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From the Top of the World to the Edge of a Dream: Kamaka Hepa’s journey from Alaska to Division I hoops

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AUGUSTA, Ga. — Kamaka Hepa’s pursuit of becoming the first Inupiaq (Eskimo) to play in the NBA took him to Nike’s Peach Invitational last week, where he stepped on the court as a top 50 prospect being pursued by Shaka Smart, Mark Few and a dozen other coaches 3,700 miles from his hometown of Barrow, Alaska.

A town located 300 miles inside the Arctic Circle, the northernmost community in the United States, made up primarily of Inupiat.

A town that Hepa didn’t leave until tragedy struck.


Barrow, Alaska, is as unique as it is isolated.

Only accessible by plane, Barrow is as far North as you can get while remaining within the boundaries of the United States. When the thermostat cracks 50 degrees during the summer, it’s a scorcher. The temperatures during the winter months hover around -20 degrees and can drop as low as -50. The sun never sets in June and early July and residents go more than a month, from Thanksgiving through early February, without seeing the sun rise above the horizon.

One of eight villages that make up the North Slope region of Alaska, Barrow is steeped in the traditions of the native population. “The Inupiat people lived there for thousands of years,” said Roland Hepa, Kamaka’s father who is of Hawaiian and Filipino descent. “It’s their land.”

And the Inupiat live off of it.

It’s not easy, or cheap, to ship the processed food found at every grocery store in the Lower 48 states up to Barrow, meaning much of the population relies on subsistence hunting. It’s a means to survival in one of the most inhospitable places on Earth.

“People attack our subsistence lifestyle because we kill animals,” Kamaka said. “It’s not something we do for game or just because. It’s how we survive.”

One of the animals that the Inupiat hunt is Bowhead Whales, a species that was nearly driven to extinction by intense commercial whaling in the 18th and 19th centuries. Whale hunts are local tradition, a cultural norm that is inextricably woven into the fabric of the community.

“It’s a really long process, like two or three weeks,” Kamaka explained. “There’s different crews, and a whole bunch of people that will go out onto the Arctic Ocean while it’s frozen and set up camp where the ice meets the water. They’ll set up camp there for however long they have to until they get a whale.”

“It can feed a whole community. Whenever there’s a whale caught, the crew that caught it will put a flag on top of their house and the whole community will come and get their share of the whale. Everybody can come and get some. It kind of goes quick, but because there are multiple crews, multiple whales are caught. It continues for a whole process. They’ll save some and have a big gathering, called Nalukataq. It’s basically where the whole community will gather in one area, and we’ll do different cultural things, like dancing and games, and different crews will serve on different days, the elders and their families. It will continue for a weekend. I miss it.”

Basketball in Barrow is unique as well. When the warmest summer temperatures still require jackets, kids aren’t exactly clamoring to play baseball or football. Basketball, however, is hugely popular, because, as Roland put it, “the kids would rather stay in the gym and play basketball.” Only about 225 kids attend Barrow High School, the only high school in the area, which makes traveling to games a logistical nightmare. The Whalers have to fly to every game in every sport, and they fly in opponents that play in Barrow, including the other three high schools in their conference — Nome, Bethel and Kotzebue.

To ease the burden of travel costs, whenever the Whalers would play games in their league, they would play on back-to-back nights, flying in on Thursday, playing on Friday and Saturday and returning to Barrow on Sunday. They also played in quite a few tournaments in bigger cities like Anchorage and Fairbanks during the season in order to fill out their schedule. The relative scarcity of home games and the fervor with which the community supports basketball creates a raucous environment whenever a team did make the trip up to Barrow.

“The games are crazy,” Kamaka said. “The whole community is there, supporting. It makes it easy for us to feel passionate about the game.”

That community support is part of the reason it took Kamaka so long to make the decision to pursue the sport at a higher level.


Alaskan high school basketball is better than you realize, but even then, Kamaka had likely outgrown it by the time he reached his sophomore season in high school. A 6-foot-9 stretch-four that needs to develop toughness, strength and the ability to finish through contact and over length is only going to get so far playing at that level. Kamaka began attending exposure events as early as sixth grade, and according to his father, offers to play in the Lower 48 were rolling in before he had even reached high school.

Everyone — Kamaka, his family, his community — knew that, eventually, he would leave. The family often talked about when the right time to move south would be, but actually making the decision to move away from the only place you’ve ever called home is not easy for anyone, let alone a 15-year old.

“Our high school boys basketball team had never won a state championship, but when him and his classmates became freshmen, they had a couple of really good players,” Roland said. “Our community expected us to win a state championship. Our whole town was counting on us. So we weren’t going to make him move his freshman year.”

“Our community would have probably disowned us,” he added with a laugh.

So Kamaka stayed.

He won a state title as a freshman.

And the discussions began anew.

“There were options out there,” Roland said, but Kamaka wasn’t yet ready to leave.

Kamaka Hepa, Jon Lopez/Nike

Then came November 23rd, 2015, when Kawika Hepa, Kamaka’s oldest brother, died unexpectedly in Anchorage. He was just 29-years old. The family did not want to discuss Kawika’s death, but the tragedy shook Kamaka. He was a teenager, invincible on the court and a hero in his community. He never realized how fleeting life can be.

“Before he passed away, my brother wanted me to get out of Alaska,” Kamaka said. “The competition’s not terrible, but we thought there was more out there for me. He was always a big factor in that. He wanted me to play against the best players I could and get my game as good as I can. He thought that by moving, I would be able to do that.”

“When he passed away, I just had to do that for him.”

Kawika died a few days before the start of Kamaka’s sophomore season. In early December, he received a call from Reggie Walker, the director of Portland Basketball Club, a Nike-affiliated team that plays on the EYBL circuit. In February, Kamaka visited a few high schools in Portland, and a week after winning his second straight state title in Alaska, Kamaka was en route to Oregon with his family.

It’s been nearly 16 months since the Hepa family made the move, and Kamaka is thriving. From a personal standpoint, the adjustment that comes with moving to a city from a village of less than 5,000 people in the Arctic has been relatively easy for him. Basketball has allowed him to travel constantly throughout his younger days, and he would often visit his father’s family in Hawai’i. The family has, for the most part, remained together — Kamaka’s two older sisters are both living on their own, and his mother commutes between Portland and Barrow — knowing that the sacrifice they are making is what is best for their son.

“The only thing we miss is the family. When [my wife]’s home alone, you start missing each other,” Roland said. “We have a lot of family up there as well. Growing up in a family atmosphere, all of a sudden we move to a city where you make new friends, which is fine, we can make new friends, but that’s just not the same when you have family. That’s the only area where we feel the sacrifice.”

“My oldest son, he went to a private school and when [Kamaka] was ready to travel, we decided it’s probably best that we move with them.”

From a basketball perspective, things are going even better. Kamaka’s played on the most competitive circuit in high school basketball, the EYBL, in the spring and summer the past two years. He enrolled at Jefferson High School in Portland and won the 2017 state championship, his third ring in three years. He’s been working out two and three times a day since moving south and has slowly been climbing up the recruiting rankings; 247 Sports currently has him as the No. 50 player in the composite Class of 2018 rankings.

Best I can tell,* he is on track to become the first Inupiaq to play Division I basketball and the first Native Alaskan to play since former Oral Roberts forward Damen Bell-Holter graduated in 2013-14. Bell-Holter spent some time with the Celtics after he graduated, but was waived before the season began. Kamaka, who has the talent to one day do so, would be the first of his people to reach the NBA, and to my knowledge, Bell-Holter is the only Native Alaskan to spend time on an NBA roster.

*(I cannot find anyone else in my research. If you know of anyone I am missing, please email or tweet me.)

But Kamaka is not worried about that right now.

He’s mostly worried about the rain.

“Snow is better than rain,” Kamaka, chuckling, said of his new digs. “I’d take snow over rain any day. It just changes the whole mood.”

Clemson basketball returns home after Barcelona van attack

(Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images)
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CLEMSON, S.C. (AP) — Clemson’s basketball team arrived back on campus, a day after a deadly van attack in Barcelona that occurred just outside their hotel.

The Tigers were preparing to play their fourth and final game of a summer tour of Spain when a van drove up on a sidewalk and crashed into scores of people in Las Ramblas promenade, killing 13. Clemson canceled the final game and flew back home as scheduled Friday.

Teams from Arizona and Oregon State were also staying at the hotel. A fourth team, Tulane, was in Barcelona at a different hotel. All of the schools said their parties were unharmed.

Clemson coach Brad Brownell tweeted Friday the team had landed in Atlanta and was “excited to be back in this great country.”

Tulane’s new court design brings back ‘Angry Wave’

(Photo courtesy of Tulane Athletics' Twitter account)
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Tulane’s court design is a throwback.

On Friday night, the school revealed the new look inside Devlin Fieldhouse, with the old “Angry Wave’ logo taking its place at center court.

A little over a year ago, Tulane University announced that the old ‘Angry Wave’ logo would be reincorporated into the athletics department as a secondary logo.

Over half a century ago, the “Angry Wave” was born and became one of the most visible marks of Tulane Athletics.  Together for the first time with the “T-Wave” the Green Wave now boasts one of the most unique sets of logos in collegiate athletics.

The Green Wave finished the 2016-17 season with a 6-25 (3-15 AAC) record. The program is currently on a foreign tour in Barcelona.

Five-star big man names final two schools

(Photo by Kelly Kline/Under Armour)
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There are only two schools in contention for the services of five-star big man Nazreon Reid.

On Friday night, the 6-foot-10 New Jersey native named Arizona and LSU as the two finalists. Before the start of the July live evaluation period, Reid had trimmed his list to seven programs. Kansas, Kentucky, Louisville, Seton Hall, and UCLA did not make the latest cut.

The Roselle Catholic High School center has ties to commits from both programs. Jahvon Quinerly, who picked Arizona over Villanova earlier this month, played with Reid, winning championships in 2015 and 2016 with Sports U in the Under Armour Association. According to Andrew Lopez of NOLA.com, Reid has developed a friendship with LSU pledge Javonte Smart through USA basketball and the grassroots circuit.

Reid’s commitment will bolster an already star-studded recruiting class for Sean Miller, as Quinerly is accompanied by five-star recruit Shareef O’Neal and four-star guard Brandon Williams. With Dusan Ristic exhausting his eligibility and DeAndre Ayton destined to be a top-10 pick in next summer’s NBA Draft, Reid would play a key role down low for the Wildcats during the 2018-19 season.

For LSU, this would add additional momentum for new head coach Will Wade. Since taking over the program in March, Wade has landed commitments from Smart and Tremont Waters.

Reid is listed as No. 13 overall player in the Class of 2018, according to Rivals.

Duke recruit Bagley hoping to play in the 2017-18 season

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Marvin Bagley III, widely considered the top recruit in the class of 2018, reclassified this week and could be eligible to play for Duke in the upcoming season.

His decision immediately thrusts the Blue Devils toward the front of the national-title conversation for the 2017-18 season.

But what exactly does it mean to reclassify and how does the process work?

According to the NCAA, all incoming student-athletes must complete 16 core courses from a list that includes English, math, natural or physical science, social science, foreign language, comparative religion or philosophy. Classes such as physical education, health and music do not count as core courses, nor do remedial classes or classes completed through credit-by-exam.

The student-athlete must also show proof of graduation from high school and have an ACT/SAT test score that corresponds to his or her core course GPA on a sliding scale; the higher the GPA, the lower the standardized test score needs to be.

The NCAA eligibility center’s amateurism team then determines whether to certify a student-athlete. The process and requirements are the same for every sport.

Bagley is scheduled to graduate from Southern California’s Sierra Canyon High School later this month, completing his course work a year ahead of schedule. His transcripts may be a little more complicated because he attended three different high schools and the NCAA will review his final transcript following his graduation to determine if he is eligible to play Division I basketball.

Bagley’s move is not unprecedented.

Through the years, five-star prospects who want to get a jump on their college careers — and potentially professional careers — have gone through the same process, though usually not right before the fall semester begins as Bagley did.

Mike Gminski is considered the leave-high-school-early originator, graduating a year early so he could play at Duke in 1976. He went on to become an All-American and played 17 NBA seasons.

In recent years, Kansas’ Andrew Wiggins, North Carolina State’s Dennis Smith Jr., Duke’s Derryck Thornton and Kentucky’s Karl-Anthony Towns were among the student-athletes who graduated early to play college basketball sooner. Kentucky’s Hamidou Diallo graduated a semester early and joined the Wildcats in January last season, but did not play. He declared for the NBA draft before deciding to return to Lexington.

Jontay Porter reclassified this year so he could play a year early with his brother, top recruit Michael, at Missouri. Canadian guard R.J. Barrett, considered the top recruit in 2019, has reclassified so he can graduate in 2018.

“With AAU and year-round competition basically, a lot of the players are ready for college-level play at an earlier age,” Gminski told WRAL in Raleigh, North Carolina, in 2015. “And most of these guys have been around a lot. They do a lot of traveling. They tend to mature pretty fast.”

Early graduation in football became popular in the early 2000s, though they typically only do it a semester early to enroll in college for the spring semester and participate in spring practices.

Baseball player Bryce Harper left his Las Vegas high school after his sophomore season and earned his GED so he could start playing professional baseball sooner. He played one season for the College of Southern Nevada and was taken with the No. 1 overall pick in the 2010 MLB draft by the Washington Nationals.

An opposite trend has started playing out in recent years, with parents holding their kids back a year so they can become bigger, stronger and more polished — some as early as middle school. Many top-tier recruits hold off going to college for a year, instead playing for elite prep schools after graduation for more seasoning and exposure.

Bagley opted for the get-to-college-early route, changing the landscape in college basketball in the process

Did Nike plagiarize JellyFam, Minnesota freshman Isaiah Washington to sell kid shoes?

Kelly Kline/Under Armour
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The JellyFam movement started as nothing more than a way for a little New York City point guard to add some flair to his game, a way to stunt on an opponent when you can’t dunk on that opponent, and has grown into something no one, not even Isaiah Washington, could have imagined.

Washington is that little point guard, and a few years ago, he and a couple of his hooping buddies coined the jelly, which, at its root, is essentially nothing more than a finger roll. Where the magic happens is when that finger comes after weaving around an opponent or finishing the layup despite the presence of a shot-blocker at the rim, with a sprinkle of NYC Point God showmanship. Think Kyrie Irving’s layup package if they happened at Rucker Park with an And1 Mixtape crew filming the game:

What JellyFam has turned into is a full-blown, grassroots movement powered by social media.

And while Washington is the face of the movement, it’s not just him. A half-dozen other talented New York hoopers are members of JellyFam, but Washington is the star. He’s a celebrity on the city’s hoops scene, drawing massive crowds wherever he goes and garnering more than 335,000 followers on Instagram despite having just 27 posts on the site. It’s not as if Washington is a sure-fire NBA All-Star, either. He’s a 6-foot-1, 160 pound point guard that doesn’t crack the top 50 on any of the major recruiting services and is headed to Minnesota to play his college ball.

His popularity is tied directly to the movement that he created.

It’s a shame, however, that he cannot profit off of it, not if he wants to remain an amateur that is eligible to play college basketball.

That doesn’t stop corporations from profiting off of what he has created.

Today, Nike released a new colorway for the kid size PG1s, Paul George’s signature shoe, that has been dubbed the ‘JellyFam PG1’. It’s being sold for $90 on their website right now. This is what it looks like:

What you’ll notice, in addition to purple and turquoise colors that are a staple in the JellyFam gear that Washington wears, is the straps. On the right foot, it says “score in bunches”. On the left foot, you’ll see a design that looks like basketballs on a grapevine … or the grape emoji, with basketballs instead of grapes.

Washington and the rest of the members of JellyFam have adopted the grape emoji as their own when posting on social media.

According to a Nike spokesperson, these shoes were “inspired by Paul George’s love for fresh grapes.”

What Nike is doing here is wrong.

They are trying to capitalize on a movement created by athletes that are not allowed to monetize something they built simply because of the NCAA’s amateurism rules. They are stealing the work created by these young men simply because they can. At worst, this is plagiarism.

Washington did not respond to messages from NBC Sports, but on Friday morning he tweeted, “It’s crazy bro they know I can’t so they just take advantage.” That tweet has since been deleted.

If you read this space, you know my feelings on the NCAA and amateurism. It’s wrong and it needs to be changed, but that’s another column for another day that’s been written thousands of times.

This column is much simpler: An international, multibillion-dollar company like Nike is already profiting off of the unpaid labor of amateur athletes.

Stealing their art, their work, their movement to try and sell sneakers to kids for $90 is despicable.

And I’m not sure there’s anything else to add.