Kamaka Hepa has the weight of an entire people on his shoulders.
The Texas Longhorns basketball signee is a lanky, 6’9 forward with a unique skill set who hopes to become the first Inupiat to play in the NBA.
Born in Barrow, Alaska, Hepa hails from the top of the world — Barrow is the northernmost city in the United States and sits well inside the Arctic Circle. For months during the winter, the sun never rises above the horizon. The residents mostly exist through subsistence food sources. There are no roads to Barrow, as it’s only accessible via plane.
So when Hepa began to emerge as a star basketball player in middle school, he had to come to terms with the reality that to chase his NBA dreams, he would have to leave Alaska in search of higher-level competition.
Still, he also felt a sense of obligation to his basketball-crazed community searching for its first state title in basketball. Led by Hepa’s combination of length, shooting ability, and ball-handling skills, his high school won that state championship when he was a freshman. And another during his sophomore season.
But Hepa experienced a life-altering tragedy that year — the death of his older brother.
“Before he passed away, my brother wanted me to get out of Alaska,” Kamaka told NBCSports.com. “The competition’s not terrible, but we thought there was more out there for me. He was always a big factor in that. He wanted me to play against the best players I could and get my game as good as I can. He thought that by moving, I would be able to do that.”
“When he passed away, I just had to do that for him.”
So the Hepa family made the move to Oregon, where he’s been a standout player at Jefferson, promptly leading to the program to a state championship by averaging 16.4 points and 11.3 rebounds per game.
After taking two visits to Austin between June and September, Hepa committed to Texas in late October over Gonzaga.
“Texas and Gonzaga were both great schools, but both were really different,” Hepa told USA Today High School Sports. “Gonzaga is in Spokane which is kind of a small place in the Pacific Northwest, and Austin, where the University of Texas is located, is really different.”
Days later, he made his decision official by signing his National Letter of Intent.
“Kamaka is a winner. His team has captured a state championship in each of his first three years in high school,” Texas head coach Shaka Smart said. “His ability to shoot and pass the basketball are unique for a player at 6’9. He brings significant intangibles and cultural value that will continue to help us build Texas Basketball.”
When Hepa arrives on the 40 Acres this summer, he’ll take the next step in a journey that started more than 3,500 miles away, at the top of the world.