side of my family and what that was like for him to grow up, actually living in Hawai’i myself and kinda catching a glimpse of what life was like for him.”
Hepa began his career with the Hawai’i Rainbow Warriors in the 2021-22 season, gaining instant respect from his team, and being named a tri-captain.
He started all 26 games that season, led the team in blocks, and scored double-digits 11 times. Along with those accolades, he was named the team’s community service award winner.
There is more than just basketball to Hepa.
“It means everything to me,” he said. “I really love Hawai’i, because there aren’t any professional teams out here, so the way that people treat us is as their professional athletes. I feel like the kids community out here looks up to us. I think it’s important that we carry ourselves a certain way and express a certain gratitude to represent Hawai’i on our chests. It’s a very big thing.”
This season, it has shown not only for Hepa but the whole team. The Rainbow Warriors won the Diamond Head Classic tournament, which is hosted at their home arena the Stan Sheriff Center, for the first time in program history.
The wins not only gained the eyes of many people on the island but the country. They beat the likes of Pepperdine, SMU, and Washington State, finishing non-conference play with a 9-3 record.
“That didn’t even feel real, I can’t even describe it,” Hepa said. “We had nothing to lose and I think we played that way. We showed the ability that we do have and more importantly gave something to the state of Hawai’i.”
Hepa has since led the Rainbow Warriors to a 16-6 record, set up well in the race for the Big West regular season title. It is Hawai’i’s best start since the 2016 team that beat Cal in the NCAA Tournament.
A lot can be credited to his 10.9 points and 6.8 rebounds per game.
The surreal journey continues
It's only the start of what’s hopefully a long basketball journey for Kamaka Hepa. From Alaska to Portland to the bright lights of Austin, Texas, to the late nights of Manoa, Hawai’i, he has experienced a lot for a 23-year-old.
It has been nothing short of “surreal.”
Let’s go back to that opening question; Hepa feels blessed.
“Thinking about it, it’s like man ... not a lot of people from my village get to experience this,” he said. “So, it’s just something that doesn't necessarily feel real all the time. Just where I come from and where I’ve been and the experiences that I’ve had. Just sitting back behind that and taking it in, it’s like, wow. It actually doesn’t feel real sometimes.”