Basketball and motherhood: The balancing act for Hawaii’s Shawna-Lei Kuehu

Three seasons ago, Laura Beeman walked into the gym at the University of Hawai’i-Manoa with a purpose. She didn’t exactly stride in with a relaxed, island demeanor. The basketball coach from the mainland with big program experience in Los Angeles had a purpose, and her players understood that just by how she walked in the door.

Beeman meant business. 

Shawna-Lei Kuehu was equal parts anxious and scared and also a little conflicted. She was pregnant with her daughter, Kaiona Kuehu-Enriques. The then-sophomore had already broke the news to her old coach, Dana Takahara-Dias, and the thought of telling a new one was, "Like another bomb."

Beeman conveyed a simple message: It’s not OK to be OK.

The Rainbow Wahine had been marred in mediocrity throughout most of its history. The Vince Goo era, where the program saw its most successful years, was long gone. Beeman didn’t come to the island to get a tan — she could do that in L.A. Beerman came to win.

It was such a simple message, but it resonated with Kuehu in both basketball and life. It was an influential speech for the guard from Oahu, because that was the speech that kept her in basketball.

"That was a pivotal moment, when I had met met her and knew that she was going to teach us the game of basketball," Kuehu said. "Because you never stop learning about how to play basketball. I knew that I was going to learn so much more that I wanted to learn about the game of basketball when she stepped through that door.

"I knew that it wasn’t OK to be OK anymore."

For Kuehu, that mantra of not being OK was also about more than basketball. If she was going to continue to to play, not only did she need to be at her best on the court, but she would need to be at her best away from it in order to be a mom. Sure, there were thoughts of quitting the game that she was passionate about in order to fully dedicate her time to her daughter, but Beeman’s energy renewed Kuehu’s passion.

She made the decision to be both a mother and a basketball player.

"It was a lightbulb moment for me for everything in my life," she said. "It’s not OK to settle."

Neither Kuehu, nor the ‘Bows have settled since that speech, despite the numerous tests they’ve faced.

As only the 10th player in program history to score 1,000 points and grab 500 rebounds, three-time all-conference guard Kuehu has helped lead Hawaii’s resurgence.

Kuehu was named first-team All-Big West on Monday, her fourth-straight all-conference nod, and her coach, the Big West Coach of the Year, thinks she would have been Player of the Year had she shot the ball a little more than she passed. But Kuehu will be the first to say that this is a team, and unselfish play makes it go. 

The ‘Bows come in to the Big West Women’s Basketball Tournament this week as the top seed, unbeaten for the last 14 straight games. Hawaii is the clear favorite in Anaheim to reach the NCAA Tournament, a feat it hasn’t achieved since 1998. Beeman credits three program centerpieces: Destiny King, a guard/forward out Long Beach Poly High that was Beeman’s first recruit; Ashleigh Karatiana, a senior guard and the godmother to Kuehu’s daughter Kaiona; and Kuehu.

Maybe even her daughter Kaiona as well, because having a child around has changed the entire dynamic of the team.

"It’s one of the most special things to have this little girl running around and watching her mommy play basketball and cheering for her mommy," Beeman said. "She calls every single girl on the team Auntie, and it’s just an amazing emotional bond. If you don’t have the experience with children running around your court, then you just don’t understand it."

A constant presence at practice and sometimes even an active participant in drills, Kaiona is now three years old and dribbling basketballs on her own. She gets disciplined by her mother’s teammates and also works them for candy, always pushing everyone to work a little bit harder.

Basketball is me time. I use that as my getaway. Through everything that I have been through, you could say that I have some right to have some excuses or have some times when I think about other things. But I honestly use that time on the basketball court as a time where I think about nothing else. Nothing at home, I had to learn to keep it all off.

-- Shawna-Lei Kuehu

"Having a kid around puts things in perspective," Kuehu said. "It makes them watch their language when they’re around her and they act differently. They know that they are role models now, that people like my daughter, kids like my daughter, look up to them."

Kuehu came to Manoa as a local star, a two-time Gatorade State Player of the Year out of athletic powerhouse Punahou School. Along with her twin sister Shaena-Lyn, Kuehu helped Punahou to three-straight state championships. While Shaena-Lyn went off to play at Idaho, Kuehu was set to play at California. But the island girl just couldn’t see herself as a city girl, and stayed true to her roots by signing with the Rainbow Wahine as a heralded recruit. 

She had one strong season but twice dealt with torn ACLs and a shoulder injury. And then came Kaiona and a new coach. A little unproven and a little unsure of whether or not she could get back into playing shape, Kuehu weighed the decision with her family and her new coach.

"I didn’t really have confidence going into it," she said. "I didn’t know how I was going to do it or how it could turn out. I was so worried that I wasn’t going to have enough time to spend with my daughter, if I was missing out on a lot of things. Those were the questions of quitting and not playing basketball."

Beeman had heard rumors that Kuehu might quit but remained undaunted. Having coached in the WNBA, where many of the women are both athletes and mothers, Beeman knew that it was possible for Kuehu to be both. 

"I didn’t have any preconceived notions, I didn’t have any dreaded thoughts or positive thoughts," Beeman said. "If she wants to do it then we’ll do it, and if she doesn’t, then we’ll wish her well."

The key word Beeman used was "we." Kuehu already had the unwavering support of her family and Beeman made it clear that the coaches and the team would provide the same. 

"It takes a village to raise a child, and we took on that mentality," Beeman said. "We love Shawna, we’re going to love her kid and we’re going to do everything that we can possibly do that doesn’t effect team chemistry and what we’re trying to do but we’re absolutely going to help her raise this child. It’s touchy, because you have all of these NCAA rules that you have to follow and make sure you’re not doing anything silly, but these girls have been fantastic, the coaching staff has been fantastic."

Kuehu settled in to life with a newborn daughter and then went to work getting her body back. She’s always been a diligent worker in the gym, but this was an entirely new challenge. Try guarding lightning-quick ball handlers while you’re breastfeeding and then try seeing if any of your 19- and 20-year-old teammates can relate. 

She lost weight and she lost sleep.

"My first year back in basketball was probably the hardest year ever," she said. "I didn’t realize how hard and trying it would be on my body."

Then there was also the emotional component that Kuehu had to cope with. 

The 2012-2013 schedule featured a 10-day road trip. Kaiona was only about six-months-old at the time and Kuehu had never left her for longer than five days. Beeman could see that it was weighing on her, so she suggested that she bring the baby on the trip.

"I had to let Shawna find out if that was something that she could do," Beeman said. "She had to have her daughter in the room with her, she had to do all of the motherly things that she has to do at home, so it was definitely tough. But she had to see if that was something that she was going to be capable of."

It was the first time she traveled with Kaiona without her boyfriend, mother or grandmother, and it proved an invaluable learning experience.

Karatiana was Kuehu’s roommate on the trip and was helpful in recognizing when Kuehu needed to rest. An assistant coach brought his wife and their new baby on the trip as well. It was baby-fever, road trip-style.

"It was an interesting one," Beeman recalls, laughing. "At times it was a distraction, but there were also times when you had a tough practice and you hear a baby laughing or giggling and all of the sudden, it puts life in perspective a little bit. There were some pros and cons with it." 

Kaiona has grown alongside her mother and her mother’s team. After that first season back, Kuehu earned Big West Sixth Woman of the Year accolades and was named the team’s Most Improved Player. She finally had an injury-free season as a redshirt-junior and again earned all-conference honors. 

Kuehu’s daily life is by no means easy. It’s extremely structured around equal parts basketball, school and Kaiona. Most days, she wakes before 7 a.m. and doesn’t go to sleep until well after midnight. Her grandmother takes care of Kaiona on the weekdays while her boyfriend, Cory Enriques, and her mother, Brandy, watch her when the team is on the road. 

Having a child is fulfilling, but playing basketball is, too. She’s learned to block out every distraction from her personal life when she’s on the hardwood, finding respite from diapers and homework on the basketball court.

"Basketball is me time," Kuehu said. "I use that as my getaway. Through everything that I have been through, you could say that I have some right to have some excuses or have some times when I think about other things. But I honestly use that time on the basketball court as a time where I think about nothing else. Nothing at home, I had to learn to keep it all off.

"It’s just me and my basketball team and winning."

Kuehu and her basketball team have won plenty of games in the last two seasons, just as Beeman promised they would when she came to Manoa. And there are thoughts of maybe continuing with basketball after college. 

"Is going overseas an option? Yeah it is, because of the support from my family," Kuehu said. 

A smooth, athletic guard with a scoring touch and strong defensive abilities, Beeman is absolutely confident that Kuheu could succeed at the next level. 

"I don’t think there’s a day in practice, or a day that I’m coaching her in a game, that I don’t say to myself, ‘If Shawna chooses to go professionally, she’s going to be able to go professional,’" Beeman said. "Absolutely no doubt. If she chooses to go overseas or go for a run in the WNBA, she’s got to get healthy and stay healthy and put a little meat on her bones but she is absolutely and unbelievable talent and has that potential if she chooses."

It’s an option, but she has others as well. A true island girl to the core, she has her captain’s license and would maybe like to get into the tugboat industry. Or maybe just be a mother. 

Kaoina has helped Kuehu realize a purpose in life bigger than basketball. She’s also helped bring a team together and forge a unique bond between Kueheu and her coach. Beeman might have come to Hawaii without any children of her own, but she has lots now. 

"She basically took on this child that I was bearing as her own," Kuehu said. "She took on me as her own."

From the bottom of the WAC to the top of the Big West, it’s taken a considerable amount of rebuilding, resilience and confidence, but this might be as special of a group that Hawaii has had in a long time.

At the Honda Center this week, the Rainbow Wahine — along with their undeniably cute honorary mascot Kaiona — are ready to prove they’re not just OK anymore. 

They are winners.

"To do it with Ashleigh and Shawna and Destiny, and Marisa Wimbley was also a part of that first year — what those four kids have gone through the last three years, no one can even imagine," Beeman said. "And for a kid like Shawna, who has gone through the knee injuries, who has gone through having a baby and who has gone through raising this child, and to finally hear her say, ‘This is what I want, coach. And we’re going to go get it’ … 

"I don’t know what I would do in that moment of going to the NCAA tournament, if it were to happen, because I would be so full of joy for those kids and their sacrifices, particularly in Shawna’s case. It would be overwhelming for me."