BYU women's basketball: Keilani Unga works her way back for senior season after life-changing event
Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News
PROVO — The way the nurse said it was simple and small.
But the words wrapped around her, suffocating and life-altering. She was, after all, in the midst of living her dream of playing college basketball at a school that requires its students to abide by very specific ethical and moral rules. On the list of issues that can mean punishment ranging from probation to expulsion is intimacy outside of marriage.
The words shattered any facade she was maintaining.
"I got light-headed, everything just stopped," said then 20-year-old Keilani Moeaki. "I just started crying. I was totally shocked. I was wearing my BYU stuff, and she asked me, 'Do you play sports?' "
Humiliated and terrified, Moeaki acknowledged she was a starter for BYU's basketball team. The rest of the appointment was a blur. Questions pummeled her as she made her way out of the office and back to her apartment.
"What am I going to do? Who am I going to tell?" she said. "I was stumbling through it."
When she arrived home, she immediately called her boyfriend, who was also an athlete — BYU's all-time leading rusher, Harvey Unga.
She sobbed as she told him.
"He wasn't sad at all," she said, shaking her head a little. "He was really excited. He gave me a big hug, and somehow that comforted me."
Unga suggested they call their bishop first. Moeaki agreed.
It would be another month before they would muster the courage to tell their coaches, their teammates and their parents. They would endure the searing heat of the spotlight, the devastation of being forced to withdraw from school, and the loneliness of living thousands of miles away from each other as they tried to pick up the pieces of their shattered dreams.
Keilani Unga wasn't sure she wanted to follow two of her brothers to BYU. It was so far away from her Warrenville, Ill., home, and the thought of having her parents at every game was appealing. She committed to Marquette, but she agreed to visit BYU's campus because the teenager relished the idea of a trip.
"I loved it," she said, her smile warm and friendly. "I met the team; we went to a football game, and it was just more my style, more laid back. When we got on the plane, I told my mom, 'I think I want to come here.' She was happy."
Her father, Sione, was a health teacher and tennis coach so all five of the Moeaki children learned to play tennis.
"I didn't start basketball until the fourth grade," she said. "I decided to do it because all of my friends were doing it. When I tried out for the team in sixth grade, I didn't know how to do a layup."
Athletic and hard working, she quickly showed such promise that a traveling team coach added her to his roster, and basketball became her passion. She started getting letters from colleges when she was a sophomore — one of those interested was BYU.
"She was really talented," said BYU coach Jeff Judkins. "She had a lot of ability that we needed. She could get to the basket, and she was a really aggressive, smart player. She was probably the most highly sought-after recruit of that class."
Like many Mormon young people, even if she didn't aspire to go to BYU, she loved the school owned by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Her parents were graduates, and when two of her brothers became Cougars, those ties to the school grew stronger.
It was not love at first sight — at least for Keilani.
Harvey Unga was attending a ward for Polynesian singles where his father was the bishop the same week Keilani accompanied a friend to the ward.
"We were both just visiting," she said. A mutual friend introduced them, and then Unga showed up at that friend's house and invited her over. He asked her out, but she was interested in someone else.
He persisted, and she said they could be friends. It took several months before she decided Harvey Unga was worth dating.
"It was his personality that won me over," she said, the smile returning to her face. "He was so easy to talk to. We could be really honest with each other, and our sense of humor is the same."
They were engaged on Sept. 11, 2008, her birthday. Their plan was to get married after their seasons and school had ended in the summer of 2009.
"I went home in June of 2009 and called it off," she said. "I was just scared, nervous and thinking too much."
Keilani had a three-year relationship in high school and Harvey had been her first serious boyfriend in college. She worried she hadn't dated enough.
When she returned to school in the fall of 2009, the two remained close.
"I felt like maybe I should date other people," she said. "So I would date and he would get upset. We were on and off that whole year. Every guy I dated, I would compare him to Harvey."
Her sisters warned her to either commit to Unga or break up for good, but she remained torn until that day in the doctor's office.
Telling her bishop was difficult, but the thought of telling her parents was devastating.
As she tried to hide the reality of her situation from her coaches and teammates, she tried to find the right time to tell her parents. After BYU was upset in the MWC tournament, Keilani decided to stay in Las Vegas with her family for a mini-vacation. She and Harvey were shopping with her mom when her mom made a joke.
"She said, 'Keilani are you pregnant?' But she was just joking," she said, and then the memory of that moment overcomes her. She cries again, the pain of disappointing her mother overwhelming.
"I just looked at my mom," she said. "I looked at Harvey. She started crying. It was the hardest thing. I felt so alone. She just told me, 'I don't know what to say.' "
Keilani's mother chooses her words carefully as she recounts that day.
"It was, of course, a very awkward and upsetting thing. … That it happened, was a really upsetting thing," Lose Moeaki said. "I knew the consequences school-wise and with basketball. We already knew what was going to happen. We all know the BYU honor code. There was no need to talk about it."
They left the store and got into the car. Keilani begged her mother not to tell her father.
"I'm really close with my dad," she said, stopping to wipe away tears. "I was so sad about disappointing them, about disappointing my dad."
Lose Moeaki told her husband after they returned home to Illinois. It took him two weeks before he could discuss it with his daughter.
The couple had meetings with their bishops, their coaches and school officials, but there was really only one option. They withdrew from school right after taking their finals. The school announced their withdrawal before Keilani had taken her last final, so she endured a final day of humiliation before she left for Illinois.
"The week after finals I met with the team and told them," she said. "It was a bawl-fest. Everyone was crying."
Judkins said watching students struggle with any off-court issue is painful, and his concern for them as people quickly replaces an impact their problems may have on the team.
"I told her I wanted her to earn her degree," he said, an offer that stood whether she ever played basketball again or not. "It did hurt me because it hurts the program. I've always been a strong believer in the honor code, but also in second chances. … The one thing we try to do is set players in the right direction, but also let them be themselves. That's how you learn."
Her family flew in because her brother, Tony Moeaki, a tight end for Iowa, was being drafted that weekend. Because the couple withdrew from school, they were eligible to return to BYU in a year. But Keilani wasn't thinking about returning; she was trying to decide whether she wanted to be a wife and a mother — or just a mother.
She returned home to Illinois with her family and she and Harvey talked as he tried to decide whether to return to BYU in 2012 or declare for the NFL's supplemental draft. She delivered Jackson Unga on the same weekend Harvey was meeting with the Chicago Bears.
"A week later we flew back to Utah, and seriously, with like two days planning, we had our wedding in the backyard of our bishop," she said. "The next week Harvey found out he was drafted by the Bears."
Keilani threw herself into motherhood, while her husband fought for a spot on the Bears' roster.
But she had unfinished business.
"I wasn't unhappy, but I was sad," she said. "Because I did want to play basketball."
So the couple began to talk about returning to Utah after the NFL season and enrolling at BYU so Keilani could finish her basketball career and earn her degree.
Before she had a chance to really embrace that future, she found out she was pregnant again — this time with Leila.
"OK, well that's the end of the dream," said Lose of finding out her daughter was pregnant with her second child.
Judkins had the same thoughts.
"I thought she would come back," he said. "Keilani is the kind of person that when she tells you she's going to do something, she does it. When she got pregnant with the second child, I thought she'd finish school, but I thought basketball was over."
Even Keilani thought a second pregnancy might end her dream of playing her senior season. The one person who held out hope is the man who'd loved her from the time he met her — Harvey.
"There was no doubt in my mind that she could play again," said Harvey, who signed a two-year extension with the Bears at the end of this season. "I was pushing her to keep trying. Some thought it was me being na?e, but I know her, and if she commits to something in her mind and her heart, she will do it. It's something I have always admired about her."
She delivered Leila on Aug. 5, 2011. She enrolled at BYU two weeks later. Harvey's mom watched her children while she attended classes. Life was moving forward and she was happy.
It was playing pick-up games that convinced her she should give her dream one more shot. Judkins said he'd help her navigate the NCAA's rules that allow players to save a year of eligibility for injury, illness and pregnancy. She used her redshirt and maternity years and announced to the team in May 2012 that she'd return for her senior season in 2012-2013.
"Everyone started cheering," she said laughing. "Everyone was so supportive, especially Harvey and my mom."
Lose Moeaki is retired and told her daughter she'd move to Utah for a year and help with the children. Havey's family also helps, but Judkins acknowledges that were it not for Lose, he doesn't think Keilani could be playing Division I basketball right now.
"I wanted to have no regrets," said Keilani. "I wanted to be an example to my children."
She wanted to show them that even if you make mistakes, even life-altering mistakes, there is a way back. She's starting for BYU as they embark on their second season in the WCC. Judkins called Keilani "the best defender in the league" and said her leadership has been invaluable this season.
Juggling it all isn't easy, but it's worth it, which is evident as she holds a tired 2-year-old Jackson, kissing and talking softly to him as she patiently signs autographs after a home game.
She is grateful for forgiveness, and said motherhood has brought her more joy than she could have imagined. It is what those who know her best admire most about her.
"She's tough as nails," said Harvey. "I knew that from the moment I met her. But seeing how she is with our kids and school and basketball, it's more motivating to me than ever. I go through things that are tough, but nothing like her. She's an inspiration for me. My respect for her has grown tremendously. She's a great mom and I so much appreciate the way she is."
Adds Judkins, "Sometimes when you don't have something, you have more appreciation for it. Keilani brings her personality and toughness to this team. I wanted her to have no regrets, so I'm really happy for her."
Whether this was the path she needed to travel or not, Lose Moeaki isn't sure.
"I don't know if it was meant to be," Lose said as the baby jabbers in the background. "I think she made the best of her situation."
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