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Blackburn builds basketball dreams

People Who Made a Difference: Sports Edition

Joe Blackburn coaches his Wailuku Wolfpack team in a championship game for the HI Definition Basketball League last month. — The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photo

People Who Made a Difference: Sports Edition is a special series recognizing those in the Maui County sports community who have made significant impacts. Stories will run periodically this summer in The Maui News.

WAILUKU — Joe Blackburn is a basketball lifer. When he saw the sport stagnating on the Valley Isle, he found a way — with the help of those around him — to make things a little better.

Blackburn teamed with Stephanie Castro and Jeremy Lizada to work with Maui County officials and get the HI Definition Basketball League going for a two-month run in May and June. It was the first organized basketball played on Maui since things were shut down by the COVID-19 pandemic in March 2020.

“For me it was to give the kids something to look forward to,” Blackburn said earlier this month. “Because we were practicing and I’m sure there were other teams that were practicing, but you couldn’t make any kind of reservation or permit, so you kind of practiced at your own risk. You could only use outdoor courts.”

Blackburn was the commissioner of the HDBL that had 25 teams participate in divisions that included high school boys, high school girls, eighth-ninth grade boys, sixth-seventh grade boys, and sixth-seventh grade girls.

“They all got in 10 games, at least, per team — we had league play and (double-elimination) playoffs,” Blackburn said. “This was on short notice, we got this league rocking and rolling within about three weeks after getting notice that we could get our permit for the courts.”

Blackburn was cited by county officials for holding an organized practice before the HDBL got going, but that citation has since been rescinded.

“Originally I made a proposal to the county to run the Menehune league,” Blackburn said. “They said just hold on a bit because we want to run the Menehune league — the Menehune league, as far as I know, has been in existence for about 75 years. It has always been the No. 1 thing that middle school basketball players look forward to.

“It was unique among the islands because we’re the only island that had an islandwide, county-sponsored league. … That was where you prep for high school.”

Lizada, a coach for Lights Out Basketball, called Blackburn and said they should hold a protest over the lack of opportunity to play the game in an organized fashion, even on outdoor courts.

“We waited and then coach Jeremy called me about ‘Let’s do a protest,’ and then the county called him and said, ‘Look, we’re willing to work with you,’ “ Blackburn said. “That’s when Jeremy, Stephanie and myself got together and said, ‘OK, we got the go-ahead, but the timeframe we don’t know’ because as soon as the gyms open they’re going to pull our permit.

“So we had to put something together real quick and that’s what we did.”

Castro is a coach for Lights Out Basketball Club who collaborated on the HDBL.

“I know Joe from basketball in general, but we worked really closely together on the HI Definition Maui Basketball League,” Castro said Thursday from a tournament in Las Vegas. “Joe is all about the kids, his main focus is on the kids. Whenever we have questions regarding anything, it’s like, ‘OK, how is it going to affect the kids?’

“Working with Joe we always know his intentions are good. Always, no matter what it was. So, he was an easy person to say, ‘Hey, let’s work together and do this.’ “

Castro said Blackburn was the driving force behind the league, which was able to get going quickly under his non-profit foundation that was already recognized by Maui County.

“Joe knows so many people, he’s got good connections with everybody, good relationships with everybody in the community, so it made it that much easier to say, like, ‘Hey, how are we going to put this together?’ “ Castro said. “He just helped us to make that happen.”

Lizada, who was at the same tournament in Las Vegas, has also known Blackburn for decades. Lizada also coaches for Lights Out.

“We’ve competed against each other for several years through the basketball community,” Lizada said. “Just recently Joe and I had worked on some projects together and became relatively close. I’ve known of Joe for many years. … It was easy to work with coach Joe.

“I talked with Joe and I said: ‘Joe, let’s get together and let’s start this league.’ And that’s how it started. … I thought it was very successful. With our high hopes, we hope that the league becomes an annual thing.”

Blackburn’s first basketball coaching job was a men’s team for 18- to 25-year-olds at Kuhio Park Terrace on Oahu in 1974.

“It was a pretty interesting experience,” Blackburn said. “They were pretty rugged.”

Blackburn played basketball at Maryknoll School for Tony Sellitto — “They called him ‘Tough Tony’ and he was,” Blackburn said — before attending Cal State University Chico, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in business.

He later earned a degree in public fire administration, and a master’s from the University of Hawaii in higher education administration.

Blackburn moved to Maui in 1975 and started “as lower than a busboy” at Nick’s Fish Market restaurant before getting hired by Maui County in the Parks and Recreation Department in Lahaina.

It was there he gained his first coaching job on Maui, coaching the Lahaina boys in the Maui Menehune League. He has coached at the Menehune level “on and off” ever since.

He and Clayton Suzuki started the Waikapu Menehune team decades ago. Blackburn has been the coach of the Wailuku Menehune team for the last 10 years.

“In between that I coached Maui High varsity girls and boys, I coached Kamehameha (Maui) girls high school and I coached Lahainaluna JV,” he said. “My love has always been Menehune. I’ve always come back to Menehune just because that’s where I felt I could do the most good.”

Blackburn, who recently celebrated his 69th birthday, retired in 2008 as a fire rescue captain for the Maui Fire Department, then went to Maui Electric and retired as the MECO safety director after a couple years. Now, he owns his own business that handles real estate sales and manages homeowner associations.

The smiles on the faces of the kids on HDBL championship weekend in late June at outdoor courts at Lihikai Intermediate School and Kahului Elementary School said it all. Blackburn was all smiles, too, even after his Wailuku Wolfpack team lost in its championship game.

“A lot of the other coaches came up to me and Jeremy and Stephanie also, and just said: ‘Thank you so much for doing this because the kids actually got to play,’ especially kids who were seniors in high school who didn’t even get to play,” Blackburn said. “For me as a coach, we could finally get the kids going. We would practice, but it was always just a fun practice.

“Now, we could actually set our sights on actual basketball, do something besides drills and actually prepare for teams. That’s what I like as a coach — I like to lose to a team and say, ‘OK, next time around we’re going to make our adjustments.’ For the kids, I could get a little bit more serious with them.”

* Robert Collias is at rcollias@mauinews.com

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