Twice a state champion in Alaska, a Jefferson High School senior has a chance to repeat that feat this season in Portland.
Barrow to Portland to Austin: That’s the flight pattern for Jefferson High senior Kamaka Hepa. Twice the Gatorade Player of the Year in Alaska, the University of Texas-bound big man has a chance to close out his prep career as a four-time state champion.
“I was born and raised in Barrow, Alaska which is the very top of Alaska. It's the northern-most city in the United States,” Hepa said.
From the near the top of the world to tops in 6A Oregon hoops, Hepa is the man in the middle for top-ranked Jefferson High, the defending state champs.
“Since Barrow is a really small community, the diversity isn't as great as it is here in Portland so that was really different. Then coming to Jefferson High School was really different for me. Being thrown into a different environment was challenging but it was good for me,” he said.
This is year two of Hepa’s experience in the Rose City.
“He shares the ball, he's very unselfish. As a matter of fact, sometimes I think he is unselfish to his detriment,” laughed head coach Pat Strickland.
Strickland wants Hepa putting up 20 shots a game. He’s almost a pass first big – team first for sure.
The Hepa family moved for a change in culture and challenges on the court where legacy reigns supreme in Jeff's house.
“He's so versatile. He brings the ball up, he can shoot threes, he can play midrange, he can post up but we definitely want to get him on the block more in state. I always tell him the Terrence Jones story. Terrence wanted to be on the perimeter too. I used to tell Terrence, hey, you go down there and do your work early and get your 20 (points) and 10 (rebounds) then you can do what you want to do the rest of the game,” said Strickland.
Hepa is a challenge to handle no matter where he's at on the floor, 6’ 9” and growing.
“I went to the doctor not too long ago and they said I still had a little bit of growth plate left in my ankle so hopefully those kick in before I get to Texas,” he said.
The next move is to keep it weird in Austin, Texas, committing to Shaka Smart and the Longhorns over places like Gonzaga, Oklahoma and Oregon.
“Going down there, I didn't really think much of it being a school I would be going to until I got to feel the different environment. I just feel like Coach Smart is really invested in his players and that's a guy I can trust in helping me further my career,” Hepa said.
Strickland said, “A guy that has bigger dreams than college basketball. A great kid, a student of the game, a student of the classroom. just a good, all around American kid.”
The senior is a leader by example on the court and in the classroom, carrying a 4.0.
“It’s always been education before basketball for me, it's kind of been secondhand. When basketball did start to pick up my education didn't fall off at all,” said Hepa.
Using basketball as a tool to get his college paid for – done. As a math kid, he's looking into business and accounting. Not a bad start if the NBA doesn't work out.
“With my decision to go to Texas, I put myself in a good position to play at the next level beyond college,” Hepa said.
Time will tell, but Hepa is on his way to being a slam dunk of an adult.
“I can kind of build that bridge for future generations to come for them,” he said.
Hepa’s striving for so much more in life and might one day move back to northern Alaska. It's those long, dark, and cold winters that drove him into the gym.
He and top-ranked Jeff are 10-0 in 6A hoops so far. Hepa's younger brother, Keoni, is a second team all-city football lineman.
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