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Wright On: Honma eternally pours heart into girls basketball on Big Isle

  • BART WRIGHT/Tribune-Herald
    When she’s not at her job as the vice principal at Honokaa High, Daphne Honma focuses her energy on DNA Basketball, an organization she created with a friend in California that seeks to train young girls in the sport, from biddy ball, starting at 5 years old, up to 18-year-olds.

HONOKAA — It was a different world back then when Daphne Honma came home from college at a small school in Oregon and began to consider what she would do with the rest of her life.

She had her degree and was able to teach physical education, mathematics, special education and social studies, and while they all had a certain tug on her interests, she hadn’t yet realized her lifelong commitment would revolve around the sport of basketball.

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That didn’t happen until a year later.

“I loved basketball, I just didn’t think of it as a career in any way,” Honma said last week in her office, starting her 30th year of unofficial marriage with basketball. “I didn’t know what I was going to do, but I was looking around.

“Looking back,” she said, “my best sport personally was softball and maybe if I was serious about it earlier, if I really went for it, I probably could have got some (college) scholarship money and yeah, who knows what might have happened after that?”

Fortunately for decades of women basketball players on the Big Island, Honma fell into the sport when she was offered the assistant coaching position at Honokaa by head coach Schoen Maekawa.

It was competitive, she had fun and was being pulled toward the game when, after that first year, Maekawa resigned to accept a higher-paying job outside of athletics.

Just like that, Honma was a basketball coach.

“I knew what I wanted to do,” she said, “I wanted better fundamentals, more attention to basics, improved techniques, all those things. It was a little like ‘Hoosiers,’ we were running lines, sweating, working, all of it.

“I liked the high-powered, fast-paced game, but I really liked defense — I was heavy on fundamentals, on the idea that you need to make it difficult for the other team to score.”

Right away, she was a good coach, but Daphne Honma was that, and then she was something else that really made a difference.

She is considered by many here the leading proponent, the guru, the best example of a women’s basketball coach on the Big Island. She became that person because of her interest, and belief, in people.

“I absolutely remember (Honma’s first year as Honokaa head coach in 1989), it was a big moment in my life,” said Kahea Schuckert, a freshman on that first team Honma coached. “She is probably the best coach I ever had, not just for the Xs and Os or the motivation but the bigger vision.

“Her idea, way back then, was to use basketball as a tool, or a vehicle for life. She would always equate basketball challenges to real life challenges, she wanted us to think beyond the drill of the day or whatever, to see the game in a bigger perspective, to sort of better understand how to get through life by getting through basketball.”

These days, almost one-fifth of the way through the 21st century, a lot of coaches in basketball and other sports have latched on to the idea as a method to catch the attention of young people struggling to find a purpose. In a world of social media, YouTube videos that can show you how to do most anything and the desire to get what you want right now, she realized the teaching had to go deeper, had to get below that snapchat, twitter level of surface concerns.

That personalized approach was always a part of Honma’s coaching, she didn’t need to watch it be successful elsewhere, it was inside her when she started.

“With her, the relationship has always been a little different,” said Schuckert, the athletic trainer at Honokaa these days, “because it wasn’t about October-to-February or whatever the high school season is; she built relationships with us — most if not all — that would last forever.

“To this day, I may do things a little different here and there from what she did, but in my job, she gave me the blueprint for how to build a foundation on these kids.

“She knew right away that some kids were there because their parents wanted them to do something after school — like a babysitter — and she knew others were there because their parents forced them into it, so she needed to find ways to connect with people.”

Everybody’s involved in real life, so that’s an inspiration that has always worked for her. Word spread and by the 1990s, if you knew anything about high school basketball on the Big Island, you knew about Daphne Honma, these days the vice-principal at Honokaa, yet as deeply involved with basketball as ever.

Back then, even the University of Hawaii at Hilo heard about Honma and somebody decided she would be a good coach with a high local profile to bring into the startup program, and the price was right, as well. They hired Honma on a “casual hire” basis, meaning the school had no obligation to pay her anywhere near what the men’s basketball was making.

She didn’t take the opportunity for money, which the school seemed to know. In four years she was paid less than a third of what the men’s coach was paid, with no benefits.

Athletic directors come through a revolving door at the school and one of them determined a national search for the job was required. They ended up finding the national search ended at UHH where David Kaneshiro was already on hand in a part-time position. Honma was showed the door and the new male coach ended up with a full salary and benefits.

Honma was able to send out a team that won a third of its inaugural games (6-18), maybe a nudge better than you might expect from a first-year program, and in four years managed a 39-61 record that included a 15-win season that has never been duplicated.

Her efforts today center on DNA Basketball, an organization she created with a friend in California that seeks to train young girls in the sport, from Biddy Ball, starting at 5 years-old, up to 18-year-olds.

“When I came back, it was all different,” Honma said after her experience at UHH. “There was a disconnect, whether it was social media, all the rest of it, I don’t know, but it wasn’t the same, the passion was missing.”

The concept behind DNA Basketball is to expose younger players to the inner workings of the game and show them how they can fit in.

“The talent is there,” she said, “but the dedication is missing, the basketball IQ isn’t there.”

The response is to dig a little deeper, find those young players and show them the fun of the sport, the feeling of inclusion and being a good teammate that you can’t get playing video games.

When she sees that look in their eyes, that desire coming out from deep inside, she will know she’s succeeding again, as she has always done.

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You would anticipate nothing less from her, still charting the future for young girls who don’t know what they’ve been missing, 30 years after Honma had her own basketball revelation.

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