CINDY ELLEN RUSSELL / CRUSSELL@STARBULLETIN.COM
Kareem Nitoto signed a letter of intent to play at St. Mary's but left after the Gaels signed another point guard.
Nitoto at home in Hawaii
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Kareem Nitoto could have stayed close to home in Northern California to continue his academic and basketball careers, but decided there was more to be gained by heading out on his own.
"It was a better opportunity for me, a better environment," said Nitoto, now a freshman point guard with the Hawaii basketball team. "Coming here's a whole lot different, there's no other place I'd rather be than here right now."
Nitoto originally signed with nearby St. Mary's, but asked to be released from his commitment when a logjam developed in the Gaels' backcourt. After reopening the recruiting process he decided to sign with Hawaii and is poised to be a contributor in his first season with the Rainbow Warriors.
"He's focused and he's a mature kid," said UH assistant coach Eran Ganot, who helped recruit Nitoto.
"As a freshman he understands the importance of focus and time management. ... He's got his priorities straight."
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Basketball represented far more than an afterschool pastime for Kareem Nitoto growing up.
Raised in a rough neighborhood in Northern California, Nitoto viewed the gym as a sanctuary shielding him from some of the harsh realities outside and the game as his escape.
"I've seen a lot of drug addicts, a lot of drug abuse, a lot of violence, a lot of gangs, a lot of stuff you wouldn't want a child to see," Nitoto recalled. "Shootings right across the street from my house when I was a little kid.
"The only thing that kept me out of that was basketball, and that's why I'm here right now."
"Here" is the Stan Sheriff Center, where Nitoto had just completed practice with the Hawaii basketball team.
Had he stuck to his initial impulse, the Rainbow Warrior freshman point guard might be preparing for his collegiate debut a lot closer to home as a newcomer at nearby St. Mary's.
A potential logjam in the backcourt created when the Gaels signed a heralded point guard out of Australia and the chance to play early in his career were among the reasons Nitoto requested a release from the national letter of intent he signed last fall. Another was the chance for a change of scenery.
"I needed to get out of California and get away from all the stuff I grew up around," said Nitoto, who chose Hawaii after reopening the recruiting process. "So my dad told me it would be a better idea to get away from California and grow up on my own and make a name for myself."
Nitoto could become a familiar name early in his UH career as one of two scholarship point guards on the roster. Senior Matt Gibson is the incumbent at the spot while Nitoto makes the adjustment from high school to college, but Nitoto figures to be a contributor this season.
"As a freshman, the speed of the game is really hard, you have to make decisions much faster than high school," Nitoto said. "The physical part of the game, everything is like times 10 when you're at a Division I program. You're going against bigger, stronger, faster players and you have to elevate your game that much just to compete, which I'm ready to do and I'm going to prove I'm ready to do that."
Nitoto has been pretty convincing so far. He scored 10 points and had eight assists in an intrasquad scrimmage early in practice and has displayed poise at the point while demonstrating a knack for finding teammates off penetration.
"He's aggressive, he's a leader, he's going to be a good player for us as a freshman," UH coach Bob Nash said. "He has a lot of (former UH guard) AC Carter-type qualities about him. He's athletic, he can get to the rim, he can score, but he's best at setting up his teammates, and that's what we need in a point guard.
"He doesn't play like a freshman, that's the thing that impresses me about him. He's not a deer in the headlights; he's pretty solid."
Learning a new system while adjusting to the speed of the game hasn't been an exclusively smooth process for Nitoto and six other UH newcomers. But there have been signs of progress along the way.
"We need to get more of a flow as a team," he said. "We're still a little shaky at times, but when we're kicking, we're kicking."
Growing up, Nitoto saw basketball and school as his tickets out of the environment he grew up in. His father, Kwame, also used sports as a vehicle to steer clear of trouble, as did his older brother, Muhammed, who played two years of basketball at Chadron State in Nebraska.
"My dad grew up around a lot of bad things as well," Nitoto said. "He just stayed focused and did what he needed to. He did a real good job of getting me and my brother away from all of that."
Nitoto averaged 10.1 points and 3.6 assists as a senior at San Leandro High School and could face the team he initially signed with when St. Mary's visits for the Outrigger Hotels Rainbow Classic in December. The Rainbows and Gaels are on opposite sides of the bracket and wouldn't meet until the tournament's last day.
"St. Mary's was really nice about getting me out of my letter of intent," Nitoto said. "They knew it would be a better fit for me to go play somewhere else if I wanted to play early. They wanted me to stay, but they said if I wanted to go that they would help me."