Wright On: Harvey Tajiri the godfather of UHH basketball

It was officially a college, with its own buildings and land, a staff of administrators, instructors and students, finding their way from classroom to classroom.

But it didn’t feel like a real college to Harvey Tajiri, a Hilo boy who had been in the Army reserves before being called into service for Company B, the 100th Battalion, 29th Infantry Brigade. When he got out in 1970, Tajiri came back to Hilo, joined a realty firm and accepted a couple roles at what would become the University of Hawaii at Hilo.

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He was already well known and sought out by private business and public entities in 1970, a significant year for one of the leaders of the community and if you think Tajiri should be included in any theoretical mention of a Mount Rushmore honorific for Hilo, your suggestion would receive a lot of support.

Had he not been there in 1970, who knows what the school might have become, following the path it was on before he arrived?

In that year of return from military service, you could say Harvey Tajiri hit the ground running.

He was the secretary and vice-president of General Insurance Corporation, a member of the Hilo Jaycees, an assistant baseball coach at Hilo High, a member of the Athletic Advisory Board at the then-awkwardly named University of Hawaii at Hilo College, and just to fill up his time, he was also named charter president of the school’s athletic booster club.

It was a lot, but at the time, almost 50 years ago, those last two posts, involved in athletics at UHHC, weren’t the heavy lifts they might seem, since the school had no intercollegiate athletic program. It was a state-supported institution with 1,200 students and had just begun a four-year curriculum that was going to graduate its first senior class that same school year when Tajiri joined up.

The Vulcans had a men’s basketball team that played in the Hilo Men’s Senior League, you know, against neighbors and friends, maybe a few former college players here or there, but not the type of competition befitting a four-year college.

“I was a PE major,” Tajiri said last week, “the sun rose and set on athletics for me, and I remember thinking about Oral Roberts (University), in Oklahoma, they had good records back then (27-4 in the 1969-70 season just before Tajiri started), and they kept having good records.

“If you followed basketball at all, even just casually, you heard about Oral Roberts,” he said, “and I kept thinking, ‘Who would ever have even heard of this school without basketball?’ I was coming into the University and I was looking for something to build up the University, something to let people know we were here.

“It was just obvious to me that we needed a basketball team.”

And by that, not just a team that played in the Hilo Men’s Senior League. The Vulcans generally had teams that might have found a couple players 6-feet tall or a bit more than that, but just as often they were playing Senior League games with 5-11 centers.

For Tajiri, juggling all these various balls with the realty business, helping coach, being on advisory boards, it was all part-time stuff, except the role with General Insurance. He was just part time help in his role in athletics at the school, which was comfortable with the athletic department as it was operating at the time.

An actual athletic department that would play other colleges and universities?

“There was some resistance,” Tajiri said, “but it was in the form of the older guys (in administration) thinking I was nuts. They laughed at me. They didn’t think it could ever happen and the thing I heard most was, ‘Who do you think would come here to play?’”

That was a thought that carried some weight. After all, Chaminade and BYU-Hawaii, both on Oahu with much greater populations from which to draw students and fan interest, were not playing intercollegiate athletics.

The University of Hawaii at Hilo College got them all involved. When they saw the Vulcans pull it off, the other schools jumped in, too. In the 1969-70 season, the Vulcans played all the available community colleges in the islands, they played their own alumni, Senior League teams and such. Head coach Ramon Goya and assistant Jimmy Yagi guided them to a 17-3 record, but what exactly did that mean? They split two games with Chaminade, playing a similarly weak schedule. Tajiri wanted more.

“The University didn’t care,” he said, “their notion was, ‘If you think you can do it, go ahead.’”

He thought he could do it and he was right. He worked with UH-Manoa to play opponents that came to Oahu, he found a local Japanese seamstress who found material and made the uniforms by hand and he went out to the business community to fill up the booster club, which soon had almost 500 members who all bought season tickets that first year, for what Tajiri recalls he sold for about $20 or $30 each.

They raised enough money to create a solid recruiting budget, they brought some players in and they started building a program. In 1976, Tajiri orchestrated the move into the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics, and that first year they won their way to the national finals in Kansas City.

The Hilo contingent brought buckets full of flowers and lei, along with some cheerleaders and two hula dancers. They had never seen anything like it in Kansas City, the flowers were everywhere, generating smiles and appreciation and the Vulcans went out and won their first game before being knocked off by Jack Sikma and Illinois Wesleyan.

That start transformed the culture. Hilo Civic always had crowds of around 2,000 and often sold out all 2,700 seats.

“It doesn’t take a genius to figure out if you have at least 300-400 season tickets going in and you can sell 1,500 more at $5 each for a game, you’re doing pretty good,” he said. “But we had everything, the boosters ran the concessions, took tickets, we ran it all.

“We didn’t know what we were doing, we thought we couldn’t help but win and bring prominence to the institution because at that time on the island of Hawaii there were a lot of people who literally didn’t know there was such a thing as Hilo College or the University of Hawaii at Hilo.

“It was a different time,” Tajiri said. “No internet, no cable TV, two or three channels, so we were a big deal, people wanted to see us win and that place (the Civic) would get loud, it was a lot of fun.”

Early on, when he took over, nobody was coming to games, so Tajiri would invite a high school band with free tickets, and they would bring parents and friends, so he might get an extra 50 people in the building to buy tickets, see a game and spend some cash on concessions.

“Since nobody was coming, we weren’t losing anything,” he said. “We would sell more concessions, and we would have a coupon on the ticket for 10 percent off at one of our sponsors. The sponsors got some extra business, the team started winning and people began coming to games.”

He asked around and got “eight or nine” local musicians to form a pep band and play at games. He would invite local gymnastics clubs to perform at halftime and their parents and friends would buy another 20 tickets, then they’d come again for the next game.

These days, you wouldn’t know it was the same school or the same facility. The Civic is mostly empty when the local school plays, the effort put into improving the entertainment isn’t what it used to be.

Tajiri was asked if those golden days could ever return. He thought before answering.

“The only thing I can say is I wish them luck, but the truth is, the way it’s set up now? There’s an entrenched bureaucracy there now and there was no entrenched bureaucracy when we started back then.

“I can wish them luck,” he said, “but it’s going to take a heck of a lot more than luck for it to come together again.”

They had nothing then and they made it into something. By comparison, they have much more these days, a bigger student body, a profile basketball people know about that dates back to the days Harvey Tajiri organized the booster club, a move that triggered the growth of intercollegiate athletics at the school.

What they don’t have today is the connections, the belief and the determination of people like Tajiri.

For the school and the community, for anyone under 45 or so, UH-Hilo often feels more like an elevated community college when it comes to basketball, the game that once sparked enthusiasm and pride.

The Civic is largely empty when the teams play, and that’s unfortunate, given that it was once the place to be to feel success and achievement, a long time ago.

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Editor’s note: This story has been modified to remove a reference of Harvey Tajiri holding the title of athletic director at UHH.

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