ST. CATHARINES, Ontario – Alaska is no stranger to producing talented basketball players. Names like Mario Chalmers and Carlos Boozer came out of the southern part of the state once upon a time, but Kamaka Hepa’s background is a little different.
Hepa was born and raised on the coast of the Arctic Ocean in Barrow, Alaska – the northernmost community in the United States. For a point of reference, it is closer to Russia than it is to the state capital and Boozer’s hometown of Juneau.
Late last year, Hepa committed to play at Texas this fall. To the best of his reckoning, he’ll be the first ever basketball player in a Power 5 conference to hail from north of the Arctic Circle.
“It does mean a lot to me, to be one of the first guys to do that,” Hepa said Tuesday in St. Catharines, Ontario, where he’s playing with the U.S. U18 squad at the FIBA Americas. “The community up there has really supported me, so being able to kind of go out and represent them, has been a great opportunity.”
Now a 6-foot-9 power forward, Hepa knew a few years back he had to hone his skills against better competition. That’s why, after his sophomore year in Barrow, he and his family moved south to Portland, Ore. There, he attended Jefferson High School, which produced NBA players such as Terrence Ross and Terrence Jones.
Hepa is strong on the glass with some stretching ability as a shooter. While he hasn’t played enough minutes to get into any real rhythm offensively at the U18 tournament, he’s the U.S.’s second-leading rebounder.
The 18-year-old is Inupiaq, which is a band of the Inuit people. While it might surprise some, there’s a logical answer to why basketball is so popular in northern Alaska – it’s too cold to do anything outside most of the year.
“In the area I’m from, it’s hard to play other sports,” Hepa said. “They just started playing organized football like 10 years ago. We kind of grew up in the gym and I started when I was really young.”
It’s a path Hepa hopes one day leads to the NBA, where he’d become just the fourth Alaskan ever to play at the highest level.
“That’s my goal,” he said.