From the Northern Tip of Alaska, Kamaka Hepa Is Showing the North Has Its Share of Hoops Talent
Never has a player on a USA Basketball roster had a zip code north of the place Kamaka Hepa calls home.
And it’s unlikely there ever will be.
If you look at a map of North America and see that point right at the very top of Alaska, you’re looking at a place that tugs at Hepa’s heart each time he thinks of it.
The 6-foot-9 forward from Barrow, Alaska, recently earned a spot on the 2018 USA Basketball Men’s U18 National Team, which currently is competing in the FIBA Americas U18 Championship in St. Catharines, Ontario. Hepa made the national team in his first year as an invitee to camp. It added a cherry on the top of what has been a memorable spring.
“It’s definitely a great honor to be able to play for this team, just being one of the 12 guys selected is definitely something I don’t take for granted,” Hepa said. “I’m very blessed with that opportunity to be able to compete and represent my country.”
Two years ago, after winning consecutive high school state championships in Alaska as a freshman and sophomore and being named the top player from the Last Frontier, Hepa and his parents made a difficult decision that changed his life.
He left Barrow to move south to Oregon to finish high school and play basketball, hoping to get more exposure and earn a college scholarship. Hepa spent two years not seeing much of his mother, other family members and friends, while he focused on building a future. His father and brother came with him.
Playing for Jefferson High School in Portland, Hepa earned a third consecutive state championship as a junior and came just short of a fourth as a senior while also excelling academically. He averaged 16.5 points, 10.4 rebounds and 6.2 blocks in his senior season and earned the Gatorade Player of the Year award in Oregon – after earning the Gatorade honor in Alaska as a freshman and sophomore.
He was able to return home to Barrow last month and graduate with the friends he grew up with, seeing most of them for the first time in nearly two years. It was a joyous reunion that replenished his heart after so much time spent missing the people he loved.
Hepa will leave home again in the fall and go even farther south after earning the scholarship for which he sacrificed so much. He signed with the University of Texas and coach Shaka Smart, whose fast-paced, defensive-minded style he believes fits his game perfectly.
“It has definitely been a difficult process looking back on the last couple years, having to up and leave my home that I grew up in and the community that I was raised in,” Hepa said. “It was a completely different environment. So, the adjustment I had to make moving to a bigger city was very difficult leaving my friends and family that I had back in Alaska. It was a very difficult thing for me to do, but looking back on it, it was very worth it in where I am now and the things that I’ve accomplished and the goals that I have set for myself. I would say that it worked out in the way that I wanted it to.”
Before he joins the college ranks, Hepa is trying to make the most of his first opportunity to play with the letters USA stamped on the front of his jersey. In his first contest with the national team this week against the Dominican Republic, Hepa played eight minutes and scored two points while grabbing five rebounds. Versus Panama on June 11 the next day, Hepa played 18 minutes and contributed four points and 11 rebounds. And, against Puerto Rico on June 12, he logged seven minutes, four points and three rebounds.
He said he is relishing the chance to be coached on the U18 team by University of Kansas coach Bill Self, with University of Dayton coach Anthony Grant and Wake Forest University coach Danny Manning serving as assistants.
Self said he is impressed with how far Hepa has come to chase his hoop dreams and how he plays the game.
“First of all, I’ve been in Fairbanks, Alaska, and played there,” Self said. “And I think he’s about a two-hour flight north of Fairbanks. So, he’s quite a ways up there.
“But, in the time that we’ve been together, I’ve been so impressed with his basketball IQ. I think he’s well beyond his years for most 18-year-olds. The more you coach him, the more you like him and the more you trust him. So, I certainly think he’ll have a big role on this team. I know that Texas will enjoy having him in their program.”
Hepa laughed when asked if he and Self have already started talking any trash to each other considering they are now rivals in the Big 12 Conference.
“Yeah, there has already been a little of that,” he said. “It’s definitely going to be fun playing against him the next few years in college.”
Hepa said he mostly plays center for the national team with some time at forward, too. He said he prides himself on his ability to play all over the floor, even though he’s not necessarily the most nimble player at 6-foot-9. He said focusing on trying to be a complete player probably earned him a spot on the roster this summer.
“For me, in my style of play and the role that I fit into this team, intangibles are very important, and they can help you make the team,” Hepa said. “It’s not always about how many points you score, but how you defend and how you communicate and how you can be a vocal leader on the court.”