Feb 282012
Authors: Cris Tiller

On Dec. 7, 2011, CSU plays a nationally televised game on ESPN2 against Duke.

ESPN broadcasters Mike Patrick and Len Elmore break the two teams down, thoroughly deciding No. 7 Duke will win.

Cameron Indoor Stadium’s walls vibrate as Duke’s Cameron Crazies morph into a wild frenzy, a sea of blue and white ebbs and flows, making it impossible for the eyes to focus. The noise is deafening.

“So many things are going through your head,” senior Kaipo Sabas said. “And then they announce your name and you start to walk out there and you’re starting to feel it now. All the Crazies start going nuts, and then you’re sitting there waiting for the ball to get tossed in the air and you’re like ‘Oh my God, I’m staring against Duke, and this is on national television.’ ”

In high school, Kaipo starred at Rocky Mountain High School in Fort Collins, Colo. as a three-year varsity player known across the state as a prolific three-point shooter. His junior year, Kaipo gave up another sport he loved, baseball, in order to dedicate his time to basketball and his dream of playing in college.

But the road was not clear. In fact, it was littered with debris. At 5-foot-11, Kaipo was not the prototypical size for a college guard and despite his high school accolades, few teams showed interest.

“I wasn’t ready (coming out of high school). I know that. I’ll be the first to tell you that,” Kaipo said. “I wanted to continue playing. I stopped playing baseball to focus on basketball because I wanted to do that in college.”

In order to get his name out there, Kaipo made a tape of highlights distributing them to 15 schools around the country. Nothing special, just Division III teams and junior colleges.

Laramie County Community College gave Kaipo his shot: a tryout in Cheyenne, Wyo.

Kaipo turned to his father, Barry Sabas, a high school basketball coach and former CSU guard for advice. His advice was simple: Work.

Kaipo impressed coaches, earning an invite for a second tryout and eventually a spot on the roster. It didn’t take long to realize college wasn’t high school.

“He was always a hard worker in high school, always put in the extra time and worked real hard,” Barry said. “But when he got to the junior college level, he had to put it into another gear because it was like nothing he had experienced before.”

At LCCC, Kaipo benefited from a close-knit group of players and coaches he credits with helping him grow from a three-point specialist to a complete basketball player, but as Kaipo came to realize in his journey, nothing comes easy.

“My freshman year, there was still no way I was ready to play Division I basketball,” Kaipo said. “I grew so much as a player from my freshman year to my sophomore year.”

In two seasons with LCCC, Kaipo averaged eight points and two rebounds and shot 90 percent from the free throw line, but most importantly, he gained something invaluable: experience.

Following his sophomore season, Kaipo garnered the attention of Division II schools, but none of his visits felt right. Deep down at his core, Kaipo knew where he wanted to play.

“I didn’t want to look back and be like, ‘Why didn’t I at least try, try to do what I wanted to do?’,” Kaipo said. “This is what I wanted to do since I started playing basketball. Play Division I basketball, playing at this school.”

If the tryout in Cheyenne was pressure, walk-on tryouts for CSU was a semi-truck slamming into his chest. But Kaipo knew the routine. He would have to work. Every ounce of strength, every free minute, was devoted to basketball. Open gyms, in the weight room, workout sessions.

If he didn’t make the team, it wasn’t going to be because he didn’t give it his all.

“I was all-in at that point,” Kaipo said. “I was already enrolled in school, already been in a month and a half of classes. I really have no idea what I would have done if I didn’t make the team.”

Once more, Kaipo’s laser-like intensity payed off. He earned his spot on the bench, nothing more.

His junior season was a test of character. Three appearances, 10 minutes and six points.

“My junior year was humbling,” Kaipo said. “You come from junior high, high school, junior college starting, and then you come here and play 10 minutes in a season? That’s the thing about this sport –– the highs are extremely high and the lows are so low. It brings out how much you love this sport. And I love this sport.”

In the off-season after his junior season, a determined Kaipo entered CSU coach Tim Miles’ office intent of getting a point across. He wanted to play and receive a scholarship, and he was willing to do anything to earn it.

Miles laughed off the request. He was in no hurry to award a scholarship to a player who barely saw the court. So again, Kaipo dedicated every waking moment to improving his game from skills to conditioning.

At the end of the summer, he returned to Miles’ office, “Coach I want to play.” Again he was denied. His senior year started like his junior year: end of the bench.

Barry sat in the stands on Nov. 21 to cheer on the Rams against Texas-San Antonio. Even though his son rarely touched the court, he came to every home game. Little did he know he was about to witness his son’s breakout performance.

In 24 minutes, Kaipo sparked CSU with 15 points on 5-for-6 shooting from behind the arc. His fortunes, and consequently his career, had changed.

“I was so happy for him,” Barry said. “I looked out there and said, ‘Man, you finally have the chance to show what you got.’ A lot of kids get chances and blow it. He took the opportunity and ran with it and did good, did awesome.”

Back in Durham, N.C., Kaipo is making his first career start on the biggest stage. The nerves and excitement before tip-off have dissolved. Now, it’s just his teammates and the game he loves.

He finishes the game with five points and four rebounds in 29 minutes, all surpassing the total of his junior season.

In less than a month’s time, Miles saw enough in Kaipo to give him the thing he wanted most –– a scholarship.

“Kaipo was committed, and he set a goal. He worked his butt off, and then he was just fearless,” Miles said. “He just kept plugging forward, and when he got a chance, he came through.”

Kaipo’s story is one of determination — proof that dreams can come true if you work for them.

“It’s indescribable. I was at a loss for words,” Kaipo said. “(Miles) stuck out his hand and shook mine. One of, if not the best, moments of my life.

“You’re chasing something, you want this so bad. I’ve never wanted anything more in my life. I took a huge risk, everybody knows I could have sat…I could have been buried at the end of the bench like last year.”

Sports Editor Cris Tiller can be reached at sports@collegian.com. To hear more from Kaipo about his journey check out the Collegian’s blog page.

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