The story of first-year UH-Hilo coach Kaniela Aiona is well known, and if not there’s a life history on the school’s website.
What’s most important is what he learned from all those years as a kid at the Vulcans Basketball School beyond the game’s basic fundamentals. It’s the soundtrack of his life: If you work hard, good things will happen.
Schools go looking for coaches who will get their teams to play hard, play together and play smart. And success is expected to follow. But sometimes the most overlooked trait is the most obvious one.
Aiona, the local boy from Honokaa who came home, was born with it. His blood bleeds the aloha spirit, he lives it and used it at Menlo College, where he turned the Oaks from a 3-23 team into a 20-11 one with a conference tournament appearance three years later in 2017-18.
During this pandemic era, where no fans will be allowed at UHH Gym, his thoughts shoot out to the safety of his players and others.
“We’re doing it one day at a time, following the rules and protocols,” he said. “We’re doing our job and trying to keep everyone safe and in the community as well.”
After his playing career at Webster University in St. Louis, the hard work began as an assistant at stops at Webster, Central Methodist (Missouri), Lake Forest College (Chicago), Benedictine (Chicago), and Saint Leo University (Florida).
That aloha spirit extends to recruiting as well. Recruiting is a two-way street. High schools and junior colleges want to send their players to the next level. Detective work is needed to sniff out red flags.
“We’re very selective in making sure someone fits our culture, program, our style of play and our location,” Aiona said. “So much of it is about relationships.”
Take it from assistant Jamison Montgomery, who played under Aiona when he was an assistant at Benedictine and served under Aiona at Menlo.
“We have a great relationship. Coming from Menlo to Hawaii was an easy transition because of the trust and great friendship we have together,” he said. “Coach Aiona is a thinker, a very smart coach. He loves his players and wants the best for them. He always says the right thing at the right time. It’s great to work under him and for the players to learn so much from him.”
Montgomery is from Wisconsin, but even he knows how the Menlo Oaks built their success and was witness to that aloha spirit.
“It was definitely our team chemistry and our culture,” he said. “We brought in a lot of guys, different pieces and they all fit in this wheel together.”
It was the local boy Kaniela Aiona driving the bus, who learned long ago that when you work hard, good things will happen.