PORTLAND, Oregon — In a well-used high school gym in mid-February, boys on the top-ranked Jefferson High School basketball team, rattled by pressure, hung their heads in frustration. They were on their heels against the Cleveland High School Warriors.
Kamaka Hepa, Jefferson's 6-foot-9 power forward from Utqiagvik, kept his cool and urged his teammates to stay calm. And in the fourth quarter, Kamaka's fellow Demos (short for the Democrats) hit their groove.
With a few minutes left in the game, guard Marcus Tsohonis bounced the ball hard to the floor, leaving it hanging in Kamaka's airspace. Kamaka slammed the alley-oop to finish the flashy play, caught high-fives from his teammates and hustled back down the floor, each step moving Kamaka closer to a basketball future that has been waiting for him since he was a boy growing up on the shores of the Arctic Ocean. Jefferson never gave up the lead again.
Watching from the stands was Kamaka's dad, Roland Hepa, missing work to be there. Afterward, he'd go to his overnight factory job cutting glass, work that punishes his knees and back.
"When I walk out of there at 6:30, everything hurts," Roland said.
It's just part of the sacrifice. The Hepas are a long way from home in Utqiagvik, the village known until recently as Barrow. They relocated to Oregon two years ago to allow Kamaka to chase his basketball dreams. Since then, the easygoing power forward with a boyish grin has become a highly sought recruit by several top college basketball programs, with potential, his coaches say, to play professionally.
That's something only three Alaskans have done. Kamaka would be the first from the state's Arctic north, and the first of Inupiaq descent.
"I do want to make it to the NBA," Kamaka said. "Just because I've worked so hard."
The family way
The Hepas are in it together. Roland lives with Kamaka, a senior, and his brother Keoni, a sophomore, in Portland. Roland's wife, Taqulik Hepa, divides her time between Portland and Utqiagvik, where she works in wildlife management.
While it might seem drastic for a family to relocate for sports, Kamaka's situation is unique. College basketball programs began expressing interest in his first year of high school. His former Barrow High School coach, Jeremy Arnhart, said it was reasonable to believe the move would make a difference for a kid with Kamaka's drive and talent.
"He works hard at it. Obviously one of the best players that we've had, the best player that Barrow has ever seen, even as a freshman and sophomore," Arnhart said. "Those kids just do not come around all the time."
Roland once relocated for opportunity himself. He was 25 when he moved from Kapa'a on the Hawaiian island of Kauai when he had trouble finding work.
In 1992, on his first day in Utqiagvik, Roland met Taqulik Opie, whom he would later marry. She was born and raised in Utqiagvik, the granddaughter of a whaling captain. She remembers when the town moved from honey buckets to flush toilets, and when she had to melt ice for hot water.
But she doesn't remember a time without basketball.
"As long as I remember, we were always at the gym," she said.
Taqulik played for Barrow High, and when she was old enough to play in an adult recreation league she was sometimes on a team with her mom. When Kamaka was young, she sometimes had a house filled with his teammates to look after. Roland coached them.
Kamaka was already taller than 6 feet by middle school. He led the Whalers to state high school championships as a freshman and sophomore, and both years he was named the Gatorade Player of the Year, an award given to Alaska's best high school player.
"Our opinion was that he's going to start to peak out in Alaska," Roland said.
But better competition was just one incentive for the move. A college scholarship was another.
"Education is No. 1 on our priority list. It always has been, and it reflects in their GPAs," Roland said.
Then, as now, Kamaka carried a 4.0 grade point average.
The importance of academics was a lesson Roland learned the hard way. Once a multisport high school athlete in Kapa'a, Roland thought himself an NBA talent. He worked hard at it, too, but he grew lazy with academics, he said. When he met with a college basketball recruiter, his big-league dreams washed out to sea.
"You kind of live and learn, and try to teach your kids to do the things that you didn't do," he said.
By his sophomore season, boarding schools and private academies were wooing Kamaka with solid college prep coursework and a competitive basketball environment. Top Amateur Athletic Union summer programs sought him as well.
"Me being a 15-, 16-year-old boy, it was kind of stressful," Kamaka said, standing outside Jefferson High before practice.
It was a decision the family needed to make while grieving.
Dark of winter
In November 2015, Roland got a phone call: One of his sons, Radford Kawika Hepa, Kamaka's 29-year-old half-brother, had been shot in Anchorage. Anchorage police said Kawika, as the family called him, was with his friend, Dominick Lozano, when Lozano confronted a man who was dating Lozano's ex-girlfriend. Both men were shot.
Roland caught the last flight to Anchorage. Kawika died before the plane landed.
It was the most difficult period the family had ever faced, Roland said. A change of scenery, he thought, might be beneficial as he coped with the turmoil.
"I felt like I wanted to leave," Roland said. "There was a lot of rage in me."
In February 2016, Roland and Kamaka visited Portland Basketball Club, an AAU program selected to participate in the competitive Nike Elite Youth Basketball League. Like all Nike AAU teams, it required its players to live in its home state of Oregon or bordering states.
A month later, Roland and Kamaka went to the airport again, this time with one-way tickets, leaving a mom, aunties, grandparents, friends and siblings to watch them go.
At first they lived in a hotel, then found a house to rent and furnished it with thrift-store finds. Kamaka enrolled at Jefferson, a school several times larger than Barrow High School. Kamaka's younger brother, Keoni, joined them a few months later. Taqulik has traveled to Portland about once a month since then.
"It took time to get used to," she said. "I miss my boys. I miss my husband."
The next level before the next level
Coach Pat Strickland has won five state championships in 10 years as the head coach at Jefferson, but he sees basketball as a tool in his mission to "build young men of substance." When he's not coaching, he works as a social service specialist for the state of Oregon, investigating instances of child abuse and neglect. He says he's burning out.
"In my day job and in my coaching job, you're a little bit of everything. You're a parent, you're a coach, you're a counselor, you're a doctor, you're a trainer," he said.
In 2016, he got news that helped extend his coaching career. There's a big kid walking the halls, he was informed, and he plays basketball.
"I told the Hepas that, 'Hey, I think you guys gave me a couple of more years before I call it quits,' " Strickland said.
Sports-related high school transfers happen now and then, Strickland said. But none before Kamaka have been so good from so far away, he said. In Kamaka, he has a player capable of dominating close to the rim, and also one of the team's best outside shooters – a pick-your-poison problem for opponents. That could carry him far, Strickland said.
Two of Strickland's former players, Terrence Jones and Terrence Ross, have reached the NBA. He coached two others as an assistant. Another of Strickland's Jefferson alumni, Victor Sanders, could be drafted this year.
"He's going to obviously have his growing pains, just moving up to another level where they're big, strong and faster, but I think he'll be able to adapt," Strickland said.
"Now, is he a one-and-done kid? Probably not. But I definitely think he has the talent and the aspirations to even play further after college."
Plenty of others see potential in Kamaka, too.
Kamaka received scholarship offers from more than 20 colleges, made "official visits" to Gonzaga and Texas and unofficial visits to several others. On his phone, he kept a list of the pros and cons for each school.
Though it was a sweltering weekend in Austin when he visited the University of Texas, his impression of head coach Shaka Smart helped seal the deal for the Longhorns.
"He seemed like a guy that genuinely cared about my career and my future," Kamaka said.
Back home, folks in Utqiagvik follow Kamaka's progress each step of the way.
"The kids will come up to me. 'Hey, how's Kamaka? How's he doing?' They're always watching out for him," Taqulik said.
Taqulik hopes she has instilled the importance of being modest. While she understands how exciting it would be for Utqiagvik, Alaska's largest Inupiaq village, to see one of its own reach the NBA, it's not exactly a conversation the family has at the dinner table.
"I haven't talked to Kamaka about that. So for me, I'm like 'OK, hold your horses.' We need to think about high school first, getting a good education in college," Taqulik said. "I would rather have a conversation about, 'What are your majors?' "
The home team
Fans filled the gym to see the second-to-last Jefferson home game, a red-hot rivalry game against Grant High School.
Kamaka is weeks away from the final state tournament of his high school career, and there's a good chance it will end in a remarkable fourth straight championship title, two in Oregon and two in Alaska. But that path goes through Grant, the state's second-ranked team.
Battling inside, Kamaka fired passes to open teammates, fought for short hooks and fadeaway jumpers. At the half, he was the most vocal player in the locker room, trying to sustain his team's aggressive play. With 20 points and 15 rebounds, he did his part.
Near the end of the game, an announcer asked the fired-up crowd to stay off the floor, and when the buzzer sounded, a dozen cops stood on the court to monitor the scene as the Demos wrapped arms around each other in victory.
The next night, Kamaka rested his sore body on a bed at home, a few blocks from the Columbia River. His father grilled chicken outside in a damp, snowless Portland winter night 2,100 miles from Utqiagvik. Taqulik rubbed a knotted muscle in her son's upper back as they browsed through family pictures on the computer, many of which documented his basketball journey so far.
One more high school title is a goal that remains before he's off to college, but it's not the only one. Kamaka hopes to add 10 pounds of muscle to his 220-pound body. He hopes he'll grow another inch.
And he hopes to move home again, back to Utqiagvik. Though the family hasn't determined if it's possible, he hopes for a few more months to experience the things he's missed about home before he reports to the University of Texas.
"It was tough for me, too, to leave the place where I grew up," he said.
Kamaka remembers the time he went out on the ice to watch spring whaling as a middle schooler. Multiple crews tugged a bowhead out of the water after a successful hunt. He remembers the taste of his mom's roasted caribou and his grandmother's mikigaq — fermented whale — some of his favorite traditional foods.
He thinks about returning to a spot on the beach 7 miles from town, one the family nicknamed Hepa Camp, where they build bonfires, barbecue and, on warm days, take quick dips in the Arctic Ocean. He hopes to make it to his family's hunting camp 60 miles from Utqiagvik, a place he's been visiting since he was small.
And he thinks about returning to his happiest place of all back home.
“My favorite thing is, when I go back to Barrow, just playing open gym with my best friends,” he said. “… I can’t wait to get back up there.”