THE HIGH SCHOOL REPORT
PAUL HONDA / PHONDA@STARBULLETIN.COM
Keoni Daniel of Academy of the Pacific, an Interscholastic League of Honolulu Division II team, is a freshman, but he plays, and thinks, beyond his years.
Making Papa proud
Keoni Daniel has endured the death of his mother to become a shining star for AOP
HE WEIGHT OF a tiny school rests on his shoulders, sometimes twice a week.
As the Academy of the Pacific Dolphins take to the court for another basketball game, Keoni Daniel waits his turn. The most talented of the Dolphins, Daniel averages 23 points per game as a freshman.
True, AOP plays in Division II of the Interscholastic League of Honolulu, but his skills don't lie.
Down by 16 points at halftime to Word of Life in their first meeting of the season, Daniel had scored just three points. He knows, even at his age, that he can't hold back any more. The 5-foot-11 Daniel erupted for 23 points in the second half, bringing AOP within two points of the Firebrands before Word of Life pulled the win.
He likes the pressure. Thrives on it. Tension and stress are part of the game, but after the tribulations of the past 12 months, Daniel won't be held down. The Dolphins, at 6-5, are enjoying perhaps their best season ever.
Still, a loss is only a loss. It's just a game, not life.
And it is not death.
JOHNETTE DANIEL lay in bed, nearly motionless. After years of fighting, the battle was near its end.
Five months had passed since she chose to come home for good. No hospices, no hospitals. She wanted to be home when her time was done. She lived to see her children, to see Keoni play.
"That was the only thing that helped her," Keoni's grandfather, John, said.*
"She would go to the games, sitting in the wheelchair. If I wouldn't take her to a game, she'd cry all night, so I had to take her, even when she was really, really sick."
It was early February last year when John walked out the door to get medicine. She looked out the window as he faded away. She turned to her son, Keoni, sitting nearby, home because of a school waiver day.
"She looked at me for a good 5 seconds," Keoni said.
After five years of fighting breast cancer, a brain tumor and other life-threatening ailments, Johnette closed her eyes one last time.
"I cried. I went out to get my grandpa," Keoni remembered.
Johnette was 32 years old.
"She was my heart, my oldest child," John said. "Her and Keoni was like peanut butter and jelly."
NOW, LITTLE MORE than a year has passed since Johnette breathed her last breath. Keoni struggled; a 13-year-old boy, no matter how spunky or cool, still needs his mom. He moved from Kuhio Park Terrace and in with John -- "Papa" -- not long after Johnette fell ill.
Papa became his legal guardian. Keoni became Papa's "right-hand man," as John is fond of saying. Along with three of Keoni's cousins and Papa's wife, they squeeze together in their Waipahu apartment.
Keoni and Papa are 46 years apart but of one mind on certain things.
Basketball is one.
The old school is Papa's turf. Papa played for Subpac, a Navy team that had its heyday in the early 1970s. Subpac played college teams, including Hawaii, often, and even upset Tennessee in 1973.
Keoni likes the old school. He played under Papa on several youth teams in leagues at Palama Gym and the Boys and Girls Club.
"He could still beat me one-on-one," Keoni recalled. "He was 58, 59 and still beating me. He has the basics. His skills are simple; he has the fundamentals."
Their love of basketball is practically genetic. Search the DNA code of both Daniels and you will find a tendency for basketball excellence. Keoni's prowess at the game has always been undeniable, but it wasn't until Johnette's passing that he began to realize how important school really is. With the void that she left behind, Keoni's schoolwork faltered last year as an eighth grader at Waipahu Intermediate School.
IN ADDITION, he wasn't adhering to his family's wishes.
"I was cruising around a lot with my friends," he admitted.
"A-B" is mantra in the Daniel household.
"A before B, academics first, then basketball," Papa said.
For John, the former Navy man-turned-pastor, it is a cornerstone that the five boys -- Keoni, younger brother David and the three cousins -- know the motto well.
However, as Keoni's grades slipped, John decided to make a move. He applied a fullcourt press on his older grandson. One of the directors at PACT (Parents and Children Together) at Kuhio Park Terrace knew of John, who was involved in the program. The director contacted Academy of the Pacific athletic director Brad Kitsu about young Keoni.
John was all ears when the school, a tiny campus located on Alewa Heights, showed interest in Keoni. Getting Keoni into a new environment was a must.
"When I went to the orientation at AOP, tears ran down my face because my daughter would've been pleased," he said.
Soon, Keoni was rising daily at 5:30 a.m. to board the town-bound bus from Waipahu, transferring to the Alewa Heights route. AOP, a school with 110 high school students, awaits with its breathtaking view of the Honolulu skyline.
Bus rides and bus stops gave him time to think. To study. To plan.
"I DO 100 PERCENT more now. I focus more attention on the homework. I get more understanding of the homework from my teachers," said Keoni, who enjoys English and math. "Mr. (Michael) Mercede makes English fun. Fundamental algebra, math has always been a part of me. I always loved math."
By the end of the fall quarter, Keoni's grades improved substantially. The move to AOP was working.
By the end of the second quarter, the freshman was on the honor roll. And now, in early February, Keoni thinks about basketball. He remembers his mom.
The family went to visit the grave site in Mililani on Saturday, the first anniversary of Johnette's passing. Keoni can talk about her, his brows furrowing, the words softening. A boy so young shouldn't be without his mother. But the maturity within Keoni reveals a spirit that has been honed for success.
The resilience of Johnette Daniel was quietly remarkable over a span of five years, watched by Keoni since he was 8. There are no surprises, then, when Papa is eloquent about his potential as a leader. Then there's basketball.
More than one school has inquired about Daniel.
"ONE (ILH DIVISION II) coach came up to me right after a game and asked, 'What would it take for us to get him into our school?' I could not believe it. They don't put that in the coaching manual," AOP coach Bob Hogue said.
"My hope is the young man can grow as a person, and ultimately, if he moves on to a bigger school, then I'm all for it. But it has to be appropriate decorum along the way."
Keoni's take on the possibility of transferring to a brand-name ILH program is clear.
"There are certain schools that are better for sports and academics. It could be better that way, but I wouldn't get the one-on-one attention that I get at AOP," he said, noting the low ratio of teachers to students.
At AOP, most classes have eight to 10 students, topping out at 15.
"But if I went to a bigger school, I'd think about going to Mr. Mercede for help because he also tutors," Daniel said.
That possibility isn't an issue, not right now, at least. Daniel isn't afraid to seek a little help. He even catches a ride to school now with a classmate who comes in from Ewa Beach. Every aspect of his life has been about helping family. If becoming assertive in academics and basketball helps them more, Daniel embraces the responsibility.
"If we're down 10, 15, 20 points, I'm going to do whatever we need to do. If we need me to shoot every single time, I'll do it," he said. "I know I'll get better."
Keoni thinks about his mom often. To get over the rough moments, he pops her favorite CD, a gospel compilation, into the player.
"I can't sing, not really," he said.
He listens and remembers her. His smile belies the road he has traveled.
"You can see a little hop in his step," Hogue said. "Just a year after this horrible tragedy.
"That makes you feel good."
Friday, February 10, 2006
» John Daniel is the grandfather of Academy of the Pacific freshman basketball player Keoni Daniel. He was misidentified in a story on Page B2 Wednesday.