The ghosts of Big Island basketball echo through the Hilo Armory.
You can go in there most days, and while it is still a busy facility with badminton, pickle ball, exercise classes and all the rest, there’s also those times before the scheduled proceedings get started, or after they finish, when the venerable structure that has served Hilo so well since the 1930s, is completely silent.
That’s when, if you quiet your mind and just look around, you feel like you can hear the echoes of those times when the place was packed for high school games, and also served as the main venue for Senior League basketball.
This goes way back. There was no four-year college on the island, no community college, but there was a place where the best players came to play.
One of them who immediately comes to mind for the old-timers is Julio Tomas Sr., a 5-foot-10 kid with a big time leaping ability that brought people to watch and sparked more conversation after they saw him.
“They always told me I was one of those high-jumping Filipinos,” Tomas, 87, said last week at his Mountain View home. “I think I had good muscles in my legs because I grew up playing on the rivers, jumping from rock to rock, barefoot, trying to catch oopu, frogs, whatever it was, we were always out there.
“I didn’t try to out jump anybody, I could just get up in the air. The older kids always were telling me I was a good jumper, I was a billy goat, that I should come out and play basketball. I didn’t know anything about it.”
Tomas, married 63 years to wife, Janet, didn’t wear shoes until he was 9-years-old. Moccasins now and then, sure, but no shoes. He grew up in a working man’s life for the Hilo Sugar Company in Amau’ulu, first at Mill Camp 1, then Camp 3 in the Waiau switch station-stream site, then Camp 4, above the Kaaumoana enclave, then finally in Wainaku at the mill camp site.
Tomas worked tirelessly as most of the kids he hung out with were older, schedules were different, and, besides, he had never played basketball like the others.
When he started playing the game, it was only after he was noticed as a regular spectator. When asked to play, he told the other kids he didn’t know how.
“They just said, ‘Don’t worry about it, get out here,’” Tomas said. “I got to play.”
Tomas’ humility obscures the kind of player he was, and how he remains a neon light in the history of Hilo basketball, mid-20th century style. He started school late and was average for his senior season at Hilo High School, but his sophomore coach, the legendary Ung Soy “Beans” Afook, whose last name adorns the Afook-Chinen Civic Center, provided a lesson that refocused the young player and was, in some sense, an inspiration in life.
“I had a rough time my sophomore year,” Tomas said, “I don’t want to mention names, but I had a tough time with a guy on the team, a guy I really didn’t like and it was hard to practice with him everyday.
“At one point, I said, ‘That’s it, I’m gonna’ quit already,’ and Beans came up to me, kind of challenged me. He said, ‘You gonna’ let that guy bother you? You gonna’ let him make you quit?’”
“I hadn’t thought about it that way,” he said. “(Afook) gave me the idea to get back in the game, keep playing. I really had respect for that coach, he got me interested in the game in the first place and what he said kept me going.”
As it turned out, Tomas’ sophomore season at Hilo High was the last year of coaching for Afook, a man who had a definitive plan for what he expected in his teams and was demanding in his instructional and leadership approach. Tomas had great respect for Afook and the feeling was apparently mutual.
Two years after Afook stepped down at Hilo High, Tomas was told one day he had been offered a basketball scholarship by the University of Hawaii-Manoa.
Afook’s reputation and basketball respect was so impactful, he convinced UH to give Tomas a scholarship, sight unseen.
“I had no idea,” Tomas said. “I didn’t know what I was going to do, but I went over (to Oahu) to see.”
It didn’t last long. Tomas prefers to not go into the details, but he did not feel comfortable in the UH program. Coach Al Saake had replaced the successful Art Gallon (83-37 from 1947-51), and the program went into a three-year skid, generating a 32-43 record before he left after three seasons. Saake returned from 1957-63, compiling a 60-81 record before Red Rocha took over.
“It wasn’t for me,” Tomas said. “The coach? We did not get along, I was not comfortable there.”
Tomas entered the army and eventually returned to Hilo where knowledgable fans came out to watch him attack the boards as a 5-10 center who wanted every missed shot for the Piopio Bears in the Senior League, the highest level of basketball competition back then on the Big Island.
“He had a lot of talented people around him when he was growing up and he was a very, very good basketball player,” said Takashi Izumo, a longtime equipment manager for the Bears. “He was a little younger than the rest when he came to the Bears, but he was a starter immediately.
“When I think of him,” Izumo said, “I think of three things — rebound, rebound, rebound. He was going to get every one, that’s the attitude he brought every day, practice or game.”
You can’t go to the library or look online to see box scores, averages, all the rest from his high school career, or from those years in Senior League before and after statehood.
What you have are memories of Hilo people who saw him, and they, like Tomas, are all getting up in age. It was a starkly different time, information was shared on the street, not on the Internet.
“People come up to me sometimes and ask if I still play,” Tomas said. “That makes me very happy to know they remember. Very sweet.”
The support from the Hilo High community packed the Armory, the noise was all consuming and provided a great home court advantage for the Vikings. It was less so for the Senior League, but they would still come out to cheer the Piopio Bears and their remarkable jumping jack.
On a quiet day in that nearly 80-year-old facility, if you walk around the floor a bit, imagine a game back then and take a seat to just observe the space and let your imagination run wild, you can almost hear the echoes of the glory days.
It’s a sweet, melancholy sound of a time we’ll never know again.
Someone on the east side of the Big Island people need to know about or remember? Let Bart know at email@example.com.