Wright On: UH-Hilo’s basketball glory days produced memories to behold

  • Mark Lovelace helped key UHH's NAIA District Tournament-winning ways in the 1970s.

Those were the days my friend

We thought they’d never end

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We’d sing and dance forever and a day

We’d live the life we choose

We’d fight and never lose

For we were young and sure to have our way.”

— Mary Hopkin

The sweet delights of victories, memories of uproarious Hilo Civic crowds, the realistic expectation of securing an NAIA District Tournament, and then another, all mark the birth of modern day basketball at the University of Hawaii at Hilo.

It happened instantly, like the strike of a match head when booster club president, then county council chairman Harvey Tajiri convinced the Board of Regents that playing a full schedule of college opponents and joining the NAIA would be a step forward for the athletic department.

The University wasn’t so much an encouraging believer as it was persuaded to let the small sister school go ahead with its vision, assuming it could be a short-term exploration.

It was, instead, a smash hit, a notion that must be a bewilderment to anyone under the age of 40 or so who has never seen the Vulcans as a postseason basketball threat.

On the cusp of a new season, it’s worthwhile to recall what once was at a small school that punched above its weight in basketball.

“There were several of us who came here that year and we were all from winning programs,” said Mark Lovelace, “we all sort of expected to win, I think.”

And win, they did.

It was a different world in the glory days of UHH basketball, that much is certain. Imagine a coach signing his top players without ever seeing them play. Imagine a schedule in which you played all your games at home at Hilo Civic, save for a few on Oahu.

That was the formula coach Jimmy Yagi used back in the day to create back-to-back District II championship teams that proved they could play on the mainland as well as on the islands.

Yagi had a connection with a Southern California talent scout who suggested a few players that might want to come to the islands, and that linkage paid off in instant success for the Vulcans who played an all-college schedule for the first time.

“I was all for it,” said Lovelace, from Long Beach, Calif., last week, “my only other option was Oregon Tech in Klamath Falls, and nothing against Klamath Falls, but I thought it was an easy choice.”

Lovelace, Jay Bartholomew (Riverside and Saddleback Junior Colleges in California), Gilbert Hicks (Los Angeles), Bill O’Rear (Sonoma, Calif.) and a few others, formed the nucleus of that 1976 team, one few people on the mainland had even heard of.

Yagi used those junior college transfers to construct a power and managed to endure the complaints that local officials favored the home team while the Vulcans just kept winning.

They heard those gripes after they beat Division I Nebraska, 71-66, a team that then beat UH twice, and they pulled off an 81-78 upset a week later against the University of New Mexico.

Just like that, people on the mainland were hearing about Hawaii-Hilo, and Yagi’s successful passing-game approach that several of his new players had, coincidentally, played in high school. They were ready.

“It was a different time, for sure,” Bartholomew said the other day. “The Civic was packed, the crowds were noisy, they lined up to buy tickets, it was a lot of fun.”

Winning is always fun, and the Vulcans captivated Hilo’s attention and drew unheard of interest from Oahu media as well. It was a unique moment in UHH athletics, one that hasn’t been repeated since.

When Willamette fell, 86-79 in the 1977 District II championship game at the Civic Center, the Vulcans extended their dream and were off to Kansas City where they were installed as the 15th seed and drew Spring Garden College, the 31st seed in the 32-team tournament. That game went as the seeding anticipated, an 81-66 win for Hawaii-Hilo, after which Bartholomew was quoted as saying it was, “Our worst game of the year,” perhaps to focus his teammates on the task ahead when they faced No. 2 seed Illinois Wesleyan and the tournament’s top player, 6-foot-11 inch center Jack Sikma.

It turned into a classic battle that went into overtime when Hilo missed a potential game-winning shot at the buzzer with four Vulcans players saddled with four fouls, as was Sikma.

“I thought I drew a block on him right at the end of regulation,” Lovelace said, “but they didn’t call it.”

Three Vulcans fouled out early in the extra session and Illinois-Wesleyan won, 85-74 with a big game from Sikma as the future NBA Hall of Famer went 12-for-26, made 9 of 12 free throws, pulled down 18 rebounds and totaled 33 points.

“Those guys were good, they gave us all we could handle, which I guess was obvious since it went to overtime,” Sikma said last week in a telephone interview from his home in Kirkland, Wa. “I don’t remember all the details, but I remember they had some kind of Hawaiian floral print on their uniforms and they were the fan favorites.

“They played a passing game, as I remember, and they had us switching and changing, running all over to keep up.”

Contacted for his memories, Yagi brusquely declined to comment, saying, “I don’t remember all that stuff, I don’t have anything to say.”

It was a long time ago and memories do fade. Bartholomew couldn’t remember it was Spring Garden, a technical school in Pennsylvania that closed in the early nineties, citing declining enrollment, that they played in that first game, but Sikma did leave an impression.

“We couldn’t match up with his height,” Bartholomew said, “and he had that shot where he held the ball high over his head, there wasn’t much we could do about that.”

Tajiri, Hilo mayor Herbert Matayoshi and the rest of the contingent of Hilo supporters helped build local interest in the team by arriving in Kansas City early, opening a hospitality room in the team hotel and entertaining with boxes and boxes of flowers, a few hula dancers and the island spirit.

A Kansas City television station highlighted Hawaii-Hilo in a segment before the start of the tournament, proclaiming the Vulcans “sentimental favorites,” and who knows what might have happened had that last shot gone in before overtime, or had Sikma been whistled for his fifth foul in regulation?

What-ifs are the currency of near losses in athletics, but the Vulcans used it to build a fire for the following season when they again won the District title and returned to Kansas City.

O’Rear drained a 20-foo buzzer-beater in the opening game 76-74 win over Franklin College — O’Rear was 9-of-10 from the floor in that one — but it all came to an end in the second game, again, when Grand Canyon eliminated the Vulcans, 83-67.

It was the last time O’Rear, Lovelace, Bartholomew, Tom Zeimantz and Bill Walling played together collegiately.

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They returned to Hilo with memories that would last a lifetime, with stories of success for Vulcans athletics that remain the gold standard for basketball at the school as another season begins to unfold 42 years since that first post season glory.

Send story ideas and names of people and teams worthy of notice to barttribuneherald@gmail.com

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