EDINBURG — UTRGV forward Solomon Hainna wasn’t really into basketball as a kid.
He played growing up in his Inglewood, Calif., neighborhood, but it was only for fun. Hainna didn’t want to take it seriously, for good reason.
The younger Hainna was a Boy Scout as well as a cellist. He also participated in his elementary school’s debate and chess teams.
“I didn’t really connect with it like a lot of people did,” Hainna said. “I was very uncoordinated and kinda dorky, too, per society’s standards. I played ball at recess and during lunchtime, but I wasn’t a ballplayer until high school.”
Hainna played a year and a half of high school basketball at Crossroads School, a K-12 school located in Santa Monica. Crossroads is the same school where Shareef O’Neal, son of NBA Hall of Famer Shaquille O’Neal, graduated back in the spring. LeBron James Jr., son of Los Angeles Lakers forward LeBron James, is an eighth-grader at Crossroads.
Hainna spent his senior year at Palisades Charter High School in Los Angeles but was still undecided on his future.
“I’m very close to my grandfather, who was in the Marine Corps in Vietnam,” Hainna said. “I have his face tattooed on my arm and he’s someone I’ve always respected. I also had other members serve in the military, so that’s something that was always present in my mind. As I got into high school, I had this self-realization moment where I didn’t know what I was passionate about, but I wanted to make something better of myself.”
He went to a Marines recruiting station inside a mall. Hainna signed up and had a date set when he’d leave for basic training. A military family friend of Hainna’s, who was employed in Iraq at the time, FaceTimed Hainna and suggested to go out for the Air Force instead.
A week before he was scheduled to leave for the Marines, Hainna joined the Air Force, where he spent the next five years in Iraq and Afghanistan.
While Hainna was on military leave in Los Angeles, he was invited to a gym by some friends of his who currently play in the NBA. There weren’t any cameras and no one kept score, but they were impressed by Hainna’s look.
“They looked at me and asked which college I’m going to or what country I’m playing in. I’m like, ‘Dude, I’m in the military. I’m on leave right now,” Hainna said. “They told me that I could get paid playing basketball someday, if you wanted to do that because you’re not bad. At this point, I had already started playing more on the base. I’d been getting up early just to do it. I really thought I had to give this a shot before it’s too late.”
After his time with the Air Force was up, one of Hainna’s primary focuses was playing college basketball for the first time in Colorado. He was banking on the GI bill to support him long enough financially to get his basketball plan off the ground, but soon learned that would not be the case.
“I didn’t have a way of paying my bills and I didn’t have a place to stay,” Hainna said. “I spent a lot of time sleeping in my car and sleeping on a park bench in Fort Collins, Col. It was a rough time. I had a $1.16 in my bank account, so I ate a lot of peanut butter and jelly, and Ramen.”
Fort Collins is home to Colorado State University, which is where Hainna connected with Rams men’s basketball player Dwight Smith and women’s basketball player Ellen Nystrom, who were dating.
“If you believe in angels, they (Smith and Nystrom) were like angels for me,” Hainna said. “Dwight let me sleep on his couch and Ellen would cook for me.”
Through Smith, Hainna also got in touch with Brandon Goble, a Colorado State alum.
“Brandon had someone close to him die in the Air Force,” Hainna said. “When he met me, I think he saw a lot of similarities in his friend and he wanted to help me.”
Goble called every junior college program he could think of just to get Hainna a tryout. He received a lot of no’s, but Midland College was willing to see what Hainna could do on a basketball court.
“He told a friend of his who worked at Midland College that he could get me down there,” Hainna said. “I didn’t have gas money to get me down there. I didn’t even have a spot on the team. The coach said I could tryout for a walk-on spot. Brandon told me to go down there and crush it.”
Not only did he crush it, Hainna held more than 30 Division I scholarships after his one season in Midland.
After Hainna signed on with Midland College, Goble started his own company, Juco Advocate, a service that helps junior college athletes gain visibility with NCAA programs. Hainna happens to be the company’s logo, which is seen on its website and Twitter account.
Following two years at Evansville, Hainna was back being recruited again for a final season of eligibility in 2018-19. When he was on the phone with UTRGV assistant coach Luke Mackay, Hainna’s intuition kicked in.
“When you go through the ringer, especially being a military guy, a big thing for me is camaraderie,” Hainna said. “You might not have the best days, but if the people around you are the people who care about you, everything always works out. The very first phone call I had with coach Mackay, it just clicked. I enjoyed every time he texted me or called me. When I heard (UTRGV) coach (Lew) Hill’s voice on the phone, I immediately knew that that was it. This is where I wanted to be.”
Hainna began this season as a forward in the starting lineup but has since transitioned into a reserve role dating back to UTRGV’s 68-59 win over Texas A&M-Corpus Christi on Nov. 26. On that night, Hainna scored a career-high 14 points, grabbed four rebounds, dished out two assists and a blocked shot.
Hainna’s efforts have aided UTRGV to a 7-4 record, the program’s best start in 15 years.
“What he brings off the bench is energy and toughness,” Hill said. “He does all the little things for us. He’s accepted the role maturely and he’s played at a high level.”
“We’ve won three of our last four games, except for the Houston game since then,” Hainna said. “I see our team clicking. Our tempo’s increased. Our defensive efficiency’s increased. As long as our team’s winning, I’m happy.”
Hainna, who is now 27, is amazed when he looks back at his past.
“I had a lot more resolve than I thought,” Hainna said. “People think that if you join the military that you become this super tough guy and nothing can faze you. That’s the furthest thing from the truth. There are a lot of veterans who are down on their luck, like I was. People don’t realize how many veterans are committing suicide daily because of what they’re going through.
“I had people who took care of me. They gave me a place to eat, sleep and workout and they didn’t want anything in return. They gave me an extra fight that I didn’t have prior. I knew that once I got to Midland, in one way or another, I was going to make it.”