By Lance Tominaga, ESPN Honolulu Web Editor.
“Build it, and they will come.” And after that? You rename it, of course. Hawaii has a number of great sports venues – some state of the art, some maintaining its old-fashioned charm – spread across the Island chain. Many have been named (or renamed) for prominent people who made an impact on their communities. Here are the stories behind some of the stadiums, arenas and gymnasiums that host sports events, as well as the people they are named after.
AFOOK-CHINEN CIVIC AUDITORIUM (Hawaii Island) – Primarily known as the home of University of Hawaii-Hilo basketball, this facility opened in August 1956 as simply “Hilo Fieldhouse.” The venue’s first event was a roller derby oshow. A Hawaii Tribune-Herald col would later note, “It is an impressive structure, a beautiful job and, most important, the answer to one of Hilo’s most crying needs.” In 1983, the venue was renamed to honor two of the community’s most revered sports figures: Ung Soy “Beans” Afook (who coached Hilo High to 10 territorial basketball championships) and Richard Kiyoshi “Pablo” Chinen (an amateur boxing champion and sports promoter. The new name was a compromise to end a dispute between the supporters of both individuals.
CLARENCE T.C. CHING ATHLETICS COMPLEX – This multi-purpose University of Hawaii Athletics facility opened in 2015 and is named after Clarence T.C. Ching, a prominent developer, banker and businessman who devoted much of his life to philanthropic causes. Ching founded the Clarence T.C. Ching Foundation in 1967 as a way to fulfill his vision of helping people in need. Ching died in 1985, but his Foundation lives on. The facility is currently being retrofitted to accommodate Rainbow Warrior football home games for the upcoming season.
FRANCIS WONG STADIUM (Hawaii Island) – Dr. Francis Wong was a well-known sports advocate on Hawaii Island for many years. He served as the team doctor for multiple sports at Hilo High, and led many sports organizations in the community. He was twice named the “Big Island Sportsman of the Year” (1949 and 1965). He died in 1971 at the age of 52. In 2019, Hawaii Tribune-Herald writer Bart Wright noted, “Dr. Francis Wong would have been 100 this year. He’s been gone almost as long as he’s been alive, passing at just 52 from lung cancer, but one can only imagine where the Big Island would be in terms of athletics, without his guiding hand.” The stadium has a capacity of 2,400 spectators and serves as the home of the UH-Hilo baseball team.
HANS L’ORANGE PARK – Hans Peter Faye L’Orange Is often considered the father of championship baseball, basketball and other sports for laborers during Hawaii’s plantation era. As an Oahu Sugar Co. manager, it was L’Orange who convinced his bosses in 1924 to provide several acres of low-yielding cane to build a recreation area for the workers. A 1999 Honolulu Star-Bulletin article, in commemorating the park’s 75th anniversary, noted, “It was L’Orange’s belief that, to be happy and healthy, plantation workers needed wholesome recreational and social activities.” The venue, which accommodates up to 2,200 spectators, has hosted many sporting events, including Hawaii Winter League baseball and HPU baseball. L’Orange died in March 2017 at the age of 91.
HOWARD A. OKITA FIELD – A softball coaching legend, Howard Okita started the softball program at Hawaii Loa University (now HPU) and served as its head coach from 1988 to 1992. He led the team to the NAIA national title in 1991. After the school merged with HPU in 1992, Okita coached the team from 1994 to 2008. He led the team to three PacWest championships and the 2010 NCAA Division II national title. HPU’s softball field was renamed in his honor in 2009. Okita passed away in 2017.
LES MURAKAMI STADIUM – Known as “The House that Les Built,” this 4,312-seat baseball stadium opened in 1984 as “Rainbow Stadium.” The facility is primarily used as the home ball park of the UH baseball program. In October of 2001, the university renamed the venue “Les Murakami Stadium” to honor the program’s first full-time Division I head coach. Murakami coached the Rainbow Warriors from 1971 to 2000, winning 1,079 games and leading the team to the 1980 College World Series.
MAEHARA STADIUM (Maui) – Located In Wailuku next to the War Memorial Stadium, this 1,500-seat stadium primarily hosts Maui Interscholastic League baseball games. It opened in 1973 and formerly served as the home field of Hawaii Winter Baseball’s Maui Stingrays. The venue is named in honor of Ichiro “Iron” Maehara, a longtime semipro baseball player and youth coach who went on to become a scout for the Los Angeles Dodgers. (Maehara’s greatest “find” was Sid Fernandez, who he recommended to the ball club.) Maehara is also credited with organizing Little League Baseball both on Maui and Lanai. He died in 1998, less than a year after the stadium was renamed for him.
McCABE GYM – Stephen McCabe was a well-known teacher and athletic director at Saint Louis College (now Chaminade University). He died of a sudden heart attack in April of 1951. Nearly six years later, on Jan. 20, 1957, the new Stephen McCabe Memorial Gymnasium was dedicated. More than 2,000 people attended the public ceremonies, including Honolulu Mayor Neal S. Blaisdell, himself a Saint Louis alum. Declared the mayor: “Those of us who are products of the educational system of the Marianists owe greatly to men like a Brother McCabe, who is in my language and the language of athletes, a great guy.”
NEAL BLAISDELL ARENA – Originally known as the Honolulu International Center, the arena debuted in September of 1964 and has since hosted a wide spectrum of events, including NBA and college basketball games, concerts, WWE shows, Ice Capades, Harlem Globetrotters, boxing and MMA matches, indoor football more. Perhaps most notably, the Blaisdell was the site of one of the biggest upsets in basketball history, when NAIA school Chaminade shocked No. 1-ranked Virginia in December 1982. It was Neal S. Blaisdell, who served as Honolulu mayor from 1955 to 1969, who oversaw the construction of the 7,700-seat arena. The facility was renamed in his honor shortly after his passing in 1975.
SIMPLI-FI ARENA AT STAN SHERIFF CENTER – Located on the UH-Manoa campus, this 10,300-seat arena is the home of the university’s basketball and volleyball teams. It also hosts championship high school events, graduations and international athletic competitions. It originally opened in 1994 as the Special Events Arena, but was renamed in 1998 to honor the late Stan Sheriff, the school’s longtime athletics director (from 1983 to 1993). It was Sheriff who championed the construction of this facility. “We all give a lot of credit to Stan for pushing for this arena,” former Rainbow Wahine volleyball coach Dave Shoji told Ka Leo. “There was a lot of opposition, and of course the cost was the main thing. But he knew we needed to have a first-class arena if we wanted to be visible to the community and across the country. He fought tooth and nail for this, spending a lot of time down in legislature, talking to people. Also raising money for it. He was definitely the driving force behind the building of the arena.”
VIDINHA STADIUM (Kauai) – Lihue Stadium was built in the early 1970s and remains a popular venue for football games, soccer matches, track meets and graduation ceremonies. In March 1976, the facility was renamed Antone “Kona” Vidinha Jr. Memorial Stadium. Vidinha, who served two terms as the mayor of Kauai County, died in February 1976 at the age of 73. In approving the name change, the Kauai County Council resolution noted, “[Vidinha] was one of the prime movers of the establishment and construction of the Lihue Stadium.”