By Tony Magaoay, Class of ‘56
I cherish all my homebound trips to Lana’i. I always stop by the Old Gym at least once – standing at the main entrance, scanning the stage, the basketball court, the scoreboard balcony, and the bleachers. It always spurs memories of the many activities that occurred in this historic gymnasium – homecoming, weddings, concerts, graduations, magic shows, May Day programs, proms, bingos, carnivals, hula shows. One particular event stands out in my mind. It happened more than a half century ago: Lana’i High School vs. Punahou High School basketball game in December 1955. This was an honor to play against an opponent like Punahou, an Oahu private school with many state championships in many sports, as well as producing a lot of famous athletes, business folks, and even world leaders.
Punahou was loaded with experienced 6-foot tall players and ranked in the top of the Honolulu schools basketball league. Lana’i had only one tall player, and he was listed at 5’11”. Lana’i High was part of the Maui County League, and was known for our speed and our rebounds despite our lack of height. The game was predicted to be a blowout with Punahou prevailing. Many of the community folks viewed the game as a social event to kick off the holidays rather than an athletic competition.
But Coach Donald Matsui thought otherwise. Mr. Matsui was in his second year as the Lana’i Athletic Director and basketball head coach. He went to hold on to those positions for the next 30+ years. He was also our Class of ’56 advisor, and a special and important mentor in my life. Coach Matsui got the team together before we started our lay-up drills and pepped up the team with this challenge: “Beat Punahou and I’ll treat you guys to banana split at Tanigawas!” Well, at 35 cents each, a banana split was a luxurious treat for many of us players. Coach Matsui knew how to motivate us.
This ho-hum game turned out to be a thriller from start to finish. In front of a standing room home crowd, the Lana’i five starters – four seniors and one junior – were hot that night. We scored from anywhere on the court and played as a team on fire. Punahou didn’t know who to guard closely because everyone was scoring. Being a fast team, we outran the defenders, scoring on fast breaks and drives to the hole. When Punahou adjusted their defense by putting the tall defenders under the basket, we jump shot from above the keyhole with unbelievable accuracy. We made corner and downtown shots from beyond the modern-day three point arc. The starters scored 59 points and one substitute player added three points.
The lead went back and forth with no more than a five point difference. With less than a minute to play and behind three points, Punahou had the last possession and still had a chance to win. They could make a basket, and steal the inbound pass or commit a foul to get a second chance. I can still picture the timekeeper sitting on the 15-foot high loft, holding a stop watch and manually moving the large clock’s minute hand. hand/Punahou shot and missed! Lana’i rebounded. The timekeeper moved the minute hand to zero and pressed the buzzer.
END OF GAME. Lana’i 62 PUNAHOU 59
Incredibly, we had beaten Punahou! The crowd cheered. The Old Gym shook as the crowd cheered louder.
A few days later, Coach Matsui escorted 13 Pine Lad basketball players to Tanigawa’s. He happily treated us to our banana splits. As we ate our precious treat, we dissected the game play-by-play like a bunch of ESPN analysts. We were euphoric over our victory. Total bill for our treat was $4.90. We were so grateful for our coach’s generosity!
In retrospect, we were a bunch of scrawny teenage boys. Boys who grew up in a pineapple plantation camp. Boys whose fathers missed a lot of our games because they were working in the fields…or gambling at the chicken fights. We were boys nicknamed “gym rats” because we spent too much time at the Old Gym. The Old Gym was everything we wanted – comradeship, freedom, and life lessons. And those life lessons served well when we left our beloved island to go to college, to fight in WWII – Korea or Viet Nam, and to become husbands and fathers. The Old Gym is a cherished symbol of my basketball days and that long ago time.