Representing A Heritage

March 1, 2007

By Ashley WalkerWashington State Sports Information 

Family is defined differently by everyone. It can mean parents, siblings, or aunts and uncles. To some it might be the people that one spends all his time with or share the same beliefs and interests in, such as one's sports team. It can also be defined as a social network, the people one may be closely involved with and care about, such as those in the Cougar family. However family is defined, it is a part of an individual, something one tries to represent in the best way possible.

For Washington State men's basketball player Derrick Low, family takes on a few different meanings. Low, like many student-athletes, has his immediate family and his adopted Washington State family in Pullman. Low was born and raised in Honolulu, Hawaii, where he was constantly surrounded by white sand beaches, eternal sunshine, and rich tradition. He was then transplanted into a completely different world of wheat fields and freezing temperatures, nowhere near the ocean. It was at the Palouse that Low found his new family in his teammates and coaches.

The demands of student-athletes and time spent together can sometimes be too much for one to handle, but for Low it was exactly what he needed to make up for the 3,000 mile difference from Pullman to Honolulu. Being a part of the team allowed Low to find peers who would fill the Hawaii void.

In his first two years at WSU, Low continually impressed fans with his skills on the court and with his laid-back attitude off the court, but something was missing for the young player. The few weeks vacation student-athletes receive during the summer helped the homesickness, but Low was still looking for something more.

'I have been away from home for a long time and have lived on Hawaii my whole life, so it can be hard,' the 6-foot-2 junior guard said.

Early last year, Low found his solution. After talking with his older brother Dustin (28), Low was inspired to get a tattoo. But not just your regular tattoo, Low opted to get a traditional Polynesian tattoo.

'I always wanted to get a tattoo because my brother has a few,' he said. 'He wouldn't let me get ones like he had. He said if you really want one, then you have to do all this stuff, and you might as well get it done traditionally and let it represent something other than just getting something like a dragon.'

When Derrick first presented the idea to his father, Kenneth, he found out that he wouldn't be able to take the normal path that most do when getting permanent body art. Kenneth instead gave his son a few assignments. He wanted to make sure Derrick understood his heritage before he started representing it.

Low's tasks included reading three books on the past, present, and future of Hawaiian culture; a 500-word essay describing what it meant to be Hawaiian and how the tattoo he was going to receive represented his heritage, and finally he had to agree to perform a modern 'hula aunana' for his teammates at the end of the season.

Kenneth finally gave the go-ahead this summer after Derrick finished the first two tasks. In the few weeks he was able to return to Hawaii, he met up with Keone Nunes, the traditional Hawaiian 'kakau' expert, who spent four hours etching the Low heritage into his left leg with a hippopotamus tusk. The end result, which runs all the way from his ankle to his hip, tells the story of how the Low family came to be.

When asked now, Low calmly rattles off the tale like it was yesterday. As he explained, at the bottom of ankle, where the tattoo starts, is a water design representing the Low family guardian, goddess of the ocean, Na-maka-o-kaha'i. Moving up his ankle, the design changes to represent the eight flowing water channels in between the Hawaiian Islands because Low's family originated in Tahiti before navigating their way to Hawaii. Surrounding the water channels is a diamond-shaped pattern, representing shark teeth to symbolize the family protector, the Shark God, Ka-moho-ali'i.

When Low returned to Pullman with his family's history etched into his leg, he decided that the physical change he went through was the jump start he needed to change his basketball destiny as well.

'I wanted to start over and have a new year basketball-wise,' Low said. 'My first two years I was injured and things weren't going too good. I just wanted to start all over again. New year. New basketball season. New Derrick.'

Now that the basketball season is in full swing and Low is back with his second family, he doesn't feel as lonely as he once did in Pullman. Head Coach Tony Bennett believes Low's much treasured culture can be reflected in his play on the court.

'I think he's a loyal kid, which is why I have respect for him signing sight unseen to come and play at Washington State,' Bennett said. 'He is true to his culture that way too. I think his strength as a player is that he is very poised, doesn't get too high or too low and he's very even-keeled.'

Low, who is now also sporting much longer hair to go along with his Hawaiian revival, is currently leading the team in scoring and is playing a crucial role in the Cougars' success this season, which he partly credits with what he went through this summer.

'Now that I'm away from Hawaii and have to live somewhere else, it makes me miss home and my family a lot. By getting this tattoo, I feel a little more comfortable with myself. It feels like my family is with me, and I'm representing something. I hope to make my family proud and Hawaiians in general.'

The Kanaka, Hawaiian native, now feels more comfortable with his second family and has helped them to their first winning season since 1995-96. While he still holds out for those few weeks in the summer when he can return to his immediate family, Low is encouraged by his team's performance this year and is anxious to continue the process at Washington State.

Now on Pac-12 Network
10:00 PM PT

Airing on:

  • Pac-12 Network
Get Pac-12 Networks
Pac-12 Networks Channel Finder