Like the village where he grew up — a place where the sun vanishes for more than 60 days in the winter and never goes away for 80 days in the summer — Kamaka Hepa is living a life of basketball extremes.
Hepa, a smooth-shooting 6-foot-9 forward who led the Barrow Whalers to Alaska state championships in 2015 and 2016, is a University of Texas junior in the midst of the weirdest 10 months of his basketball career.
For nearly two months last spring, a healthy Hepa did not shoot a single basket. Let that sink in. A man attending college on a basketball scholarship who grew up in a place where shooting hoops is like breathing air did not put up a shot for 57 days.
He was home in Utqiaġvik at the time, hunkering down at the start of the pandemic in a town where anyplace with an indoor hoop was shut down and the outdoor environs were not inviting: “Six feet of snow,” Hepa said.
From the day he left Austin on March 16 for spring break until May 11 when he was able to get inside the high school gym in Utqiaġvik, Hepa didn’t shoot a basketball. It was the longest he’s ever gone between shots, he said. (And did he make that long-awaited first shot? “Of course I did,” Hepa said with a laugh.)
Hepa has since returned to Texas, where the extremes have continued.
[Previously: Kamaka Hepa’s shot, from behind the Arctic Circle]
In the first 12 games of the season, Hepa took a grand total of four shots while playing a grand total of eight minutes. He didn’t even make an appearance in nine games, a reduction in playing time that is a consequence of the Longhorns’ deep and talented roster.
Then came Saturday’s Big 12 game against Kansas State, when things went from famine to feast for Hepa. With a number of regulars sitting out due to COVID-19 protocols, Hepa made his first start of the season, and he made the most of it.
In 26 minutes, he pumped in 15 points on 5-of-9 shooting, including 5-of-8 shooting from 3-point range, to boost Texas to an 82-67 victory. When Monday’s national rankings came out, the 11-2 Longhorns sat in the No. 5 spot.
Hepa and his teammates are idle this week because both of their scheduled opponents — Iowa State and Texas Christian — called off games because of COVID-19 issues. The next scheduled game for Texas is Jan. 26 against Oklahoma, and it’s not known if or how much Hepa will get to play.
If he doesn’t see action, he will still contribute.
“My role in Alaska was much different than it is now,” Hepa said in an interview Wednesday. “What I really enjoy doing and what (coach Shaka Smart) wants me to do as my role this year is being a guy on the bench who knows what’s going on and has great energy. And who can transfer that energy to his team. I take a lot of pride in that.”
Hepa described his bench game like this: “Be happy and be excited for the success the team is having and expressing that in clapping or screaming or jumping — whatever my body feels like doing. It’s part of who I am.
“... After every game I’m going out of there with a very scratchy voice,” he said. “It tells me I did my job.”
The Houston Chronicle recently called Hepa a “hype man” who “bellows helpful tips to teammates, shimmies after rim-rocking dunks and saturates hollow arenas with much-needed energy.”
“He’s always engaged every time, every practice, every game,” Smart said in a press conference after the Kansas State game. “He has incredible energy and has this spirit about him that is infectious and very, very positive. You can see it on the bench. He’s the most engaged and excited guy there is, but he can play.”
Hepa said the most satisfying aspect of the victory over Kansas State was seeing the Longhorns bounce back from a 79-77 loss to Texas Tech three days earlier. But tying his career-high for points and making significant on-court contributions felt pretty good too.
“It felt tremendously good just to be out there with my teammates,” he said. “It felt very comfortable. I was soaking up the experience as much as I could. It felt good to see the ball go through.”
Hepa was a two-time Gatorade player of the year in Alaska as a freshman and sophomore and as a senior he was Oregon’s Gatorade player of the year in his second of two seasons at Portland’s Jefferson High. He was highly recruited out of high school and during his first two seasons at Texas he played in 51 games, started 11 and scored in double figures twice.
He spent the offseason thinking he would spend the 2020-21 season as a redshirt because of Texas’ deep roster, but then the NCAA decided this season won’t count against anyone’s eligibility. So Hepa is playing and will still have two years of eligibility left after this season.
That means he’ll be a junior in terms of basketball again next season — even though academically he’ll be a graduate student by then. He will graduate this spring with a degree in sport management and move on to graduate school, though he said he hasn’t picked a program yet.
Hepa’s 4.0 GPA earned him a spot on last season’s Big 12 all-academic team, and Smart — who describes Hepa as “one of one in terms of guys I’ve coached, as a person” — is convinced Hepa will be make it big in whatever he pursues after basketball.
“I told him he’s probably going to be all our boss some day,” Smart said.
During his extended stay in Utqiaġvik last spring and summer, Hepa worked as an intern for the fire department. His grandfather, Thomas Opie, was the city’s first fire chief, Hepa said.
“It was nice to follow in his footsteps,” he said. “It provided me with an opportunity to expand my skills in a whole different area.”
Hepa said he didn’t get any fire training but received a basic life-support certificate that allowed him to be part of the crew for EMS calls. Not a bad guy to have around in case of emergency, as the Longhorns discovered last week when their stars were sidelined and Hepa came to their rescue.