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Sen. Inouye’s influence extended into sports realm

By Ferd Lewis

POSTED:
LAST UPDATED: 12:01 p.m. HST, Dec 18, 2012



It was 2000 and the University of Hawaii men’s basketball team faced a seemingly insurmountable obstacle as it prepared for the upcoming season.

Its prize recruit, center Haim Shimonovich, owed the Israeli military several more months of mandatory service, meaning the Rainbow Warriors would miss out on him for the 2000-01 season.

“(Assistant coach) Scott Rigot, who was recruiting him, called me and said, ‘Isn’t there any way we can get him out earlier,’ ” then-head coach Riley Wallace recalled. “He asked me, ‘Do you have any connections in Israel?’ ”

Wallace didn’t, but UH had a powerful friend in Washington D.C., Sen. Daniel K. Inouye.

“Senator Inouye picked up the phone and called Israel’s prime minister, Ariel Sharon,” Wallace said. “And the prime minister called the secretary general of sports. That’s how we got Haim early.”

Even in sports, far from traditional pork barrel issues, it seemed, Sen. Inouye was able to wield his considerable power for Hawaii.

Inouye died Monday at age 88.

Twelve years later the ease with which the senator was able to come to UH’s rescue is still a source of amazement for Wallace.

“All he had to do was pick up the phone. He went right to the top and got it done,” Wallace said. “Who else could call the prime minister of Israel and get something like that done?”

Shimonovich, a 6-foot-10, 245-pounder from Rishon LeZion, Israel, gave UH a strong inside presence from his first appearance, eventually becoming one of the school’s career leaders in rebounding (fourth) and blocked shots (third).

He helped the ’Bows to two NCAA Tournament berths and two National Invitation Tournament appearances in his four seasons, the best postseason stretch in school history. 

During Shimonovich’s stay, UH went 84-44, including a school-record 27 victories in 2001-02, and won two Western Athletic Conference tournament titles.

“(Inouye) was a UH fan, and the only thing he asked before he did it was to make sure everything was on the up and up,” Wallace said.

Years later on a shared trip to Molokai, Wallace was able to thank the senator in person.

“He said he was glad to do it,” Wallace said. “He didn’t want any (publicity) for himself.”

Decades earlier, Inouye was said to have been well in the background as then-Gov. John A. Burns and the 442nd Veterans Club secured a temporary waiver that allowed budding sumotori Jesse Kuhaulua of Maui to initially go to Japan before reporting for his national guard examinations. 

Later on, following a trailblazing sumo career, Kuhaulua recalled, “The senator told me he thought I would have made a good policeman for the Honolulu Police Department, if I had stayed.”

———

Reach Ferd Lewis at flewis@staradvertiser.com or 529-4820.

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