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Innovative Amemiya leaves legacy of success


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POSTED: Friday, November 13, 2009

”;Someone told me I'm the victim of the reverse of the dumb-jock syndrome. I'm a smart nerd in the type of job where you don't see one. Well, look at David Stern. He's not very tall, but he elevated the NBA to an incredible level.”; — Keith Amemiya, 1998

He told me that at our first meeting, at the Columbia Inn 11 years ago. He was a 32-year-old attorney—unknown in local sports circles—just getting started as the top exec in Hawaii high school sports.

My first impression: “;This guy really wants to do a good job, and he will.”;

My second impression: “;He'll redefine the position.”;

But at no point during our hourlong conversation did I think Keith Amemiya would achieve the incredible amount that he has, while becoming a potential political powerhouse along the way. He started out as a novelty, a refreshing change from the cookie-cutter former athletic directors who ascended to Hawaii High School Athletic Association executive secretary through old-boy network decree.

Yes, Amemiya was politically connected even back then, but his selection signaled a new direction, one in which high school sports would be treated as a business and in a progressive manner.

For example, he immediately recognized Title IX gender equity issues must be addressed. And he wasn't stubborn; even when he had practical reasons to oppose switching the girls basketball season, he folded his hand when faced with the possibility of lawsuits.

Amemiya addressed other areas long neglected. He implemented a true state football championship. And, then, classification. There are still some kinks to work out, but the system is much better than what there was before Amemiya—nothing.

He's also promoted the achievements of Hawaii high school athletes, here and nationally, creating opportunities for them on big stages with their mainland peers. And he himself is a leader among his colleagues, a force in the National Federation.

His biggest coup is getting local business leaders to literally buy in to support preps, often regardless of harsh economic times. Without the relationships he built and nurtured, there would be no state tournaments—there'd be no money to stage them. This year, public school sports were in serious jeopardy until Amemiya spearheaded the Save Our Sports campaign to raise more than $1 million.

His leadership is often by example, as he and his wife, Bonny, give generously of their time and money.

Over the past few years, we've had many conversations with him about his future. It's no secret he had his eye on University of Hawaii athletic director. When that didn't work out, rumors of political aspirations began to bubble. As recently as last month, he said he won't run, but wants to be involved in the process during the next election.

What's next for Keith Amemiya? He says he doesn't know, but we'll all watch and root for him to work similar magic in another arena.

Who's next as HHSAA executive director? This question has been pondered long and hard for years, as people began to realize Amemiya wouldn't stay forever.

It will be like following Cal Lee as Saint Louis football coach or Colt Brennan as Hawaii quarterback. Here's hoping possible replacements are more inspired than intimidated by his legacy.

Reach Star-Bulletin sports columnist Dave Reardon at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address), his “;Quick Reads”; blog at starbulletin.com, and twitter.com/davereardon.