After only starting a dozen games in his three years playing for the University of Texas, Kamaka Hepa transferred to the University of Hawaii in April 2021. However, the former Alaska high school basketball star said getting more playing time wasn’t the main motivation in his decision to transfer.
“It was really a combination of different things,” Hepa said.
One was the departure of the coach that had recruited him to the Texas program. He said the relationship he was able to establish with the Hawaii coaching staff during the recruiting process was an even bigger factor than the chance at more playing time.
“Going through the recruiting process, Hawaii just seemed to be the best fit for me on and off the court,” Hepa said.
Hepa not only started and excelled on the court in his first season for the Rainbow Warriors, he is also building a deeper connection to his cultural background in one of his ancestral states. He is a multi-racial athlete that was born in Utqiagvik and is of Hawaiian descent on his father’s side.
“My dad is originally from Hawaii so that was one influencing factor,” Hepa said. “Just to be able to experience the culture he was brought up in and really just reconnect with my Hawaiian heritage was a really big part of it.”
He believes that the best way to connect and familiarize himself with this part of his culture was to immerse himself in the community and fully embrace the lifestyle.
“I think the submersion of it, being in Hawaii is the best thing that I can do from myself in terms of reconnecting,” Hepa said. “The day-to-day experience of seeing what it’s like to live in Hawaii, having a couple teammates that are from Hawaii helps a lot.”
One of those teammates that grew up in Hawaii is senior Samuta Avea. Hepa had a friendship with Avea that played a factor during the recruiting process.
“He was a really good player out of Hawaii and my dad is from there so I kept tabs on him and other people that were coming out of there,” Hepa said. “The relationships I already had here, the ties I had with the state of Hawaii and the basketball program were the main contributing factors.”
Hepa says that the time he spent growing up in Alaska is the foundation of who he is both as a basketball player and as a person.
“Everything that I’ve learned as a human being which translates to basketball is because of my small village up there so it’s definitely at the foundation of everything that I’ve done,” Hepa said. “It continues to have a significant impact on my motivation to want to give back to my community and has shaped me to the person I am today.”
In addition to being part Hawaiian, Hepa’s mixed heritage also includes Inupiaq, Filipino and white. He believes that growing up in Alaska made it easy for him to be in touch with all of his diverse backgrounds but especially his Alaska Native heritage.
“It’s interesting to learn different things about my ancestors,” Hepa said. “It definitely gives me more depth to myself in terms of being able to engage in different things and learn from my different cultures and heritages.”
In his first two years of high school led the Barrow Whalers to back-to-back state championships from 2015-16 as freshman and sophomore. He did the same for Jefferson High School in Portland, Oregon, as a junior and senior from 2017-18.
Hepa was named Gatorade Player of the Year in three of his four years at the the prep level including both of the seasons he played in Alaska.
At Hawaii, he averaged a career-high 9.6 points and 5.2 rebounds per game this season. His best year to date.
“It’s been a great overall season in terms of learning more about myself as a basketball player and as a leader,” Hepa said. “It’s been a tremendous experience for me and I’ve had a lot of fun getting better with my teammates and coaches.”
He says this season was a big one for him in terms of taking that next step as a player in his most extensive playing time at the collegiate level. The 6-foot-10 junior forward is excited for the opportunity to end his career in Hawaii and intends to exercise his final year of eligibility.
“From where I was as a freshman to where I am now has really been a tremendous help for me in terms of being in shape and getting stronger,” Hepa said.
“Being able to slow down in the game in the actual moment and make decisions is another major step I’ve taken as opposed to my first year in college when I was just running around 100 miles an hour,” he added.
At Texas, he says his role on the team was that of a culture builder that was tasked with ensuring that he and his teammates were buying in to their coaches message and program philosophy. In addition to fulfilling similar duties at Hawaii, Hepa is relishing in the opportunity to make an impact on the court as a full-time starter.
“That’s still my role now and it’s a big part of my leadership role that I have here but I think that I have expanded it in terms of how I can impact the game on the court,” Hepa said.
While he wasn’t able to consistently crack the starting lineup during his time at Texas, Hepa was able to graduate with a degree in sports management and a minor in business. He made the Academic All-Big 12 First Team selection as a sophomore and was a recipient of the Dr. Gerald Lage Academic Achievement Award. Hepa is pursing a graduate degree in finance at Hawaii and still remains diligent in his studies.
“Having the same approach that I do to basketball with academics of doing whatever I can to the best of my ability because really all school takes is the effort that you put into it,” Hepa said.