HONOLULU — More than 45 minutes before the scheduled 7 p.m. tipoff Saturday between the University of Hawaii and Chaminade men’s basketball teams, Kauai High School gym was nearly filled to its capacity of 800.
And the fans did not seem to mind the wait.
UH players were already on the court going through some warm-up drills, and the Garden Island spectators — from elementary school children through grandparents — soaked up every moment. There were plenty of “Ooohs!” and “Ahhs!” every time a Rainbow Warrior skied above the rim for a dunk, and this was just during the layup drill.
Older fans pointed to legendary former Chaminade coach Merv Lopes as he walked in and made his way to his reserved seat behind the Silverswords bench, no doubt explaining to the younger ones why he was known as college basketball’s “Giant Killer.”
Later, Kauai Mayor Bernard Carvalho — himself a former UH football standout — came in and walked across the court to greet and pay his respects to Lopes.
By the time the game started, the gym was packed solid and had the electric atmosphere of a KIF championship or a state quarterfinal showdown.
The two teams did not disappoint, as Chaminade torched the nets in the first eight minutes, jumping out to leads of 9-2, 16-4 and 25-10. The Rainbow Warriors fired back behind the sharp shooting of guards Garrett Nevels and Keith Shamburger, and the game was tied at 42 at halftime. A spectacular alley-oop slam dunk by UH guard Quincy Smith off Shamburger’s lob got the crowd roaring with applause.
During the break, an exhibition “game” between menehune league teams of 9-year-olds and younger entertained the crowd, which did not stop cheering.
The Silverswords led briefly early in the second half but the Rainbow Warriors eventually took control by pounding the ball inside to their impressive post duo of Christian Standhardinger and Isaac Fotu, who were able to score repeatedly against Chaminade’s foul-plagued front line.
Although the Silverswords fought hard and stayed close — it was 84-78 with less than three minutes remaining — Hawaii eventually won, 94-84.
After the game, tables were set up from baseline to baseline and players from both teams sat down to sign autographs and take pictures with fans for a half-hour or 45 minutes. And much of the appreciative crowd stayed to take advantage of the opportunity.
All of which shows why UH coach Gib Arnold’s vision of annual neighbor island games is proving to be a successful one. Saturday’s game, which represented each team’s first-ever appearance on Kauai, was the fifth in Arnold’s four years at a different neighbor island venue. He started the tradition in his first year, with a game vs. Chicago State in Lahaina, followed by 2011 games vs. UH-Hilo and North Carolina A&T at Kealakehe and Kahului, respectively, and then a shootout against Chaminade on Molokai in 2012.
It helps that the Rainbow Warriors are 5-0 in such games, but that is not the only reason Arnold likes island hopping and plans to continue doing so.
“Loved the crowd, give all kinds of credit to the people of Kauai, they treated us like royalty, made us feel really at home, we had a great time,” Arnold said. “I’m a big believer that we are the University of Hawaii, we do represent this entire state, and that’s all the islands. That’s why we do this. It’s fun for our guys, and I think it’s fun for the fans, too.”
Arnold said he has “looked seriously at Lanai” as a possible future site, but one obstacle is Lanai High School Gym’s synthetic floor — the NCAA does not allow official games to be played on such a surface.
“Maybe we can get (Lanai island owner) Larry Ellison to help us with that,” Arnold said, with a smile.
Wherever the next neighbor island game will be, it is likely to have the same effect as the past five attempts: Giving fans a rare opportunity to watch a Division I team in person, expanding UH’s fan base and giving the players a special experience and lifelong memory, which also could be used as a recruiting incentive.
It’s a win for the team, a win for the program and a win for the fans.
Winners all around.