Basketball: Hammerheads switch leagues, add homegrown talent

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Lanaki Apele counts playing on the Big Island as his best basketball experience, and through a series of breaks his career will continue in front of his hometown again.

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Lanaki Apele counts playing on the Big Island as his best basketball experience, and through a series of breaks his career will continue in front of his hometown again.

The recent Cal Lutheran and 2012 Kamehameha graduate has agreed to sign with the Hawaii Hammerheads, who have switched leagues from the ABA (American Basketball Association) to the ABL (Asean Basketball League).

“We were hoping to play in the ABA this season, but unfortunately we could not come up with a viable transportation agreement with the league that would benefit both parties so we had to resign,” Hammerheads president Kevin Williams said. “We believe that the ABL is a great opportunity to partner up with Asia and its massive global brand. The thought of having professional teams from Malaysia, Hong Kong, Saigon, Taiwan, Singapore, Thailand coming to the Big Island to play and also us being able to visit these great places was something I could never imagine as an (ABA) expansion team.

“We believe our fans will be very impressed with the talent level in the ABL. The move to the ABL has been a big hit in Asia as fans are starting to receive word of a Hawaii team joining the league for the 2017-2018 season.”

Williams said the team is required to have eight Hawaii-born players and only two from the mainland. Hammerhead guard Aukai Wong recommended Apele. Hawaii is the first and only U.S. team in the ABL.

“Growing up and playing basketball in Hilo, it’s every Hilo kid’s dream to play in the NBA or overseas,” Apele said. “But to play at the pro level, especially if the team is in Hilo you’ve got to be super excited. There’s no better place I’ve played than on the Big Island.”

The Hammerheads will open their preseason against Japan’s Shizuoka Gymrats on March 3 at home. Tickets will be $5 for adults and free for students. Dates and locations are to be determined for games in March and April.

Last season, Apele finished his senior season at Cal Lutheran, a Division III school in Thousand Oaks, Calif., with 2.8 points per game, 39 percent shooting, and 71 percent free throw shooting. The Kingsmen finished with an 11-12 record.

“Lanaki is a great playmaker and with him and Aukai Wong in the backcourt we are set to compete for a championship immediately,” Williams said. “My goal as president was to bring all the local Hawaii players together to show the world the talent Hawaii has. We have more signings to announce soon, but one thing I can say is we will have nine to 10 Hawaii-born players on the team for next season.”

Apele graduated in May with a communications degree. He was working in California when Wong called. Apele then figured what a better way to make a living than to play pro ball.

“A couple of months ago, Aukai reached out. The Hammerheads shifted leagues and needed local players,” Apele said. “It’s not hard to convince a 22-year-old kid with basketball dreams to come back and play for his home state. Basically, that’s what happened.

“Knowing Aukai is a blessing because he helps everybody in the community on and off the court. He’s somebody I’ve always looked up to for basketball and beyond. To call him a future teammate, that’s just great.”

Six clubs from six different countries of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) competed in the ABL’s 2009 inaugural season.

The ABL is owned by Tune Group, a multi-corporation based in Malaysia. Tune Group is also a partner of the English Football League and FA Cup, the oldest association football competition in the world, founded in 1871, that includes clubs Manchester United and Arsenal.

Included in its portfolio, the Tune Group owns AirAsia airline and Tune Hotels. The ABL has six TV partners, including Cable TV, StarHub, and Sportscast. That’s a three-pronged business model for prosperity: travel, hotel, and TV.

In that regard, the Hammerheads will host a four-day tournament for the ABL in July, featuring teams from Hong Kong, Singapore, Guam, Philippines, and Taiwan.

“The board of the league and CEO will be in to see our game-day operations, fan base, and hospitality,” Williams said.

The Hammerheads will be the first professional basketball team based in Hilo, and Apele thinks the ABL will turn into something big for local fans.

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“Playing on the Big Island is the best feeling in the world. There’s no place like it,” Apele said. “The Hilo people love basketball. They’re passionate, and you can feel it. They’re incredible with their intensity.

“I want to come back home and help start this legacy. I hope that the Hawaii Hammerheads will keep growing in the future. It’s awesome to be a part of that.”

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