Alika Is A-liking Coaching Punahou
Wednesday - January 06, 2010
This past week, as preseason high school basketball games came to an end, former Hawaii coach Riley Wallace took a trip to a Windward-side tournament to watch one of his favorite former Rainbow players, Alika Smith, who is now in his first year as head coach of ILH powerhouse Punahou.
“He’s doing a good job,” Wallace says.
That praise from his former mentor makes Smith proud.
“I love it,” he says. “I’m working with great kids, teaching them the game of basketball and the game of life.”
Smith was a late hire at Punahou this past fall, taking over for Dan Hale, who had led the Buffanblu to a state championship two years ago. Surprisingly, when the future coach interviewed for the job, he never mentioned the quest for another title.
“I never once said we’re going to win this, win that,” Smith recalls. “I told them that my goal was for us to have fun. That’s what my father taught me - that if you have fun, and work hard and learn the system, then winning takes care of itself.”
The search committee was impressed. Smith was hired very quickly.
It was quite a turnaround from the events of the previous few years. First, Alika’s dad, legendary Kalaheo coach Pete Smith, suffered a stroke and eventually passed away well before his time. Then despite serving ably as one of Wallace’s assistants, the former Kalaheo and University of Hawaii basketball standout wasn’t picked up by incoming head coach Bob Nash.
“That was really hard for me - it hurt me,” Smith recalls. “After all the time I played and coached at UH, spilling my guts and blood for them, it was devastating.”
But after going through another grieving process, he valiantly tried to move on in the basketball world. He was hired to be the new coach of Hawaii’s entry in a fledgling professional basketball league, the ABL. The team never played a game and the owner skipped town.
“That was devastating, too, for that guy to do what he did to everyone.”
Once again, Smith pulled up his basketball boot straps and moved on. He then took the coaching job at a tiny ILH Division II school,Academy of the Pacific. He also worked briefly as a mortgage broker, laid tile and worked with kids at the YMCA, taking every opportunity he could to pass on his love of the game.
“My friends kept telling me, ‘Once a door closes, another one opens,” he says.
How true that was.
When he called Punahou’s Kale Ane to inquire about the suddenly vacated Buffanblu job, the door swung open very wide, and Smith jumped right through it just as deftly as he did when he was nailing three-pointers at Kalaheo and later at UH.
“The kids here are unbelievably athletic and they’re such good kids off the court, too,” he says. “They really pick my brain, trying to see what I did to get to the next level. Many of them have that chance.”
But now, the focus is on the upcoming ILH season where, Smith says, “You have to have your A-game every night.”
He starts a very talented young team, including 6-foot-8-inch Deforest Buckner and 6-foot-6-inch Malik Johnson. Both are only sophomores, but along with Taylor Crabb, Sean McFadden, James Dowsett, Patrick O’Neil and Matt Feldman, among many others, they have proven to be one of the top teams in the state during the preseason. The Buffanblu open against defending state champion Kamehameha on Jan. 7, at Kamehameha.
He knows it will be a tremendous challenge, but “seeing all the smiles on the faces of all these kids, one through 15, is worth it,” he says. “I could sit down and converse with them for hours, teaching basketball and life.”
For Punahou head coach Alika Smith, it’s all about having fun. Riley Wallace smiles. And up in basketball heaven, so does Coach Pete.
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