Hawaii’s Mufi Hannemann: From Harvard Men’s Basketball to Mayor of Honolulu


Few people know Mufi Hannemann ‘76 for his exploits as a basketball player. As an alum of the Harvard men’s basketball team, Hannemann has become a distinguished leader in both business and politics, working in three presidential administrations (Carter, Clinton, and Bush), serving as the Mayor of Honolulu for six years, and most recently leading the Hawaii Lodging and Tourism Association, Hawaii’s largest private tourism organization, as President and CEO, his second stint holding that post.

Hannemann has had a unique path to success. His father Gustav and mother Faiaso immigrated to Hawaii from Samoa before his birth because of a desire for their children to be educated in a “western environment.” He remembers that early on, his mother (and eventually father) adopted a version of the American dream that one of their children would go on to attend Harvard. Hannemann believes that vision was sparked by First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt’s visit to American Samoa in 1943.

“I think that might have gotten my mom thinking because she made such a great impact,” Hannemann said. “My mom was telling me, ‘that's where presidents go to school.’” Hannemann didn’t find out about Roosevelt’s trip until after Faiaso’s passing, so he never got to ask her about the visit.

While attending Kalihi Kai Elementary, a public school in Honolulu, Hannemann remembers his mother telling him about her dream. He responded with skepticism, explaining that people from Kalihi “don't get into Harvard.”After seventh grade, Hannemann earned a scholarship to attend ‘Iolani School, where he played basketball and football while excelling academically. Hard work enabled him to overcome a historic lack of precedent and fulfill his mother’s dream by getting accepted into Harvard during his senior year. Hannemann also was accepted to Yale, Princeton, Stanford, Brown, and Cornell, making history as the first Samoan to receive offers of admission from several of those institutions.


The importance of helping others that Faiaso instilled in him, as well as his habit of reading the biographies of many politicians, convinced Hannemann early on that he was interested in government. Before leaving for Harvard, he remembers his mother telling him: “you go get educated and then you come back and help.” That mission is one that Hannemann took to heart.

At Harvard, Hannemann continued to play basketball as a member of the varsity squad and also pursued his interest in politics, winning the election to the post of president of the freshman council (the student government entity preceding the Undergraduate Council) in his first year. It was at Harvard that he developed a goal of one day working in the White House. He remembers Government 154, a class taught by the legendary presidential biographer Doris Kearns Goodwin, as being particularly influential. Kearns spoke of her experience as a White House fellow working alongside president Lyndon Johnson, something that struck Hannemann as being exceptionally impressive. His tutor, Roger Porter, also served as a White House fellow in the Ford administration, compounding Hannemann’s interest in one day serving in such a role.

“With those two and hearing of their experience of one working for President Ford, the other working for President Johnson, I said, ‘Man, I gotta be a White House fellow,’” Mufi recalled.

Remembering his mother’s advice, upon graduating in 1976, Hannemann wanted to give back to ‘Iolani School for the opportunities it had given him, returning to his alma mater as a history teacher and JV basketball coach. After a year of teaching and coaching, he took a break to complete a Fulbright Scholarship in New Zealand, a center of Polynesian culture, with the hopes of learning more about his Samoan roots. After a year abroad, Hannemann returned to ‘Iolani, this time as a coach for the varsity basketball squad. Hannemann also maintained his aspirations to work in the White House, and in 1979 he began his first government service role after being selected as special assistant to Hawaii Governor George Ariyoshi. That role kickstarted a “string of gubernatorial and presidential appointments” during which he fulfilled his goal of working in the White House. These appointments led to the 2004 election for Mayor of Honolulu, in which Hannemann was elected after a hard-fought campaign cycle.

Throughout his life, two things that have remained constant for Hannemann are basketball and his passion for helping others, something he has been able to achieve through politics. It’s no coincidence that politics and sports are complementary of each other. When asked about the parallels between what is required of an athlete and a politician, Hannemann emphasized the foundation that an athletic career can provide.

“I always say that if people have an athletic background it's a proper training ground, to be a good leader,” Hannemann said. “Whether it’s the government, the private sector, the nonprofit world, or academia.”

Sport provides an opportunity to learn fundamentals that are easily adaptable to other areas of life. Hannemann referenced the development of a sense of “grace under pressure” as one such fundamental. The unique pressures that intense sporting situations, such as last-minute free throws or a key touchdown reception, provide, create the circumstances needed to develop such skills. Hannemann also pointed out that like in sports, in the worlds of politics and business, not everyone can be a star.

“No matter how talented you are, whether it's Michael Jordan or Kobe Bryant, you need someone who can rebound, you need someone who can set pace, you need someone who can play defense,” He said. Without an understanding of what it means to be part of a team, it is impossible to be effective as an athlete or a leader.

Hannemann has definitely had to hit clutch free throws and do some rebounding, at least metaphorically, during his political career. As Mayor of Honolulu during the 2008 financial crisis, he was faced with the daunting task of steering Hawaii’s economic engine through the great recession. In an interview with Hawaii News Now during the recent 2020 Mayoral election, in which Hannemann put together an unsuccessful bid for a third term as Mayor, he discussed the tough decisions he had to make during that period. Among other things, Hannemann talked about his response to the state-wide “Furlough Friday'' program, a highly controversial initiative that cut worker hours in an attempt to reduce the government’s operating budget.

“I had to make sure that the unions were in a good place in negotiating their furloughs and their pay cuts, something that the state had done through a top-down decision-making with ‘Furlough Fridays’, and I was able to do that without raising property taxes,” Hannemann said.

Making difficult choices and adapting to the decisions of others is a theme on and off the basketball court. In a 2006 Star Bulletin feature, Hannemann’s older brother Nephi Hannemann used Mufi’s athletic prowess as an analogy explaining his approach to political leadership.

"He's fearless in making tough decisions,” Nephi said. “Like in sports, there are a select few who want the ball at crunch time. 'Give me the ball, give me the ball.' He wants the ball," said Nephi.

Hannemann’s recent connection to the sport has come through the Mufi Hannemann Basketball Jamboree, an annual event now in its 29th year. The tournament invites the best high school women’s basketball players from across the state to compete in a showcase event on Oahu each February. Each year, Hannemann takes the best players from the tournament to the mainland, providing them with the opportunity to showcase their skills at a national level. The initiative is part of an effort to address a prevailing disadvantage that athletes from Hawaii face: a lack of exposure to opportunities for playing at the next level.

“Local girls playing here don't have the exposure [that you have] when you live in the continental US and can go to all the camps and get noticed by the scouts,” Hannemann said. “We actually have to travel there.”

Hannemann also spoke of the value of disproving gender stereotypes, especially those prevalent in Hawaii about women’s participation in many sports and the ability to take that participation to a professional level.

“I think if you go through life, and your goals are just to achieve fame and fortune, it's a very shallow life,” Hannemann said near the end of our conversation. By taking the path less traveled and searching for ways to share the profits of the opportunities you are given, you serve as a role model for future generations to do the same. “That's what life is all about,” Hannemann said. Mufi Hannemann has certainly embodied those principles, always striving for success and that of others, on and off the court.

— Staff writer Alex Bell can be reached at