It was, for the insular world of high school basketball in Hawaii, an announcement greeted with wonderment and no lack of head scratching this summer when Waiakea High School announced who it had hired to fill its girls’ basketball coaching vacancy.
As recently as 2015, people were presuming it was only a matter of time before Alika Smith, son of high school hoop royalty in the state, would be coaching a college basketball team somewhere that was altering the NCAA map adding a new hotspot, or at the very least, he’d be behind the wheel at another boys statewide powerhouse.
The trajectory was obvious. His father, Pete Smith, had won state championships on Oahu at Kalaheo in 1985, ’95 and Alika did the same, and then some. In his first stop, he took Punahou to a 24-4 record, but Punahou is a place with a certain tradition, a place where things are done in certain ways, and Alika Smith is a bit of an individualist in that regard.
He went to Kalaheo and, in five years won three state championships, one at Division II and then two more in Division I.
Then he quit.
It’s been three years of club basketball, clinics, staying in the game, but more of it in the woods than up front, on center stage.
Kalaheo was where his father won championships, and where he won championships, but things change over time and that happened at their former school.
“It was disappointing, for sure,” Smith said the other day over a club sandwich, “all my father did there, the good years we had, but I just didn’t have the administrative support I felt like I needed to have.
“How can I coach, how can I implement our program under some of the restrictions that were being discussed? It was the hardest decision I’ve ever had to make, my dad’s logo, his signature, was on the floor (at Kalaheo), and it got to the point that I felt I couldn’t implement our program and my father always told me if you can’t coach the way you are capable of coaching, you’re hurting yourself, and eventually, you’re hurting those kids and that program.”
He was out, and now he’s back after three basketball seasons without Alika Smith on the sidelines.
He discussed his situation with coaching friends like Jamie Dixon, the former University of Hawaii assistant who went on to Pittsburgh and other stops, and Riley Wallace, the one-time UH head coach.
Tough time for a former all-state basketball player from a basketball family, but you assumed he’d be back as soon as some school could find the required job application.
He said there was no lack of interest in schools contacting him, but he didn’t feel he had the right fit.
But after three years, the Waiakea girls team is a good fit?
“I think it is,” he said. “It probably sounds unusual, but as far as getting back in (high school) coaching, I think it broadens my avenues going forward, I have always wanted to coach college basketball and if we can be successful (at Waiakea), that may give me more opportunities.”
Alika Smith is fortunate to be hired at a place with a good academic background and a history of competitive athletics. The school might be said to be just as fortunate to have a coach with such a strong history of achievement at the Hawaii high school level.
But he has never coached girls.
“You know, there’s always doubts, you have to know that,” Smith said of the Waiakea job. “It might be your style, your approach and the beliefs you have in how to be successful, but the big thing is, you always have to keep learning.
“My father told me, ‘If you aren’t learning every year, you’re falling behind, you’re hurting yourself and the program,’ so, for me, this is just another step and I’m excited to be part of it.”
On the Big Island, Smith is working with homeless people at the men’s shelter for Hope Services, which is how he pays the bills as his Waiakea job involves only coaching, he isn’t on campus teaching.
But he has a nice surplus of talent waiting for him with 10 of 14 players returning, including three of the best on the island, Kelsie Imai, Keeli-Jade Smith and Bethany Honma, who were all part of last year’s BIIF champions, who finished fifth in the state tournament.
And then there’s the reality of change. It has only been three years but the “Steph Curry effect,” as he calls it, has changed the game in that short amount of time.
“Everyone wants to shoot the 3 and now, because of the Steph Curry effect, it’s being encouraged,” he said, “that’s a little different.”
It will be different for him leading a girls basketball team, but a strong season might draw some interest, maybe even college interest. He’s been after a college coaching job for years, and at Waiakea, he is about a 90-second walk from high school to a Division II school located, literally, across the street.
But that’s assuming there would be an opening and that both sides would agree, yet the fact that he once worked at UHH as Jeff Law’s assistant make one wonder.
In the meantime, there’s going to be an introductory process. Smith watched the Waiakea girls play, “quite a bit,” last year.
“They play hard,” he said, “and that’s a pretty good place to start. We will have a good, clean program and we will play hard. It all starts with defense, and while I have nothing against running, if you can score in your set offense for four quarters, you’ll win a lot of games.”
He just has to get to work with the girls returning for the 2019-2020 season, and learn more how best to coach them, but it isn’t a one-way street. Coaches learn from players and players learn from coaches.
“They’re going to find out what it takes in our formula,” Smith said. “We are going to make sure they are prepared for anything that might get thrown at us, and I’ve always believed in taking teams out of their comfort zone — playing on the road in hostile gyms, going to tournaments with top national teams — and getting them used to those situations early so when it comes up later in the season, they’ve already been through it all.”
It’s going to be a compelling watch for the high school hoop crowd in the upcoming season, seeing how Alika Smith’s background and immersion in the sport translates to the girls team at Waiakea.
And if they win big, don’t avert your gaze, there may be more moves to come.
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Editor’s note: This story has been modified to correct the spelling of Jeff Law.