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LONG STORY SHORT WITH LESLIE WILCOX
Laura Beeman

 

Head coach of the University of Hawai‘i’s Rainbow Wahine basketball team, Laura Beeman knows what it takes to win. She has revitalized the team drastically since her arrival in 2012, by pushing and inspiring her young women to reach their full potential, on and off the court.

 

This program will be rebroadcast on Wednesday, June 12, at 11:00 pm and Sunday, June 16, at 4:00 pm.

 

Laura Beeman Audio

 

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Transcript

 

Heartbreak a year ago. Elation this season.

 

It was a thrill of a lifetime. You know, and I still talk about it, I can get a big lump in my throat. And remembering in the locker room just this lump of winning the tournament. The range of emotion of seeing their hard work pay off, and being so incredibly proud of them for being that first team, to the community support and feeling the aloha twenty-five hundred miles away, and then feeling the stress that I had been under of … We’re supposed to win this tournament and go the NCAA, and what if I don’t, what a failure is that? And being able to sit in a corner by myself and go, Oh, my gosh, we did this. And just tears; just tears. Tears of happiness, of joy. It was, right now, a little emotional. It was an amazing experience. I want to get back there, I want to have this feeling again.

 

University of Hawaii Women’s Basketball Coach Laura Beeman likes winning. Yet, her drive to make her players the best they can be isn’t limited to the basketball court. She’s teaching them life lessons that will continue to guide them long after they graduate. Laura Beeman, next, on Long Story Short.

 

Long Story Short with Leslie Wilcox is Hawaii’s first weekly television program produced and broadcast in high definition.

 

Aloha mai kakou. Laura Lynne Beeman moved to Hawaii in 2012 to become the head coach of the University of Hawaii Rainbow Wahine Basketball Team. At that time, the team was losing more games than it was winning. It didn’t take Laura Beeman long to turn the team around. In 2016, only four years after she took over, the Rainbow Wahine won the Big West Conference Championship, securing a spot at the pinnacle event in college post-season basketball, March Madness. It was the program’s sixth appearance overall, but only the first in eighteen years. Laura Beeman has always been competitive; that’s the way she was raised.

 

Both my parents are very, very competitive. They’re self-made. And you know, my dad opened up a pharmacy with his brother right out of college, and it was an independent pharmacy. And basically, my mom supported him. You know, his parents told him, If you guys get married, you’re on your own. And they decided to get married, and my mom said, Well, I’ll put you through USC pharmacology. She did.

 

How did she do it?

 

She sacrificed her education, and she worked. So, I think that drive comes from them. You know, as a kid, I watched my father work seventeen, eighteen-hour days to support his family, so that his wife could raise children, and my mom doing everything she could to support her husband. So, I saw that hard work from a very, very young age, and was always told by my parents, If you’re gonna do it, you’re gonna do it right. You know, you’re gonna have a great attitude, you’re gonna give it all the effort you have, or don’t do it. And so, I think it was instilled at a very young age, even though I didn’t know that was going on. Youngest of four, and was immediately just thrust into sports. I have an older brother. And so, you know, growing up, we went to school with one another, we went to a Christian school, all the way up until middle school. And sports just became a huge foundation of mine and my brother’s life. You know, Sunday church, and then come home after church, go to a little grinder shop down the street, come back, open up the grinders, eat, and watch football. And so, that was kind of my life growing up.

 

When you went to college at California State University at San Bernardino, you earned a bachelor’s in business marketing.

 

Yeah.

 

And? [CHUCKLE]

 

I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life. And someone said, you know, business is probably one of the areas that is most marketable. You can do anything from being a sports agent, to get into law, to go into sales. And so, I thought, I have no idea, you know, what I want to do. I had been told by a woman who worked for my father, You can sell, you know, ice cubes Eskimos. And so, we always laughed about that. And so, I thought, let me go into business. So, while I was playing sports, I got my business degree with a concentration in marketing, thinking I could do sales or maybe sports agent. And then, graduated and was like, What am I gonna do with my life?

 

Then, what happened?

 

Well, I got a phone call from an assistant coach at the University of Redlands. And they said, We heard you’re in town, we have a graduate assistant position open, would you like to get your master’s paid for and get into coaching? And I thought, I have no idea what I want to do with my life, so let me market myself, make myself a little bit more well-rounded. So, I went and received a master’s in educational counseling. And I loved the counseling aspect; had no idea I would, and had no idea how useful that would come in coaching. So, when I started coaching at the University of Redlands, the basketball coaching bug; it bit. You know, I loved playing, but I had no idea I would want to coach.

 

What would you have done if you hadn’t gotten that call? And then, you get a free master’s. I mean, that’s quite amazing.

 

It is. Again, right place, right time. I have no idea. You know, I was working for my dad at his pharmacy. I probably would have continued to work for him. Had no desire to become a pharmacist. I don’t know what I would have done, but I would have worked for him until I landed on my feet someplace.

 

Do you remember how and when that coaching bug bit you?

 

I think pretty immediately. You know, when I went to the University of Redlands, it was sitting back and watching with the coaches did, and what I liked and what I didn’t like, and how kids responded and how kids didn’t respond. And then, really figuring out, Okay, these kids respond to me with a little bit of a different approach. And all of a sudden, it was like, Okay, this is kinda cool. You know, I can kind of figure this out as I go. I was there for two years, and that’s when Mount SAC, Mount San Antonio Community College in Southern California, the job opened up. I was not hired as the head coach; I was hired as the assistant women’s basketball coach. And again, watched how coaches did things, and how players responded. Fortunate for me, and unfortunate for that coach, it didn’t work out for her, and they hired me the next year as the head coach.

 

You were twenty-five years old.

 

I was young; yeah. I had players that were older than me, so I had to establish some pretty strong boundaries. And again, that goes back to my parents; it goes back to watching them have very, very good boundaries in their life and their relationship, going back to coaches I’d played for and coaches that had really good boundaries, and coaches that maybe didn’t.

 

What kind of boundaries do you need when you’re younger than your players?

 

Well, you can’t go party with them. You know, you can’t go drink with them. If you’re a male coach, female coach, you can’t date players. So, there’s a lot of things you can’t do. And you see that all the time; you hear of both female and male coaches that get involved with players, and that’s just a boundary that’s not appropriate. Going to clubs with them. So, it’s just setting these boundaries of … I’m in a different category; in a position of power, I guess, a little bit. And I think that a lot of people abuse that. And that was something that I was always very cognizant of, is respecting the young ladies. You know, I would never walk into a locker room and just walk in unannounced. Hey, I’m coming in, put your clothes on, you know, get yourself appropriate, whether it’s a male assistant coach walking in with me or not. There was just a very strong, strict boundary that I was always … always made sure that I held, and I wanted my players to see that. Because that’s something that as they grew in their life, there has to be boundaries in their life as well with relationships and other things.

 

From the beginning, were you pretty good at reading players? I mean, you’ve been in sports all your life, so you knew a lot about dynamics. What about reading individuals?

 

You know, some people think I’m crazy for saying this on the show. I went through a lot of counseling, you know, later on in my life. And that is probably what helped me read people, and understand human behavior. And it also allowed me to develop a philosophy that if I wanted players to be their best, then I had to help them get to their best; if I wanted my players to be their best, I had to be at my best. And so, reading players and reading people, human behavior, I feel like that’s something that I’m pretty decent at.

 

Sometimes, the things that help you get to where you are aren’t the best thing for where you need to go.

 

No; sometimes they’re painful, sometimes they’re hard. You know, I’m not a believer that everything happens for a reason, although I guess it does. But I’m not a believer in that. I think things just are cruddy sometimes, and they happen. But it’s how you deal with that, and it’s the after effect that can take you to a really good, solid place in your life where you can continue to live in that yuck. And I just decided there was a point in my life where I didn’t want to live in that yuck.

 

You were already an authority figure when you went for counseling; right?

 

Yes.

 

Was that hard, to ask for help?

 

Yes. [CHUCKLE] Absolutely. It’s hard to go in and kinda put your heart on the table, and get very vulnerable with someone, particularly someone you don’t know, and let them kinda not pick you apart, but say, Okay, let’s go here, and you’re like, I don’t want to go there. Very, very difficult, particularly as a coach, ‘cause you’re always in control.

 

How do you deal with stress? I mean, there are so many things you can’t control in your life as a coach.

 

Yeah. I think one of them is—you just hit it on the head, is admitting and knowing what I can’t control. There are just certain things that I cannot control, because I don’t know what’s gonna happen with it. I have two huge dogs that walk me, and I love that. So, I get them out, go on hikes, try to just enjoy the beauty of Hawaii. The quality of life here is very different than the mainland. And so, for as busy and as stressed as I am, I have learned to enjoy that. And it’s a forced … take a deep breath. Again, going back to what I said earlier, being my best me. I know when I’m tired, I know when I’m overworked, I know when I’m cranky and people don’t want to be around me.   And it’s that moment I need to say, Okay, pause, and admit it.

 

For fifteen years, Laura Beeman was head coach of the women’s college basketball team at Mount San Antonio in a suburb of Los Angeles. She became a legend, leading the team to a record number of wins and state championships. Three years after she left, she accepted the position of head coach for Hawaii’s Rainbow Wahine Basketball Team. The program was in serious need of revitalization, but before Beeman could turn things around, she would first have to change the team culture.

 

The first year of recruiting, you did bring us out of a big stall. [CHUCKLE]

 

Well, you know, the cupboard wasn’t bare. You know, the coach prior did a great job of putting, you know, things there, pieces there for me. And so, we were able to take that group of young ladies and kind of regenerate and rejuvenate them and say, Let’s go. And they really bought into the philosophy of it’s not okay to be okay, we want to be better than okay, we want to be great, we want people to recognize us as great. And they bought into that.

 

So, was that kind of a culture of, we’re good enough, it’s good enough?

 

Very much so. When I met my team the first time, that was the running theme. I said, Okay, what’s gone on? And I remember Shawna Kuehu; love her, came into my office last week. She said, Coach, I’m tired of just being okay, and it’s okay to be okay here. And I said, I’ve never been okay. I’ve never been average, I’ve never been okay, and now I know what the problem is. So, give me your laundry list of things we need to change, I’ll let you know the things that I can try to change and the things I know I can change. And the one thing I can change is that culture. We’re not gonna be average here. But you’re gonna have to work.

 

Yeah; you can’t change the culture by saying, That’s not okay. How do you change a culture? I mean, this is not just one thing, this is a system of beliefs.

 

Yeah. One, I think you have to walk the walk as the coach. You know, you can’t walk in and be on your cell phone, and again, the things I spoke of earlier, you know, using foul language. You have to present yourself as a winner. You have to present yourself as a champion. Whether or not you feel you are, you have to present yourself as that. And I truly believed that if I could get this group of young ladies to buy into, I don’t lose, you guys, and I’m not trying to be arrogant. Not at all. I’ve been fortunate to have wonderful assistant coaches and resources, and have been able to get kids to come together and say, Hey, look at my record, this is what we’re gonna do here if you buy in. And here’s another thing; if you don’t want to buy in … what you’re doing isn’t working, so try something different. And they did. And so, it was a daily challenge to say, No, tuck your uniform in, tie your shoes this way, get in here, get to class, do what you’re supposed to do. Get on the end line, work hard, or please leave the gym, because you’re the one that said you didn’t want to be okay, not me. I have my degree, I’ve won. Let’s go. And so, when you talk that way to kids and you paint that picture of, I really think I can do this, and we have a leader that knows how to do it …

 

And you challenge them.

 

Big time; big time. I’m not gonna let a kid sit back and say they want something, and then not work for it. You have two choices; tell me what you want and we’re gonna go, or tell me what you want and not do it, and then I’m gonna ask you to go ahead and sit over there in the corner by yourself, and do your thing. Because you can do that without me. But if you want to win, and you want to be good, then let’s get together and let’s do this the right way. Don’t tell me what you want do; do what you’re gonna do. And that was a challenge, and that’s where we took that first group of young ladies is, let’s go, that’s enough of this, we have talent. And they bought into it.

 

So, you started with these young women.

 

M-hm.

 

And you made inroads. When you find somebody you really want to bring over, how do you get them here when they’re really looking askance at Hawaii?

 

We sell Hawaii on connection. We sell Hawaii on relationships. We sell Hawaii on the community. You know, we have been fortunate that four of our five years, we’ve done very well. And so, we can approach the, Okay, we’ve won.

 

How did your system of recruiting change as you went along, where you got to be the Big West Conference winner and coach of the year?

 

Yeah. That was fun. You know, as young ladies evolved as players, we all of a sudden said, Okay, this is the system we want to run, this is what we need to do to be successful in the Big West. And so, you go out and you kind of recruit pieces that fit your puzzle, and fit your system. And so, we were able to, after that first year—we were late in the recruiting process. You know, you recruit two and three years in advance.

 

And you came, I think, before the 2012-13 season.

 

April; yeah.

 

April.

 

And so, recruiting, though, for you know, 2012, 13, 14, coaches are already in the mix. They’ve already offered kids that were ‘14s, you know, graduating in ’14. So, we were behind the gun. We went after some key pieces. We found a couple JUCO kids.

 

What does JUCO mean?

 

JC.

 

Okay.

 

Community college, two-year. Found a couple, you know, JC kids, went and found a fifth year transfer; immediate fixes, immediate pieces. Good character kids, but they were gonna have to work. And they were able to get the group together. And then, we were able to play catch up a little bit in the recruiting process, and then bring in people that we wanted; high character, great work ethic. Pieces as far as whether it’s post player or guard, bring in those right pieces. And then, by the year that we finished second in conference and went to the NCAAs, we had put our puzzle together, and that was a really fun year.

 

When you were looking for those pieces, you were looking for specific athletic strengths; right?

 

Yes; absolutely.

 

And you said, high character.

 

M-hm; m-hm. That’s important. You know, if I look at a kid that’s high character and I can get the effort piece, then I know I’m not gonna have problems off the court. When I’m bringing in a young lady where I’m constantly, Go to class, don’t go to the club, what are you doing, it’s taking energy away from where we want to put our energy. So, you know, I say as a coach, the two things you should never have to coach as a coach are attitude and effort. I’ll coach your ability, I’ll motivate you, but I’m not gonna coach your effort, and I’m not gonna coach your attitude.

 

But you don’t know how a young person is gonna act when they get to this new exotic place away from their parental eyes and family.

 

You hope that you’ve developed enough of a relationship in the evaluation process of going out and watching them play, over the phone, through some text messages, talking to parents, that at least you’re not gonna completely get it wrong. Now, have I it got it wrong? Absolutely. And I’ll get wrong again. But you really try to develop a relationship. Recruiting is a relationship, it’s a fit. It’s not just a, I like the way you play, come play for me. There has to be more to it, so that you can keep kids here.

 

And I’m sure there’s always the temptation to say, This person has great raw talent.

 

M-hm.

 

I’m gonna take a big chance on somebody who doesn’t have a lot of the other elements.

 

M-hm.

 

Have you done that in your coaching career?

 

I have. I did that at Mount SAC a lot, because I’d already developed a culture, and I knew when I had a kid, say, that would come in with a bad attitude, I had fourteen young ladies in that locker room that were gonna help me manage them. And a couple really good captains that were gonna keep them in check. I couldn’t do that my first two years here, because we hadn’t developed the culture. When you get a good culture, you can take some risks, you can take some chances, because you have that base of great locker room talk. Where they come in and they’re like, Hey, let’s do this; and your captains go, No, that’s not what champions do, let’s not do that. So, when you get a little bit of a better culture and a foundation, you can take more risks.

 

How have local recruitments gone?

 

Tough; it’s tough. Th—the theme right now and the trend right now, they want to go to the mainland. They want a mainland experience. And some of them do well and stay, a lot of them come back home. Um, I would love to keep our local talent here, but it’s—it’s tough to fight the—the allure of the mainland. So, right now, we’re going after ‘em; we’re offering kids. I just have to keep them home.

 

And you don’t have a lot of people who are really tall awaiting—

 

[CHUCKLE]

 

–your call either in Hawaii.

 

Yeah, you know. But I have some tremendous athletes, and I have young ladies that understand the culture, and understand what it feels like to represent the State of Hawaii, and uh, play in front of their family and their aunties and their uncles, and that’s—that’s huge. So, um, I can find the guard or the forward, possibly, that wants to stay; yeah. Would I love there to be a six-four, six-five local kid that wants to stay home that can play basketball? Absolutely. Um, whether or not that happens, those are things I can’t control, I don’t worry about it. Right now, my challenge is to keep ‘em here.

 

 

Recruiting players and training them to perform during practice and games are only part of Coach Laura Beeman’s job. Teaching young people to become top athletes often requires coaching them off the court as well to learn the life skills they’ll need to achieve their athletic goals.

 

John Wooden, a great basketball coach, coined for this phrase of, Kids don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care. And so, when you get people, business, team, whatever it is; when people really know you care about them, then you get a common goal, and people want to work hard for you. And that’s not just. Let me fake caring about these kids, and then they’re gonna work hard. My players know I genuinely care about them.

 

How do they know? Do they test you?

 

Of course they do. [CHUCKLE] What children don’t test; right?

 

How do they test you?

 

They’re gonna see how far they can take the discipline. You know, if they miss a class, is Coach really going to, you know, suspend me?

 

And that’s constant management for you.

 

Oh, yeah.

 

Isn’t it?

 

Yeah. And it’s constant discipline for me to stay consistent. Kids say they don’t want discipline. Kids love discipline, and they want consistency. So, it’s a test for me to say, We just talked about this last week, here we go again. That’s where I have to be very disciplined in what I do.

 

And the punishment is, they sit out?

 

Yeah. And you know, I don’t like a lot of rules. I want my players to manage themselves and discipline themselves, and know the right way to go. There is an area, though, that I don’t have any wiggle room; and that’s academics. A lot of coaches, when kids don’t go to class, they put ‘em on the track and they run ‘em. Well, my kids are already in shape, so running ‘em is very easy. I sit ‘em. And for my mainland kids, I sit ‘em when they go home. I let ‘em warm up, and don’t tell ‘em, and they go through all the warmups so people know they’re not hurt, and then they don’t play. And then, the parents come and say, Why did my kid not play? Go talk to your kid about her academics. Doesn’t happen again. And I tell my players that up front. I will put you in the position where you’re going to now get in trouble by your parents, not just me. So, we have a 3.1, 3.2 GPA. And that’s a pretty good GPA when we do as much traveling as we do. And I have a committed group of young ladies that understand that rule very, very clearly.

 

Through the time you’ve been coaching, have the issues that your players bring to you, personal issues, have they changed?

 

No. When I was at Mount SAC, I dealt with a population that—most of the population, single parent, first generation college, a lot of learning disabilities, and a lot of abuse. Whether it was substance, domestic, sexual; a lot of abuse. And so, basketball became the carrot that they wanted dangled in front of them, because that was their way out. That was their way into a better life. So, I would say that I didn’t deal with it as much. Not that it wasn’t there, but the kids didn’t have the need to come and talk to me as a coach. It was USC, different socioeconomic status. Coming back to Hawaii, the problems are the same, and it’s just do kids know that they’re there, do kids want to talk about ‘em. And my door is always open in case they do.

 

What about a difference in—you know, we’re seeing a change in generations and use of media. I mean, all kinds of changes in society. Is that reflected in the players you coach?

 

It is. You know, they’re very connected all the time to their devices. And I remember the first time I ever thought, Wow, there’s a separation with connection. A player texted me and said, Coach, you know, my grandmother died. And I’m like, Don’t text me that; come and see me. We need to give a hug here, we need to have a conversation, I need to check in with you. And all of a sudden, you get those types of conversation in text; there’s a disconnect. There’s an appropriate way of text messaging; Hey, meet me for coffee. Great. But don’t tell me a life issue through a text message, because I can’t see how you are and you can’t relay how you are, and it just allows kids to build this huge wall where they don’t get vulnerable, they don’t share emotion. And it doesn’t have to be with me. But I don’t think anyone can hide behind a wall their entire life and have healthy relationships. So, there’s a huge disconnect, more today than when I started at Mount SAC. And I’m dealing with the same age group; right? I get older, they stay the same.

 

And so, you’ve gotten a chance to see what happens to your eighteen, nineteen, twenty, twenty-one-year-old players. What have you seen as far as after their sports involvement? What happens?

 

Lot of them have gone on to coaching. Couple of them are in administration. You see them get married, have children, or great relationships, you know, get jobs where they’re successful. And a lot of them come back and say, Coach, you know, this is what I’m doing. Going to weddings, and you know, it’s been great to see them grow as young women, and see them apply some of the things that they fought you on [CHUCKLE] so many years ago.

 

And now, they enforce.

 

And now, they enforce. You know, I watch them coach, and I’m like, Okay, now they get it, they get how hard this is. And watching them have those boundaries and those rules, and it’s really fun; it’s really fun.

 

Did you have to go through a learning curve to be accepted here? Did you have to change anything about yourself?

 

That’s the weird thing for me, is I feel like I’m more myself here than I’ve ever been, because of how accepting people are. I got some great advice when I was hired. You know, don’t get political, stay out of it. You know, understand the culture, and some key things about the culture. And I listened to that. And also, saw that the people that were mentoring me, and on my interview committee, and women that came up and said, We want to be on your hui, we want to help you, were authentic. And they were just transparent in everything they did with me. And I saw that. And I thought, Okay, you need to be Laura Beeman, you can’t be anybody else, you have to be Laura Beeman. And if you’re honest and do things the way that you feel is right, even if you make a mistake, people are gonna be okay with that. I don’t know why I was embraced here so quickly. But I’m thankful for it.

 

You have a statewide constituency as coach, especially in the islands, because we don’t have professional sports. And so, you know, statewide audiences are watching, and proud, or willing to complain.

 

And when they see you embrace the culture, and they see you embrace—I’m just gonna say it, the aloha spirit, they love that. And so, when you have an off year—I’ve probably had more people come to me this off season and say, Coach, great job. And this is the worst year we’ve had. Because they see it in my face that this was a tough year, we struggled. This is not what I wanted. You know, this is not meeting my expectations. And so, pounding my head against the wall, what I did wrong, I’ve had more people come up to me and say, Keep doing what you’re doing. That doesn’t happen in a lot of other places. You walk through the airport, and instead of someone looking at you and giving you stink eye, they come up and they … Thank you, Coach. And you know, Can we take pictures with you and your team and, can you sign this and, my little girl wants to meet you. And that comes at wonderful, wonderful times when it’s tough. I feel that the community here sees these kids in the community, they see these kids going to class and graduating, they see the work that we’re putting in, and embracing what we have here. And I think that that’s something that when you live here, you understand it. If you don’t live here, you don’t.

 

You’ve been through a lot of victories in your life, though.

 

Uh, yeah.

 

Does it get old hat?

 

No, no, no, no, no. [CHUCKLE] Winning is fun.

 

When Laura Beeman first arrived at UH, the buzz was quite positive. Her hire was considered a good get for the University of Hawaii. And since then, there have been rumors about certain Pac-12 schools being very interested in hiring her away. At the time of our conversation in 2017, five years in, Coach Beeman said Hawaii has been good to her. She did mention that coaching at this level is tough on the body and the daily schedule, and there will be a time when she’d like to explore athletics administration. Mahalo to Laura Beeman of Honolulu, and thank you for watching Long Story Short on PBS Hawaii. I’m Leslie Wilcox. Aloha, a hui hou.

 

For audio and written transcripts of all episodes of Long Story Short with Leslie Wilcox, visit PBSHawaii.org. To download free podcasts of Long Story Short with Leslie Wilcox, go to the Apple iTunes store, or visit PBSHawaii.org.

 

You have to make a lot of real time, fast decisions when you’re in the middle of a game. How do you do that? And do you have trouble doing that at all?

 

At times, for sure. At times, you can get caught up in the emotion, you can get caught up in a certain play and miss what’s going on over here. That’s why I have incredible assistant coaches. They don’t miss a thing.

 

It’s teamwork. This is not the Laura Beeman Show; trust me.

 

[END]

 


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Examine the life and times of Jack Roosevelt Robinson, who in 1947 lifted a nation and an entire race on his shoulders when he crossed baseball’s color line. Ken Burns reveals fascinating stories about the legend’s life on and off the field.

 

Part Two
Robinson uses his fame to speak out against injustice, alienating many who had once lauded him for “turning the other cheek.” After baseball, he seeks ways to fight inequality, but as he faces a crippling illness, he struggles to remain relevant.

 

This program will encore Sat., April 16, 10:00 pm

 

AMERICAN MASTERS
Althea

 

Discover the story of Althea Gibson (1927-2003), who emerged as the unlikely queen of the segregated tennis world of the 1950s. She was the first African American to win Wimbledon and the U.S. Nationals (precursor of the U.S. Open) – a decade before Arthur Ashe. The documentary explores her mentoring by boxer Sugar Ray Robinson, former New York City mayor David Dinkins and others. Interviewees include Dinkins, Wimbledon champion Dick Savitt and all-time great Billie Jean King.

 

INDEPENDENT LENS
In Football We Trust

 

Premiere: Monday, February 1 at 10:00 pm
Encore: Saturday, February 6 at 8:00 pm

 

Harvey Langi, Leva and Vita Bloomfield, and Fihi Kaufusi are high school athletes in Salt Lake City, Utah. They all have the same goal: to play in the NFL. According to the film, Samoans and Tongans in the U.S. are 28 times more likely to play football in the NFL than any other ethnic group. But with family expectations, gang violence and stigma, it isn’t an easy path.

 

PBS Hawaii spoke with filmmakers Tony Vainuku and Erika Cohn by phone about their first feature-length documentary.

 

This interview has been edited for clarity and contains spoilers.

 

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PBS Hawaii: This film was shot cinema verite style, which can be tough when you’re following your subjects in real time, not knowing how their story lines will pan out. Were there other subjects that ended up not making the cut?

 

Vainuku: We began with a whole different group. Originally, we started with Matt Asiata [now a running back for the Minnesota Vikings]. There was Thretton Palamo, who now plays rugby. I’d say the first subjects we clamped down were the Bloomfields and Harvey Langi. And then later, we brought in Fihi, who became our fourth subject.

 

With the other subjects that fell off, they have to be completely vulnerable and it is a lot of time you’re asking to spend with them. And for one reason or another, we weren’t able to include all those stories.

 

What was the greatest challenge in making this film?

 

Vainuku: I think one of the challenges is telling four stories in an hour and a half, and really being able to get the arc of the story in and get them all fleshed out. As a filmmaker, [doing this for] over five years and doing it independently, and for the first three or four years with basically no funding and getting these “nos” as far as trying to raising money. That was toughest, trying to tell this story that’s so important to you and just keeping up the funding and keeping yourself going and living in order to make this film.

 

Cohn: We had 600 hours of footage and to create a 90-minute film was incredibly challenging. A lot of times throughout the process, we got feedback to cut one of our subjects. That was feedback that we entertained, but we really wanted to be able to tell the stories of the Bloomfields, Fihi and Harvey.

 

As far as the funding challenges, Tony and I drew lines in the sand. Tony, wasn’t yours, like, you weren’t going to let your house go?

 

Vainuku: Yeah. I gave up my car, sacrificed a lot there. The one thing was to keep my home over making this film. Luckily, we got the film out just in time. [laughs]

 

Cohn: Thankfully! The hardest part of this was hearing no, after no, after no [while fundraising]. But in the long run, the process of not having financing for the first three years really shaped the way we went about making this film. We didn’t have the ability to have people doing sound or multiple cameras. It was just us. I think some of the intimacy comes from that really raw, gritty, pick up the camera and run-and-gun kind of shoot.

 

Vainuku: Yeah. One of the advantages to no funding is basically the freedom to do whatever. Nobody’s looking over your shoulder and telling you you have deadlines. We were able to really let the stories develop, and they went places that we would never have imagined. We couldn’t have written it better. Staying with them made all the difference.

 

Tony Vainuku and Erika Cohn

 

As the story lines progressed, what was something that hit home for each of you?

 

Cohn: I can’t tell you how much I learned from our subjects. The whole filmmaking process taught me a lot about not just filmmaking, but about life in general and about myself. That’s something that I didn’t expect. That’s a beautiful gift.

 

Vainuku: I related to all of the stories. It was really personal for me. There were parts of my life within the kids. The story for me, because it was so personal, was my younger uncle’s story. His fall from ever making it into the NFL; he ended up going to prison instead. So being able to tell that story through four kids instead of one – words can’t describe how close I am to all of these kids because of it, and what they were able to accomplish with their lives.

 

I can name one scene that was really, really tragic, that meant the world to me, when Leva had his incident and was arrested. That scene was completely shot in real time. Getting that event and knowing that it was going to change lives really, really helped that cause of what their family was going through, and what a lot of other Polynesian families are going through. These vulnerable moments that we found within these stories: We have Harvey breaking down and all the pressure that he deals with with his parents, and then you have Fihi with the spiritual side of all Polynesians. I think as a whole, Polynesians are pretty spiritual.

 

It’s hard to name one thing, but [the film] definitely came out better that I would have ever expected, as far as what it was inspired by.

 

What was it like as a filmmaker to see a story unfold tragically, but not be able to interact?

 

Vainuku: There’s definitely different levels of it, and as a filmmaker, it’s a little nerve-wracking. You’re not supposed to be there. In that exact scene, I was being pushed out, and the mother was pushing me in there and making sure everything was fine with me staying. As a filmmaker, you’re just double-checking that that button is hitting record the whole time.

 

On a personal level, it was hard. You spend so much time with these kids. And not only the kids, but their parents, too. I’m older than the kids, so I totally want the same thing for them that their parents want, which is for them not to make a mistake and ruin their lives long-term. So seeing that was pretty tough. I think overall as a director, you want the story to be completely honest and truthful and want them to trust you with their story, so you kind of have to make a point of staying out of it and not direct them, and not be a parent to them. In the Polynesian culture, they’re so respectful of their elders anyway, so if I was to treat them like, “Hey, you shouldn’t do that,” we would have had a different story, and I don’t think they would have opened up as much as they did. On all those levels as a filmmaker, being in that situation, you experience it differently and have to adapt quickly.

 

The family component is something that’s so universal, and it’s interesting seeing how family influence affects each of the boys.

 

Vainuku: It looks really natural as far as there being such distinguished story lines between the subjects. But there were a lot of redundancies within the families, too. As Polynesians know, a lot of our lives are still very close to our culture and very much the same. I think as filmmakers and being aware of that and really combing through their stories, we were able to really distinguish them and tell a whole story.

 

Cohn: Yeah, it’s like, how many senior proms do you show? There were a lot of parallel state championships that we filmed on different days, and events that were happening in their lives and hangouts with friends and family, and family home evenings.

 

With the Bloomfields, a lot of times, we’ll get feedback saying, “Oh, so they weren’t Mormon?” And they were just as Mormon as Harvey’s family, and they had family home evenings, but that wasn’t something we focused on as filmmakers. We were really trying to pull out the deeper issues that the Bloomfields dealt with, and that the whole culture would be represented [in the film], more than just how the media portrays us on the news. Each of their stories couldn’t have been told without the others.

 

The reason why we understand Harvey’s mission at the end, isn’t because we ever hinted at Harvey going on a mission. Because if you just watch Harvey’s story by itself, there’s no mission ever really being talked about until he actually goes at the end. The only reason we understand that is because Fihi is at that part of his life.

 

Fihi is injured in the film, but he is just so eager to continue playing for his team, and his coach lets him. When Fihi’s injury worsened, did you feel like that could have been prevented?

 

Cohn: I think that there are a lot of layers, and this is not unique to Fihi’s situation. It’s universal to a lot of student athletes. The game so filled with adrenaline, and so filled with a sense of camaraderie, and team participation. As Fihi says, “It’s my football family.” There’s a sense of guilt if you bow out or don’t contribute, and obviously, I think in the coach’s case, absolute neglect. But when you have a player that’s so anxious to get in the game and wants to be a part of it – Fihi was told he couldn’t play. He was the one ripping his bandages off to go back in. In that sense, there’s a lot of complexity.

 

Of course, the coaches are responsible and of course, there’s medical neglect. But there’s a lot of complexity. And having been a student athlete, if someone tells you to sit on the sidelines because of an injury, it’s the worst feeling in the world.

 

We don’t go into a lot of detail with Fihi post-injury, but his life totally changed, without that outlet, that part of his life that gave him so much, and what he was living for at that time. He had so much zest for life and gave him so much passion. He loved the game and loved that football family. His life outside of the film changed dramatically when football was no longer there.

 

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Vainuku: We definitely as filmmakers could have made a choice to really heavily blame it on the coaches, but I feel like the choices we made in that scene [where Fihi urges his coaches to re-enter the football game] – it’s showing you what these kids are doing to themselves.

 

Junior Seau died from CTE [Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy] but didn’t have one recorded concussion. And the reason for that is because of what we showed in that spirit that Fihi has, that football soldier mentality. We were able to show that but also show both sides, where the coaches are encouraging it or turning a blind eye to it. Like most of the film, we’re able to leave that up to the viewer and have them look at both sides.

 

Back at Sundance, Fihi was asked if he blames the coach after seeing the film, and he said no, he blames himself. He still takes full responsibility because he felt like it was his choice. I think a lot of these football players with brain damage feel the same way. With these high school players, we were able to show both sides that have to take that responsibility.

 

Do you still keep in touch with the four boys?

Vainuku: For the most part, yeah. Everybody kind of lives pretty busy lives, but definitely. I just went to a wedding of Leva and Vita’s younger brother. I talk to Harvey here and there, when he often calls me for advice with his college football career. Erika, you’re in touch with Fihi?

 

Cohn: Fihi and the Bloomfields a lot, yeah. And Vita.

 

How has the film changed their lives?

Vainuku: Leva’s mom tells me that it really did help Leva in a lot of ways. Leva still has his struggles that he deals with personally, but I think overall, people look to him as an example that he probably wouldn’t be trying to set without the film out there and people knowing who he is. And Harvey… Harvey was going to do what he was going to do, and he’s just as unpredictable. [laughs] I’d like to think that it changed him in a positive way.

 

How do you hope this film will address negative stereotypes about Pacific Islanders?

Vainuku: I have one friend that I grew up since I was seven years old, and he tells me after watching the movie, “You know, Tony, I feel like I’ve always been Polynesian because I’ve always been so close to your family, and I’ve always been around Polynesians all my life. But after watching this movie, I feel like I’m getting to know you for the first time.”

I feel like we get past all the stereotypes. You see a family deal with gangs, but you see that they’re human and they’re making mistakes. You see this kid that has this God-given talent, but you also see that he’s human, this human story. I feel like we’ve done a good job of breaking down stereotypes and really going into what this culture is, and some of the issues and struggles they deal with personally, and some of the culture clashes that they are dealing with, being sewn into America.

 

The film also succeeds in dismantling stereotypes about Mormons, as well. That’s an added dimension.

Vainuku: That they’re not all white and blonde. [laughs] I think that’s one, that there are brown Mormons in Utah. We have two of them go on missions, and they’re not perfect kids. They do go through some things and overcome some struggles in order to get out on their missions. In fact, I heard somebody say one time that the movie normalizes Mormons.

 

What’s next for this film?

Cohn: The film is being broadcast soon, which is really exciting, and we’re thrilled to have PBS as a partner on this, especially Independent Lens. Post-broadcast, the film will be available on SVOD and VOD, home video and on-demand platforms. We’ve also been asked to be involved in an outreach and engagement campaign, so we’ll be doing that through the next year, as well.

 

What’s next for each of you?

Cohn: I have two docs in development, one’s in production and one is in post-production. I also have a narrative feature in development.

 

Vainuku: I have two narrative projects that I’m working on. The first is a feature along the same lines that I’m tightening up the script on, and submitting to Sundance Labs in February.

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Leahey & Leahey ends its nine-year run on PBS Hawaii

Leahey & Leahey: Father: Jim, Son: Kanoa

HONOLULU, HI – After nine years on PBS Hawaii, the father-and-son sports talk show Leahey & Leahey has come to an end.

 

At their in-studio kitchen table, Jim and Kanoa Leahey welcomed sports heroes, insiders and policy makers from Hawaii and around the world.

 

“It’s been a wonderful run at PBS Hawaii, but it is time to move on,” Kanoa Leahey said. “I couldn’t ever fully express my appreciation for the support we received from PBS Hawaii management, as well as the viewers the last nine years. I will thoroughly miss working with the crew and staff.”

 

“PBS Hawaii gave us the shot to do something unique,” Jim Leahey said. “It served as a perfect platform of expression and thought. We thank Leslie Wilcox and the rest of the PBS Hawaii staff for affording us the opportunity to engage in what we referred to as a generationally challenged discussion of sports and other living things. But as with all living things, change and transition are inevitable. Mahalo to all who made the last nine years so special for us.”

 

“Nine years is remarkable staying power in weekly television, and we congratulate Jim and Kanoa on the show’s originality, authenticity and success,” said PBS Hawaii President and CEO Leslie Wilcox. “We understand and support Kanoa’s need for more flexibility in his career horizons with ESPN. Much aloha to both Leaheys in their future endeavors.”

 

Leahey & Leahey premiered on PBS Hawaii in July 2006. Past episodes can be viewed for a limited time, here on our site.

 

LEAHEY & LEAHEY
Darnell Arceneaux

 

This evening’s guest will be Darnell Arceneaux. Darnell is the former Head Coach at Saint Louis and was Marcus Mariota’s head coach in high school.

 

The Leahey’s will discuss Oregon’s College Football Playoff Championship game against Ohio State along with the UH Men’s Basketball team’s 12-4 start.

 

 

 

LEAHEY & LEAHEY
June Jones

 

This episode’s guest will be former a university of Hawaii head football coach June Jones.

 

The Leaheys will discuss with Coach Jones his future and any interest in returning to UH in any capacity. Plus the three will discuss Hawaii’s Marcus Mariota winning the 80th annual Heisman Trophy.

 

This program is available in high-definition and will be rebroadcast on Wed., Dec. 17 at 11:30 pm and Sun., Dec. 21 at 3:30 pm.

 

 

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