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Keith Amemiya Hawaii High School Athletic Association Executive Director

By Bill Mossman

The Hawaii High School Athletic Association, once a state agency, is thriving under Keith Amemiya, and more island kids are playing sports than ever before.

The man who stands head and shoulders above everyone else when it comes to Hawaii high school athletics was once — dare we say it? — a shrimp.

As a high school freshman in the late ’70s, Keith Amemiya often had to stretch every bone and fiber in his body just to reach his full height of 4 feet 9 inches. And his weight wasn’t much better. Dripping wet, he barely moved the scales at 72 pounds — and that weight only held true on the days he dutifully ate everything down to the last morsel on his plate.

“I was so small,” recalls Amemiya, shaking his head at the memories, “that the girls would protect me just because, well, they felt sorry.”

But the shrimp has since grown up. For the record, he’s now a full foot taller at 5 feet 9 inches. And he doesn’t have to clean up his plate in order to tip the scales at a healthy 175 pounds.

And that same positive growth spurt he went through as an adolescent? Well, in many ways, he’s experiencing it all over again as the executive director of the Hawaii High School Athletic Association.

Since being named to the post in the summer of 1998, Amemiya has been responsible for taking a once state-run entity and growing it into a private, nonprofit business that has thrived in tough economic times. And he has reached these new heights on ingenuity and creativity — qualities he’s had to lean on while searching for ways to maintain and operate 21 annual state tournaments.

Two years ago, for example, he approached K-5 The Home Team and the Hawaii Sports Network with a novel idea of doing both television and webcast broadcasts for over a dozen state tournaments. All parties agreed on the concept and inked an unprecedented three-year deal worth $100,000. Since then, the telecasts and webcasts have been such a hit with sports fans that the contract was recently extended for two more years — at the same price.

“The deal has met our expectations and then some,” Amemiya states proudly. “It’s provided us with an exposure our student-athletes have never had before — statewide and beyond.”
Remarkably, the 37-year-old Amemiya has been able to help the HHSAA flourish without the benefit of any governmental assistance.

“A lot of people think we’re still run by the state,” explains the man who, along with a “highly dedicated” staff of four, works out of an office at Stevenson Middle School. “But the fact is, we haven’t received any governmental funding since my first year on the job, and that money was a carryover from (former HHSAA executive director) Dwight Toyama’s days.

“Like any small business, I’m constantly searching for ways to generate money to keep this operation afloat. It takes up a good deal of my days and it sometimes makes me feel like a professional fund-raiser.

“Thankfully,” he adds with a chuckle, “I haven’t had to resort to selling sweet bread or holding car washes.”

With an annual operational budget of $900,000, the HHSAA depends heavily on event ticket sales and membership dues to generate income. But the main source of funding comes from a long list of corporate sponsors, including Chevron, Nissan, the Honolulu Marathon Association, Hawaiian Airlines, Local Motion, DataHouse, Island Movers and the Wally Yonamine and David Ishii foundations.

“They sponsor championship tournaments ranging from football, basketball and baseball to golf, cross country and wrestling, and they’ve done so despite the downturn in our economy,” says Amemiya. “We’ve been real fortunate to have these businesses step up to the plate and help us out. They still believe in high school athletics.”

Amemiya is also quick to credit the contributions of the myriad of volunteers, many of them retired athletic directors who serve in roles ranging from tournament coordinators to statisticians and concession booth workers.

“They are the lifeblood of our organization,” he says. “They’ve certainly made my job a lot easier. In many ways, I’ve become sort of the master of delegation.”
In reality, Amemiya has done much more than divvy up responsibilities. During his tenure, for example, the HHSAA has taken a proactive approach in the area of gender equity by adding six girls tournaments to the annual championship slate, including golf, canoe paddling, wrestling and competitive cheerleading. The association has also grown from 67 to 83 member schools and from 25,000 to just over 30,000 participants, an indication that prep sports is at an all-time high in popularity.

“Much of this sudden interest in sports has to do with new schools popping up, especially on the neighbor islands,” Amemiya says. “And there are several private schools around the state that, although they’ve been around for awhile, have only recently created athletic departments because they’ve finally seen the benefit of having such programs.

“I think people are changing the way they view athletics,” he adds. “To us, it’s never been just an ‘extra-curricular activity.’ Books and supplies are certainly important to every one of our students, but physical well-being is just as important as a student’s academic and mental well-being. That is a philosophy we here at HHSAA will continue to stress.”

To hear Amemiya explain it, he’s always been a “glass-is-half-full kind of guy.” That type of positive thinking, in fact, was the basis for turning last month’s historic football double-header at Aloha Stadium from pipe dream into reality.

The concept of bringing prep football powerhouses over from the Mainland had been discussed in years past, but no one had ever taken the initiative to call and gauge the teams’ interest. So one day last summer, Amemiya took the chance and phoned the athletic director at California’s De La Salle, asking if the defending national champions would be interested in playing a little pigskin in Hawaii.

The answer was a resounding “yes!”

“I’m sure that I annoy some people withsome of my more daring plans and ideas,” Amemiya says.

“But I try hard to get people to buy into the notion that … you have to be willing to risk suffering a few setbacks along the way in order to reach your maximum potential. I’ve always tried to maintain a ‘can-do attitude’ as opposed to a ‘can’t-do attitude.’ I firmly believe that a positive attitude, along with the willingness to work hard and work together with others, can go a long way toward accomplishing any goal you may have.”

Hard work has never been something Amemiya has shied away from. It’s one of the many life-shaping values he first learned during his teenage years, when he moved in with Bert Jr. and Harriet Kobayashi, the parents of his “childhood hero” and best friend, Chris.

In many ways, the Kobayashis became Amemiya’s second set of parents after his own parents, Ron and Ellen, divorced when he was 10. And the Kobayashis never had a problem treating him like their own son. Following Amemiya’s sophomore year, for example, Bert Kobayashi made the decision to pull him out of Kaiser High School and enroll him at Punahou. And when Amemiya wondered aloud how he would pay for tuition, the elder Kobayashi told him not to worry about it.

But to Bert Kobayashi’s credit, he never allowed Amemiya to get spoiled with life on “Easy Street.” Upon graduating from Punahou, Amemiya was told that he needed to “begin earning his own keep.” That meant leaving the comfy confines of the Kobayashis’ home in Kuliouou so that he could find a place of his own and a job.

“Bert and Harriet have always been two of the driving forces in my life,” Amemiya says. “They not only took me into their home and provided for me financially, but they taught me values that I try to live by today, values such as hard work, integrity, compassion and community service.

“And they were real big on helping out other people, like myself. In fact, that’s sort of the reason why I got into my current job. I saw this as an opportunity to not only do something that I love, but to also give back to the community. Hopefully, I’m doing something that helps make our youths’ lives just a little bit better.”

A business major at UH, Amemiya wound up gravitating toward law in large part because “everyone I know, including my dad, my brother, Bert Kobayashi and Chris Kobayashi, are attorneys.” He graduated from the William S. Richardson School of Law in 1990, then went on to join two local firms, where he worked for the next eight years specializing in commercial litigation.

And then one day, a friend called and told him about the job opening at the HHSAA. Unsure of whether he wanted to spend the rest of his life practicing law, Amemiya decided to take a chance and apply for the position.

By his own admission, however, Amemiya felt he was a long shot to fill the vacancy — and he had good reason to feel that way. In the past, the association board had always hired ex-athletic directors to man the post, and there was nothing to indicate the board would suddenly change protocol.

But with Amemiya’s hiring, the board — made up of representatives from Hawaii’s five prep athletic leagues — sent a clear message that it wanted to move in a new direction.

“The skills necessary to operate the HHSAA have changed in the last few years, and I guess the board decided the executive director needed to know as much about running a business as he did about overseeing athletics.

“I’ve been pretty lucky up to this point, knock on wood,” admits Amemiya, who makes his home in Pauoa with wife Bonny and their 3-year-old son, Christopher.

“Although we live in a highly litigious society, I’ve only had to deal with one lawsuit since I’ve been in this job, and that happened in my first month. It dealt with an eligibility issue and, fortunately for us, we won.”

He’s been on a winning streak ever since.

Posted: November 4, 2002 @ 12:00 AM HST

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