By Lance Tominaga, ESPN Honolulu Web Editor.
Since its humble beginnings, the University of Hawaii men’s basketball program has carved out a history steep in great teams, games and players.
There was the All-American and Olympian, Tom Henderson. There was the high-scoring exploits of Gavin Smith (and his headband). Then came the AC-Alika years and the upset over Kansas, and then Savo and English. And the 2015-16 team accomplished a program first: advancing past the first round of the NCAA Tournament.
But no team captured Hawaii’s hearts quite like the Fabulous Five.
Bob Nash. Jerome Freeman. Al Davis. Dwight Holiday. John Penebacker. These five, along with their teammates, put Hawaii on the college basketball map.
The numbers speak for themselves: a 47-8 record over two seasons; the school’s first-ever NIT appearance, followed by the school’s first-ever NCAA Tournament appearance. The 1971-72 team averaged a school record 91.7 points per game.
But the impact of the Fabulous Five goes beyond statistics and win totals. For Hawaii sports fans, the team was the Beatles, Elvis and the Rolling Stones all rolled into one.
In a 1972 Honolulu Star-Bulletin article, UH head coach Red Rocha tried to explain the Fabulous Five phenomenon: “This community has just accepted these guys completely. It’s like they are their own. Just try to tell anybody here that they aren’t theirs. It’s a combination of things that’s made the players really a part of the community. They like the people and they show it. [In turn,] the people like them…as people.
“Honolulu was basically a football area. It was basketball after football. And, basically, Hawaii crowds were sort of reserved, sedate in a way. We had a pretty good team here in ’67-’68, you know, but there was no great response. Now, all of a sudden, basketball is the thing. Everybody’s become a rabid basketball fan.”
Rocha concluded: “Hawaii’s never been much of an autograph-seeking area. They didn’t seem to have that thing about idol worship that you see in other places. But now, you’d think you were back in the pros, or back in New York where the fans won’t even let you in or out of the dressing room.”
The 1971-72 campaign was the team’s final season as a unit. At the postseason awards banquet, Hawaii Governor John A. Burns congratulated the players on their achievements and thanked them for their efforts. Finally, Burns wished them well in their future endeavors and remarked, “If you think of it, come back to Hawaii anytime. They’ll always be a place for you here.”
If the Governor only knew.
More than 45 years later, the Fabulous Five still calls Hawaii home. Freeman joined a local security firm. Davis found success as an executive at a Windward car dealership. Penebacker spent many years heading the State of Hawaii Library System. Holiday worked as a financial representative and, in 2009, produced a DVD documenting the Fabulous Five years.
Then, of course, there is Nash. After a five-year career in the NBA and ABA, Nash returned to Hawaii to serve as Hawaii’s associate head coach, under the tenure of Riley Wallace. Twenty years later, upon Wallace’s departure, Nash became the Rainbow Warriors’ 18th head coach.
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