Coach Yagi & ‘Big John’: UHH basketball patriarch fondly recalls Georgetown mismatches

  • Jimmy Yagi — who still tutors basketball campers when he can — retired as UH-Hilo men’s basketball coach in 1985 after 11 winnings seasons in 12 years, three trips to the NAIA national tournament and four tussles with Georgetown coach John Thompson. (Hawaii Tribune-Herald/File Photo)

  • John Thompson, left, and Patrick Ewing celebrate Georgetown’s national championship in April 1984. In November of that year, Thompson and Ewing were in Hilo to take on the Vulcans at Hilo Civic. (Associated Press/File)

Though Jimmy Yagi went up against a lot of basketball coaches bigger in stature while he roamed the sidelines for 12 seasons at UH-Hilo, his 11 winning campaigns were proof he didn’t allow many to domineer over him.

Georgetown’s John Thompson, who overshadowed practically everyone, was an exception.

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They were the odd couple (Thompson was 6 feet, 10 inches and 300 pounds and Yagi is 5-6 and weighed roughly half that) but also two peas in a pod — each built their respective programs from the ground up — when UHH and the national powerhouse Hoyas played four times during the 1980s at Afook-Chinen Civic Auditorium.

“I remember meeting him at halfcourt before the game to shake hands, and my hand disappeared,” Yagi said Wednesday. “My wife took a picture of John and me, and I can see him towering over me like I was a little baby.”

Yagi’s memories of rubbing elbows with the imposing and celebrated coach during the height of “Hoya Paranoia” came flooding back Monday with the news that Thompson, the first Black coach to win an NCAA championship, died at the age of 78.

“We developed a nice relationship and he was a good guy,” Yagi said. “I learned a lot from him on how he disciplined his teams and how he ran his teams and how he was a stickler for details.

“I was very impressed. We’d talk story and I thought it was really interesting how he managed his players and their academics and their behaviors. He had a philosophy, and I thought it was really fantastic.”

Yagi fashioned a 252-126 record at UHH as the “Father of Small College Basketball in Hawaii,” taking the Vulcans to the NAIA championships three times. One of his proudest accomplishments was how he fared against the big boys. Yagi said the Vuls went a 8-18 against Division I teams under his watch.

They didn’t come close against Georgetown.

Led by future Basketball Hall of Famer Patrick Ewing, the Hoyas romped 81-47, 67-37, 71-42 and 97-35 in front of packed houses at Hilo Civic during a three-year stretch from 1982-84. One season, they played twice.

“The whole goal was to try and bring the ball past halfcourt without it getting stolen,” Yagi said. “Their defense was awesome and we were no match for them. They were just fantastic. We took it the best way we could and tried to enjoy ourselves.”

Those drubbings came in handy later in the season when UHH picked on a team its own size.

“It helped us a lot, it gave our team a lot of confidence, it made us feel like we could play with some teams if they didn’t play well. It helped our team morale even if we got beat by 30 points.”

The 80-something Yagi recalls a 6-7 freshman center of his eagerly anticipating going up against Ewing, a 7-foot menacing shot blocker.

“He wanted to challenge him, but Pat Ewing threw an elbow at him and almost knocked him out,” Yagi said.

“It was a great experience for our kids, they were really excited about playing against Pat Ewing and the big boys,” he said. “They would talk about it all year long, and at the end of the year we gave game pictures to our players going up against Ewing and others. We framed it and then gave it to them at graduation, and our players were really happy to receive those pictures.”

He remembers Thompson as being extra careful despite coming to Hilo with an overwhelming advantage in size and athleticism.

“He called me and he discussed referees,” Yagi said. “He said he would bring his own refs, and I said that will fine for as long as you pay for them.

“I remember thinking, this guy is kind of weird. He wanted to make sure he didn’t lose the game because of bad refs or to have his team get homered.

“He was very meticulous about the details of the game.

He was also meticulous in his team’s preparation.

Yagi said Georgetown would show up wearing sports coats and neckties, and right after the game they’d get on the bus for Kona to get in a study hall.

“I’d always tell John I couldn’t give him any guaranteed money. He’d tell me that was the least of his problems,” Yagi said.

One regret he has is he almost got Thompson to speak to the Vulcans’ booster club. Thompson initially agreed before pulling out when learning the media might be present.

“He didn’t want to get any exposure,” Yagi said.

“He also wouldn’t let his team talk to the (media),” he said. “He said he had some good athletes but they were young and undisciplined and he had to whip them into shape as far as being college students.”

Champs in town

In 1984, the Hoyas came to the Big Island — they roomed in Kailua-Kona — as the defending national championships and ranked No. 1.

“I sent John a note before the season that the national championship starts in Hilo, Hawaii,” Yagi said.

According to a story in the Washington Post archives, UHH center John Q. Jones had a conversation with Ewing at the scorer’s table as they were waiting to re-enter the game.

“I asked him how the Olympics were,” Jones said. “And I asked him for his autograph.”

A crowd of 2,950 watched the 81-47 mismatch, and when asked afterward what the point of the lopsided contest was, Thompson told Andy Yamauchi, “You hope you can rotate some of the younger players in. That’s the purpose of a game like this, to get their comfort zone set. That helped us win the national championship last year.”

Eight Hoyas played at least 13 minutes, and sophomore forward Reggie Williams would have played more than his six minutes except for a sore right shoulder. Thompson started Ewing, forwards Bill Martin (game-high 20 points) and David Wingate and guards Michael Jackson and Horace Broadnax.

Georgetown’s full-court press created 14 turnovers by UHH in the first half and 27 in all. Yagi said the Vulcans’ only chance was “if the road washes out between here and Kona.”

“It was a clinic,” Jones, who managed only one shot in the first half against Ewing’s intimidating presence, told Yamauchi. “I asked him (Ewing) about the Olympics and stuff. He said it was good international competition. It was no big show to him.”

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But it was for the Vulcans.

“Just great memories,” Yagi said Wednesday. “I was sorry to hear of John’s passing.”

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