By Michael Tsai
Advertiser Staff Writer
Before Kawika Smith donned No. 13 for the Hawaii Pacific basketball team, he wore a referee uniform.
For Foot Locker.
Smith, a prep standout in basketball, track and volleyball, graduated from Damien High in 1996. Eager to pursue his basketball dreams, he spent a year at San Diego Mesa College but returned home to Hawaii after the birth of his son, Kayson.
"I thought I was done with basketball for my career," Smith said.
But HPU coach Tony Sellitto had seen Smith play in local summer leagues and was convinced he belonged in an HPU uniform. He found Smith at Foot Locker and made his pitch.
"I told him he was wasting his time," Sellitto said. "He was a good athlete and a good player. I told him if he worked at it, he could be great."
In two seasons with the Sea Warriors, Smith has done everything he could to prove Sellitto right. Heading into tomorrows game against Western Oregon, the senior forward ranks second in the Pacific West Conference in field goal percentage (67 percent) and blocks (18) and third in steals (22). The once-reluctant shooter is also averaging nearly 14 points per game, and is second on the team in rebounds (54) and assists (30).
"Hes higher than the Division II level," Sellitto said. "Hes quicker than guards and he jumps higher than big guys. He has eyes in the back of his head. Hes a total package."
Facing Division I competition at the HPU Thanksgiving Classic, Smith led the team with 14 points against Central Florida and 10 rebounds against Siena en route to all-tournament honors.
For Smith, success on the court is only half the challenge. With uncommon poise and much help from fiancee Shaunna Bejgrowicz, Smith maintains an ironman schedule that includes five practices a week, a full academic load and long commutes between the couples Ewa home and HPUs downtown campus.
Recently, Smith and Bejgrowicz, welcomed their second child, Kaejin.
"My fiancee balances all the scheduling," Smith said. "She just tells me where to go. Shes like my coach off the court."
Sellitto likens Smith to fellow local products Alika Smith (no relation), Shannon Lee and Scott Kato.
"Mentally and physically, those guys are the toughest individuals Ive ever seen," Sellitto said. "Theyre just fearless. Theyll never go out with a nickel-and-dime injury. Local guys just seem to exhibit a certain toughness and Kawika has that."
Smiths rugged play has contributed to a four-game winning streak for the Sea Warriors (5-4), whose only Division II loss came on the road against Brigham Young-Hawaii.
Nash Subotic, a junior forward from Yugoslavia, leads HPU with 16.8 points per game. Junior guard Nick Spajic is second in scoring at 14.9 points.
Jeff Jensen and Michael Paul round out the starting five, but Sellitto also gets significant contributions from John Avilla, Dragan Karanovic and Larz Stewart.
"I hate to compare, but this team is one of the most intelligent Ive ever coached," Sellitto said. "They have a knowledge and understanding of the game."
This seasons Sea Warriors are prolific and proficient from beyond the arc.
The Sea Warriors boast at least five players with long-distance ability. Led by Avillas 46 percent 3-point shooting, HPU has connected on 37 percent of its shots from 3-point range this season.
"With the players we have, we can substitute a lot and still have 3-point shooters on the floor," Sellitto said. "As long as you can do that, you can win against anybody."
With seven new players on the squad this season, Smith, the lone returning starter, said the Sea Warriors are still getting used to each other.
"Were maybe 75 percent there right now," he said. "But by the end of January or so we should be in full stride."
For Smith, a strong season could mean opportunities to play professionally overseas. That such a scenario is even possible is an ongoing source of wonder for Smith.
"Everything I have now I owe to coach," Smith said. "Hes given me the opportunity to extend my playing career into my adult life. I had thought it was just a dream, but coach gave me a chance to make it real."
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