Bench reformer: Hubbell, a UHH men’s basketball legacy, hits the ground running with increased playing time

  • UH-Hilo guard Steven Hubbell attempts to block Hawaii Pacific guard Tavon Tarpley during a game at Vulcan Gym in Hilo on Sunday, Jan. 17, 2021.

All Steven Hubbell needed was a chance to show what he could do for the UH-Hilo basketball team, but he sat on the bench most of the time last season.

He played in 21 out of 26 games but averaged just 8.4 minutes and made 11 of 27 field goals. He logged 177 minutes, only three other teammates played fewer.

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When Kaniela Aiona came aboard as the new coach, he gave everyone a shot at playing time, and Hubbell has made the most of the opportunity.

In two games, the 6-foot-1 senior guard is averaging 23 minutes and has made 5 of 15 shots from the field. On Sunday against Hawaii Pacific, Hubbell scored 11 points on 5 of 11 shooting and grabbed seven rebounds in 27 minutes.

“Last year, I went through all the emotions. I tried not to be complacent with the minutes I had,” he said. “I competed every day at practice, and I bought into winning last year.

“When coach Aiona came in, he had 15 guys he had not seen play before to show what kind of game we had. We had more freedom to shoot as long as it was a good shot and we played as a team. He’s definitely instilled more confidence in myself. All I can ask for is a chance to make an impact in the game.”

He’s been enjoying the culture change under Aiona, who sometimes asks a player to compliment a teammate after practice. It’s a small thing in the big picture of building team harmony.

“He’s a big culture guy, and he’s been a big advocate of making us better men,” Hubbell said. “He wants us to represent ourselves well in the community and be better men at the end of the day.”

It’s been a good tradeoff for coach and player. While Hubbell is grateful for the playing time, Aiona is appreciative of his intangibles.

“He plays with such a high energy level and hustle,” Aiona said. “He’s a glue guy, blue-collar, competitor and fearless.

“He’s a big-time Laker and Kobe fan. He’s a fantastic teammate and has just an overall great way about him. Lots of credit to coach GE Coleman for recruiting him because he is a joy to coach.”

Hubbell and Sasa Vuksanovic have been roommates since last season. Their meals are quite different. Hubbell eats pancit, kalua pork, and pizza, a favorite food for all.

“We cook for ourselves,” Hubbell said. “He’ll cook beans, rice and eggs. I tried one of his Serbian soups. It was pretty good. I have family here, so I always have a free meal.”

His father, William Darren Hubbell played for UHH, where he met his mother, Wendy. His dad is part Hawaiian and his mom is from the Philippines, which explains his food choices.

Both are Laker fans, but Steven is a big Kobe Bryant follower and watched all his games growing up in Burbank, Calif., where he followed his dad’s path.

They both went to John Burroughs High in Burbank, Glendale College in Los Angeles and finally UHH. William Hubbell played under Bob Wilson. Steven would hear old war stories at Burroughs High or Glendale.

“I would hear how he played back in the day. Everyone would say how tough he was,” Hubbell said. “He’s a big Magic Johnson guy. I like Kobe. When he died, I had ‘8’ and ‘24’ and the word ‘mentality’ tattooed on my right arm. I try to be the best person every day at basketball or the workplace.”

Vuksanovic is loyal to his European counterparts. He follows Nicola Jokic from the Denver Nuggets and Luka Doncic of the Dallas Mavericks.

“My parents got him a Doncic jersey for Christmas,” Hubbell said. “He was hyped about that.”

When the Lakers play the Nuggets or Mavericks, there is no war of words or good-natured razzing.

“I stay quiet because I know who’s going to win,” said Hubbell, who plans to come back for a repeat senior season under the NCAA COVID-19 waiver. He’s majoring in business management but wants to coach college ball.

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During this pandemic-shortened season of 12 games, UHH doesn’t play again until Jan. 30 at Chaminade. Hubbell is in a good place. He’s enjoying his increased playing time and being part of the culture change.

“I feel like we all have something to prove. The returning guys had a losing season last year,” he said. “We want to get the job done, and the new guys are adding to that. We’re trying to change the culture, and hopefully build a stepping stone for years to come.”

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