Kaniela Aiona is a Hilo boy through and through. He grew up going to legendary coach Jimmy Yagi’s basketball camps. His parents met at Hawai’i-Hilo when his father was playing hoops in the late 60’s. Both his brothers are proud UH-Hilo graduates.
“My first memory of the Vulcans was Coach Yagi’s Vulcan basketball camp. That was where the love and passion for the game started,” Aiona said.
Aiona’s basketball journey took him away from the islands for his collegiate career at Webster University, then across the continental U.S. to begin his coaching career. No matter where basketball would take him, he always desired to come home.
“My wife and I always knew that at some point we wanted to get back to Hawai’i. We just didn’t know when that would be,” he said. “We took a lot of long walks talking about what it could be like here and what the vision of coming here and what it would mean to us. It wasn’t like going to take a job. It was like trying to go do something special. Go somewhere that we knew we could have an impact in the community. We knew it was going to be bigger than basketball.”
The opportunity to take over the program that helped ignite his passion for the game presented itself last summer. Aiona seized the moment and was named Vulcans head basketball coach in May of 2020. The Honoka’a High School alum is the first Big Island native to be UH-Hilo head coach since 1985, which was the last of Yagi’s nine years at the helm at UHH.
“The day I accepted the job, you know, you’re thinking ‘we have to go there and we do have to win some games,” Aiona said with a laugh, “That certainly comes into your mind, but the gratitude overshadows all of that. The gratitude to have the opportunity to lead this program. This program has a lot of history. Coach Yagi is a living legend. You stand on the shoulder of giants and you can see really far. Coach Yagi and all the coaches that came before set the table for what we can be going forward here.”
Aiona and his family didn’t arrive to the Big Island until early September because of the pandemic, but even with the limited time he had a plan in place to rejuvenate the program he grew up watching. He was going to bring the Vulcans back to his roots, instill the Hawaiian values he was raised on.
“It’s natural to rely on the Hawaiian values here. Our guys can learn things that I grew up with. The things that people from here, from this community just have in their heart,” Aiona says. “We want our men to understand kuleana, malama, aloha. The very first value we talked about is ‘ohana . You have to take care of your family. Your family isn’t just your immediate family it’s the community. It’s not just your team. It’s the people who care about our program.”
“He definitely brought some energy and Hawaiian spirit. Now we all feel like we’re from Hawaii,” Sasa Vuksanovic said about the team’s culture change this season, “Even though I’m not from Hawaii, with Coach Aiona, I feel like I’m from Hawaii. He introduced us to Hawaii culture a lot.”
Reconnecting the Vulcans to Hilo’s foundation has fueled an immediate turn around. In seven months, Aiona has taken a 14-loss team and built them into a Top 25 squad in the country and Hawaii pod winners.
“We were dreaming about long term. We told the hiring committee here that we felt like this was a sleeping giant. UH-Hilo could be a place that you could be in the top 25. You could be a perennial contender,” Aiona said. “It could be a tough place to go and play. We’re going to be able to get the kind of players and men here that are going to be able to have success. We’re excited about it. We felt like we were going to be able to make some strides this year, but you never know. You don’t know about the timeline. You don’t know how long it will take. Credit to our players for buying in.”
The attitude of a team is usually a direct reflection of their head coach, but Aiona’s Vulcans are starting to resemble more than just their leader. They’re taking on the soul of Hilo.
“This is a blue collar place with a long memory,” Aiona said. “A long history of doing things a certain way, a Hawaiian way. That culture is really a part of what we want in our mission, in our vision for the program”