When Richard Kawakami came to Valencia High School from Golden Valley a little over a year ago, he walked from class to class alone.
“The first couple of days at Valencia I didn’t know anyone,” Kawakami said. “I was just walking by myself, talking to my teammates, but the first couple weeks was like, is this really a good choice?”
A year later, Kawakami isn’t alone. He has basketball teammates that he considers brothers, plenty of friends and an undefeated Foothill League record to keep him company.
It’s safe to say it was a good choice.
Molding success from uncertainty is nothing new for Kawakami, however. With a father who has been out of the picture since he was two years old and a mother who was unable to care for her children, Kawakami moved around a lot as a kid.
He moved in with his grandmother when he was six, then went back to live with his mom in the San Fernando Valley when he was nine and then returned to his grandmother when he was 11, along with his two older brothers and older sister.
“If she wouldn’t have taken me in, then I don’t know what I’d be doing right now,” he said. “I’d be definitely in a different situation. I don’t know if I’d even be living in Santa Clarita. It’s a whole different story if she’s not in it. I’m just glad she’s a part of it. Everything I do is for her.”
Kawakami’s grandmother, Barbara Morales, became an integral part of his upbringing. An avid supporter of keeping kids active and involved, Morales signed a 10-year-old Kawakami up for basketball at the Ritchie Valens Recreation Center in Pacoima.
His basketball roots go deeper than that, however. Morales recalls finding a photo of Kawakami in a basketball uniform when he was just six months old, a telling sign of a flashy basketball career yet to come.
“He was an interesting little guy. He could be very stubborn at times, but he always had a lot of friends,” Morales said. “He did tend to, at some points along the way, be the class clown, so he liked doing that. But pretty much overall he was like a happy-go-lucky kid. He made friends easily and he liked to perform.”
Years later, when Kawakami transferred from Golden Valley to Valencia, his grandmother immediately spoke with teachers and coaches to make sure her grandson could get everything he could out of his time at the school.
“Grandma is the one that checks on his grades and meets with coaches to see if his attitude is good,” said Vikings coach Bill Bedgood. “I’m happy she sought out my advice as far as what should be doing in the offseason to prepare himself for college.”
Kawakami played his part, too. As point guard and general go-to guy for Golden Valley, Bedgood was unsure of how his transition to being the new guy on the team would unfold.
Then a junior, Kawakami did become the go-to guy, but in a different way. He played any position that the coaching staff asked him to and was an eager study of senior players like Dexter Akanno, who committed to Marquette in September after a post-prep year at Blair Academy.
“The practices are very competitive,” Kawakami said. “Everybody is trying to get everybody better. I feel like, no like shame to Golden Valley, but I feel like there I wasn’t getting any better.
“So here I’m playing against good competition, I’m playing against future D-1 players, but I feel like just every day just going at it, getting better, getting where I want to be. You’ve just got to make the most of it.”
At the end of the season, Kawakami came to Bedgood with a request: He wanted to make a permanent return to point guard. Bedgood was unsure, but still gave the idea a chance.
“I was going to give him the opportunity, but I didn’t really envision him being a point guard,” Bedgood said. “He’s a big, physical kid, but we started trying it in spring and summer and it looked really good. I was surprised how well he transitioned in that position, how much better we were playing.”
This season, Kawakami was voted team captain by his peers. He has filled the role as floor general, getting the ball to double-digit scorers like Jaden Trower, Josh Assiff and Jake Hlywiak in every game while still maintaining his aggressive, “Showtyme” style of play, as his social media handles suggest.
“He definitely likes to share the ball but he’ll also get into you if you’re not doing something right or if you’re just not playing well, but that’s what a true leader does,” said guard Nick Jenney.
As a result, Kawakami has garnered attention from several NCAA Division 2 programs and junior colleges, although the recruiting process is far from over.
He’s paved a path for himself to play basketball while getting a college education. It’s a goal for himself and, now, for Morales, who has exceeded her original objective of helping Kawakami earn a high school diploma.
“That would be a dream come true because at least I would feel that he has a future,” Morales said. “He’s going to have that opportunity to establish for himself a good future and that’s what we all want; for our kids to be able to have a good life. Just maybe not have to struggle quite so much.”
On Feb. 1, Kawakami and the Vikings became this season’s undefeated Foothill League champions. It’s something that Kawakami says has been on his bucket list and has been on every Valencia player’s mind since coming up short of their goal of a league title last season.
Kawakami will be taking on the challenge without an important piece of his identity: his long hair that was always tied into a bun for games.
“RIP to the bun,” Jenney said.
“I got rid of the look. I wasn’t feeling it, so it’s just something new,” Kawakami said. “I like it. The first day I got my hair cut, I regretted it so much. I was so mad at myself, but it took some getting used to.”
Whether it’s a new hairstyle, a new home, a new school or a new team goal for Valencia basketball, Kawakami has the ability to turn any situation into a winning situation.
“Every time Richard takes the floor, you’re going to get every ounce of what he has to give,” Bedgood said. “He’s not leaving anything to chance.”