Editor’s note: Longtime sports editor Bill O’Rear will retire from the Tribune-Herald on Friday after more than 30 years covering Big Island sports. This is the second installment in a two-part series of aloha columns.
In more than three decades of watching Big Island sports, I’ve covered a multitude of sports, including the Ironman, mixed martial arts, boxing, bowling, softball, baseball, basketball, football, track, golf, paddling, soccer, volleyball and even badminton.
In the early years, I worked as a one-man sports department and relied upon freelance writers to help cover various events. But when Pearl City’s Kevin Jakahi interned at the Trib for a summer and did an outstanding job, the newspaper hired “KJ” full time and he has written on Big Island sports ever since, more than 20 years on the job.
The Tribune-Herald moved from a six days a week newspaper to seven days in 2005 and copy editor Matt Gerhart, moved from Colorado to join the sports staff. The trio has worked together to provide solid coverage of UH-Hilo, prep and various community sports since — and, according to Tribune-Herald publisher/editor David Bock, the newspaper will keep a three-person sports staff to continue the blanket coverage.
Below are some of the highlights I remember while writing sports for the Tribune-Herald:
l The Ironman World Championships in Kailua-Kona, with legends Dave Scott and Mark Allen battling for the most coveted title in the sport. In the early years, Scott dominated before Allen finally broke through to beat the sport’s first superstar.
Amazingly, Scott seemed to always be in unbelievable physical and mental shape and would stand calmly for media interviews just minutes after finishing the grueling triathlon while Allen often headed directly to the medical tent for an IV. But once Allen beat Scott, Allen became “The Man” while Zimbabwe’s Paula Newby-Fraser was the dominant female triathlete in the early years.
l The Big Island Invitational Basketball Tournament, hosted for seven years by the University of Hawaii at Hilo. The tournament, the brainchild of then Vulcans athletic director Bill Trumbo, featured the Division II hosts and seven NCAA D-I teams.
The event attracted some powerhouse teams over the years, from nationally-ranked UConn, Louisville, Purdue, Iowa State and Cincinnati. In the final championship game in 1999, Cincinnati, led by All-American Kenyon Martin and Steve Logan, defeated Iowa State 75-60, led by future NBA players Marcus Fizer and Jamaal Tinsley.
The BIIBT featured a small handful of players over the years that became NBA stars, such UConn’s Ray Allen and Colorado’s Chauncey Billups, or who played in the league for a number of years, like UConn’s Donyell Marshall, Ohio University’s Gary Trent and Iowa State’s Fred Hoiberg.
In the BIIBT’s final two years, Jim O’Connell, Associated Press’ national basketball writer out of New York and a Hall of Fame sports writer, covered the tournament. On the final day of the last tournament, UH-Hilo upset D-I South Carolina State 87-69 with Vulcan senior guard Scotty Prather scoring 36 points. O’Connell then pumped out a 20-inch game story and shipped the copy off to 1,500 newspapers across the country who used AP.
l Interviewing former Boston Celtics great Bill Russell and ex-Los Angeles Lakers superstar Kareem Abdul-Jabbar on separate visits to the Big Island. Both were friendly, courtesy and direct in talking about their careers and other topics.
And after Russell’s interview at Hilo Civic, some youngsters came up to him to ask for autographs.
“I don’t give autographs, but I’ll shake your hand,” a smiling, yet serious Russell said, noting that youngsters should seek the autograph of more important people in their lives, like their teachers or parents.
“I’m just someone who played basketball, but thank you for asking anyway.”
On the flip side of the coin, Russell’s archrival, the late Wilt Chamberlain, another NBA Hall of Famer, played in the United States Volleyball National Championships in the late 1970s in Hilo but declined interviews. “Wilt the Stilt” was a skilled volleyball player and at 7-foot-2, he was an intimidating force at the net.
l The Aloha Classic was an all-star game for top collegiate players back in the late 1970s and early 1980s. It was usually played on Oahu, but in the last year a game was played at Hilo Civic. The star of the Big Island game was a little-known small college player out of Oklahoma named Dennis Rodman.
I interviewed the soft-spoken Rodman in what was a normal media session, long before Rodman became an NBA champion with the Chicago Bulls and turned into a colorful, outspoken character.
l An all-star basketball game at Hilo Civic that featured NBA players, including the legendary Julius “Dr. J” Erving, who scored 40 points in a 150-144 win. Erving entertained the soldout crowd with a vast array of shotmaking and high-flying dunks.
l A U.S. vs. Japan women’s volleyball match between two of the world’s top national teams. The match was played at Hilo Civic before 3,000 fans and the U.S., with stars Flo Hyman and Debbie Green, beat the Japan squad in a thriller.
l UH-Hilo pitcher John Robinson beating the University of Hawaii 1-0 on Feb. 12, 1983, to give the Joey Estrella-coached Vulcans their first baseball win over the NCAA Division I Rainbows.
l Two seasons watching the Hilo Stars, one with their brilliant hitter, Ichiro Suzuki, punishing the Hawaii Winter Baseball league pitchers he faced. Suzuki went on to become a Major League Baseball superstar and will one day be inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame.
l Watching several of the D-II men’s basketball teams that came to play the Vulcans in the late 1970s and through 1985. The list included Georgetown, LSU, Arizona, Oklahoma, UNLV, Oregon State, Louisville and more.
That gave local reporters a chance to interview coaching legends such John Thompson, Dale Brown, Lute Olson, Billy Tubbs, Jerry Tarkanian, Ralph Miller and Denny Crum as well as some of their top players.
The stretch of playing D-I teams eventually ended after Jeff Law became the UH-Hilo men’s coach and opted to play an all small college schedule.
l A pro boxing card in the late 1970s at Hilo Civic, my first and I was given a ringside seat. I sat down next to the ring, with a soda to his left and his notebook to his right, ready to enjoy the big card, hosted by the late Jack Matsui, a highly regarded boxing promoter and coach.
But during the first round when the boxers nestled in the corner above me, firing shots back and forth at one another, sweat flew into my soda and all over my notebook. By the end of the night, a couple of spots of blood, from a fighter’s displaced nose, found their way onto my notebook — I decided the next time I covered the fights, it would have to be from the second or third row, still close enough to capture the excitement but a safe distance from the flying body fluids.
l Numerous Big Island Interscholastic Federation boys and girls championship basketball and volleyball games, including two state girls basketball finals and a state girls volleyball final at Hilo Civic.
The first state final in the early 1980s saw Waiakea, under coach Gil Tomas, claim the state crown behind the outstanding play of Jenny Kaeo and Kalei Namohala. It was the second state title for Tomas, who built the Warriors into a powerhouse during his successful tenure at the school.
The other state basketball final included Honokaa battling Oahu powerhouse Punahou in the 1997 championship game before almost 3,000 fans at the Civic. The visiting Buffanblu used a strong second half to turn back the Daphne Honma-coached Dragons, in what would be the last full field girls state basketball tournament on the Neighbor Islands.
The 2002 state girls volleyball final had the unbeaten BIIF champion St. Joseph Cardinals taking on Kahuku before a soldout crowd. The Cardinals, under co-coaches Rachelle and Tommy Hanohano, played well throughout the tournament but just couldn’t stop red-hot Kahuku in the finale.
The Cardinals were led by the superb play of Sarah Mason, Lindsey Lee, Jazmin Pa’akaula and setter Ashley Hanohano.
l Working with the Don’s Grill Athlete of the Month selection committee for 25 years, along with Hugh Clark, Ramon Goya, Stan Costales, Al Manliguis and the late Ed Kawachika and Jack Matsui, to recognize Big Island athletes and community sportspersons for their accomplishments. Matsui founded the program.
l Watching a young Casey Yamauchi pitching in the state PONY Baseball 9-10 Division and helping Hilo reach the championship game. The highly energetic Casey is almost the perfect example of the underdog Big Island athletes, small in stature but blessed with a huge heart and the desire to be the best they can be.
l In 2007, seeing senior Kevin Pavel score 16 points, including four 3-pointers, in his first varsity basketball game for Christian Liberty after transferring from Hilo for his final year. Kevin truly enjoyed that special season playing high school basketball and he did extremely well.
But after he graduated, Kevin became gravely ill and in a less than a year, he passed away. He left behind an inspirational spirit for those who knew him and a lasting reminder for all of us to try to live each day to its fullest.
l Seeing legendary BIIF coaches work their magic over the years, including Hilo’s Al Manliguis (boys basketball), St. Joseph’s Jimmy Correa (baseball), Konawaena’s Jim Barry (football) and Hilo’s Pete Nelson (boys volleyball). If the BIIF had a Mt. Rushmore for Coaching Legends, those four might be a good start to the discussion.
Of course, if you needed another top name or two, Larry Manliguis, the late Hilo High boys basketball coach, would be in the mix, having won two state titles and double-digit BIIF titles during his sterling career. Or, maybe former Waiakea boys golf coach Lee Hardy, who won five state titles, including four in a row from 1998-2001, would be a worthy choice.
l The thrill to see so many Big Island prep standouts and tremendous Vulcan athletes compete over the years. And then the joy to see a lot of them get their education and come back to the island to contribute to their communities.