He was 14 years old and about 3,500 miles away from the small southern Alaska town of Wasilla he grew up in.
And yet, Dane Kuiper felt at home.
The fourth-year University of New Mexico guard was first introduced to Dreamstyle Arena — The Pit (then officially dubbed University Arena) in the summer of 2011 when the Wasilla Warriors varsity basketball team that included his older brother, Braden, made its annual trek to the “Lower 48” for a couple of weeks of summer basketball, including at UNM’s team camp.
“It was the Pit, man” Kuiper said of the first time he walked into the arena that summer between his eighth- and ninth-grade years in Wasilla. “It was just amazing. We played against Latino Select (a club basketball team in that year’s Lobos team camp). That was the team we first played when I was a freshman starting on varsity. …
“I remember my first game in here. I was shell shocked. I was tired because of the elevation. But I loved it.”
Older Lobo players working the camp left a good impression on Kuiper and his family, and they fell in love with UNM. He, too, left a good impression on the Lobos coaching staff, and in particular then assistant Craig Neal.
Kuiper, who lived in Arizona his final two years of high school but is still very much an Alaskan kid, parlayed that visit to the UNM’s team camp in 2011 into becoming a Lobo — becoming the first recruit of Neal’s tenure and now about to enter his fourth season at UNM, now under head coach Paul Weir.
And this weekend, he’s hopeful history may repeat itself.
Friday morning, Kuiper, working this week’s Lobos team camp that features 63 teams from around the country competing in the Pit and the Rudy Davalos practice facility, was working the clock for a game between Albuquerque’s Eldorado Eagles and his very own Wasilla Warriors, who again made the trek to the Lower 48 to pay a visit to the Pit.
Coaching the Warriors on Friday was Ryan Engebretsen, the same coach who decided to bring Kuiper along on that trip seven years ago.
“They really liked Dane’s upside,” Engebretsen told the Journal this week ahead of the Lobos team camp.”And he was, obviously, a phenomenal athlete for a kid going into his freshman season. They kept him on their mind after that. They knew they wanted him from that point.”
The Lobos team camp runs through Sunday afternoon.
Engebretsen and the Kuipers remain close (Dane’s older brother Braden moved back to Wasilla and coached the program’s seventh-grade team this past season), but this year’s return to Albuquerque for the Warriors isn’t just a friendly visit to see a former player before his final season as a Lobo.
“It’s definitely important and so helpful for us as a team in Alaska to play in these team camps and that’s why I’ve done it every year since I’ve been at Wasilla,” said Engebretsen. “And this is a great camp. It gives our kids exposure to that level of play.”
The team flew to Phoenix earlier this week, will spend 12 days in Arizona and New Mexico, also participating in a team camp next week at Arizona State and also lining up “pick up games” with Cleveland High School on Monday and multiple teams after that in the Phoenix area. On Thursday, the team stopped at White Sands before playing a game in the Pit later that night against Pecos.
It’s an annual trip for Wasilla, Alaska’s defending Class 4A state champion, to participate in team camps somewhere outside of Alaska each summer. And UNM, like other programs, uses the team camp scenario as a way to recruit hundreds of kids at a time in their own facility.
Getting to catch up with the Kuipers, who Engebretsen says will always be a big part of the Wasilla community.
“It’s a small community that’s really tied to basketball and it’s really connected to its families and supports them,” said Engebretsen. “They were a key component of that my first half dozen years (as Wasilla’s coach) and they’re still very much a part of all that.”
DEMON BALL? While this weekend is the team camp, featuring among others Santa Fe High School, last week at the Pit featured the “elite” camp that also featured Santa Fe High sophomore-to-be Fedonta “J.B.” White, a 6-foot-6 guard.
He picked up a scholarship offer from Weir and the Lobos. He would be a part of the 2021 recruiting class and has not committed. Players can not sign binding National Letters of Intent until November of their senior seasons.
Should White sign with the Lobos, he’d be the first Demons player since the Pit opened for play, on scholarship for the Lobos.
One of the Lobos’ great scholarship athletes, Toby Roybal (1952-56), also was from Santa Fe High. The gym at SFHS is even named after him.
Weir and UNM representatives can not comment on possible recruits until they sign a letter of intent.