Storied Hilo High basketball champion stays strong, inspired through cancer battle

  • Kimo Keiter-Charles credits his wife, Cecile Walsh, for helping him cope after he was diagnosed with stage 4 small cell pancreatic cancer that spread to his liver last July. “She’s my rock,” he said. “I wouldn’t be where I am now without her.” (Kimo Keiter-Charles/Courtesy Photo)

Kimo Keiter-Charles had a wonderful basketball life, experiencing the thrill of standing on the top of a mountain in 2000.

That year, the Hilo High boys basketball team smashed St. Louis 68-55 to win the HHSAA championship.

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Keiter-Charles was filled with anxiety because he fouled out with 4:19 left and the Vikings ahead 49-45.

It was rather symbolic that the three top players (Keiter-Charles, Jason Mandaquit and Wes Martinez) each finished with 16 points.

Keiter-Charles spent a year at UH-Manoa, playing for coach Riley Wallace and in front of his late grandfather Les “The General” Keiter, a sportscaster on KHON-TV.

The 5-foot-10 guard then finished his hoops career back home, playing for UH-Hilo and in front of his hometown fans.

In the curious case of Where Are They Now?, Keiter-Charles, 38, is back home, living in Honokaa and in the fight of his life.

In July 2019, he was diagnosed with stage 4 small cell pancreatic cancer that spread to his liver.

The toughest part was watching the reaction from his parents, Barbara Keiter and Charles Charles, and wife, Cecile Walsh, when he told them the news.

“They took it hard,” he said and his mindset shifted in champion mode. “I went through the ‘Why me?’ and knew I had to stay out of that rabbit hole.”

He’s on a diet of immuno therapy and chemotherapy at the North Hawaii Community Hospital.

He credited Walsh, an assistant marine coordinator for the nature conservancy, as a supportive teammate.

“She’s my rock,” he said. “I wouldn’t be where I am now without her.”

Keiter-Charles graduated with a psychology degree and worked for Child Protective Services, a job he’s proud of.

He protects the young and innocent and doesn’t mind the nickname the keiki tagged on him: “The Bolo Head guy from CPS.”

“I really enjoy it and can’t wait to go back,” he said. “It’s really inspiring. I only testified once. I’ve been there two years. Everything I said was what the kids said. I was their voice.”

Due to his suppressed immune system, Keiter-Charles is taking extra precaution during these coronavirus pandemic times.

“I’m basically a hermit,” he said. “I stay home every night. I haven’t had any big side effects from the immuno therapy or chemo. Because I’m so young, my age is helping me. They’ll give me more and more medicine.”

It’s not just the hoops memories but also the family ones that Keiter-Charles recalls to lighten his mood. It’s always an interesting conversation when his wife, the conservation advocate, and his uncle Marty Keiter, the director of golf at Kohanaiki, sit down at dinner.

It doesn’t take an All-American academic to know when to make himself scarce.

“I’d make an excuse to leave the room,” Keiter-Charles joked.

His cousin and Marty’s son Chris Keiter, a golf pro at Nanea Golf Club, went to UHH during Keiter-Charles’ time.

Keiter-Charles never found the allure of hitting a stationary white ball. Instead, he’s local style to the core – hunting and fishing.

That’s the guy fellow Vulcan teammate Ryan Hogue remembers. Hogue and another UHH teammate Joe Marsh created a fundraising golf tourney at Volcano in January. It was rained out. (Plans are in the works for a basketball tourney fundraiser.)

“He’s an easy going, really likable guy and got along with everybody,” said Hogue, the Sacred Hearts Academy athletic director. “He likes to fish and hunt and be around people.”

All the fond memories between the Hilo and Kalaheo graduates just came flooding back.

“I’ve got a lot of memories. We used to go to Kuhio Grille every Friday after practice to eat the one-pound lau lau,” Hogue said. “We’d travel to places like Montana. For Hawaii kids like us, it was a fun experience. We went camping together. We were a couple of local boys on a good team and playing in front of good crowds on the Big Island.”

Hogue probably gets asked if he’s related to Bob Hogue, the PacWest commissioner and a former KHON-TV sportscaster, as often as Keiter-Charles is asked if he’s related to Les Keiter.

The answer is No. They’re connected by similar last name only.

Keiter-Charles was on the 2005 team that won UHH’s last PacWest title. The Vulcans fell to Cal Poly Pomona 73-62 in the West Regional semifinals.

Osadonor Esene was the star back then, and Keiter-Charles was a backup guard, playing in front of his hometown.

“My first year I was at Manoa and I remember one game my grandpa had court-side seats and I ran into him,” Keiter-Charles said. “I was one of the shorter guys at UHH, and one of the only local boys. I loved it playing in my hometown, in the same gym.”

It’s been a tough journey for Keiter-Charles, who battled a bout with jaundice and suffered enough scary moments that have made him appreciate his life.

As an undersized collegiate guard, he was always known for his toughness. When friends call to cheer him up, Keiter-Charles passes the ball back with positive energy.

“I know his parents, and we’ve had a long relationship,” said Paul Lee, Waiakea’s basketball coach and a former Vulcan. “Every time I talk to him, he’s happy. He’s a tough kid. I try to keep in touch with him. He’s always in great spirits.

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“He’s always talking about fishing trips and basketball. That’s good to hear.”

Keiter-Charles’ gofundme link is gofundme.com/f/kokua-for-kimo

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