By Lance Tominaga, ESPN Honolulu Web Editor.
This much was a given: The 1973-74 University of Hawaii men’s basketball team was going to be good. The Rainbow Warriors were led by U.S. Olympian and All-American senior guard Tom Henderson, as well as his backcourt mate, defensive stopper Artie Wilson. The front court featured rugged 6-9 center Melton Werts and talented forwards Rod Aldridge, Boyd Batts and Keith Bowman. This lineup, many observers noted, had the look of an NCAA Tournament team.
Now imagine adding a highly skilled seven-footer who was acclaimed as the best high school player in the country.
Oh, what could have been.
Richard Washington was such a special talent that legendary UCLA coach John Wooden, who had led the Bruins to nine national titles at that point, took a personal interest in his recruitment. As signing day drew closer, the Portland, Oregon native announced that he had pared his choices to five schools: UCLA, of course, was one of the five, along with USC, Oregon State and Arizona State.
“I’m impressed with Hawaii,” Washington told an Oregon reporter. “I like the style of ball they play, and I like the climate. It would be a lot of fun. I might eventually feel kind of trapped on the island, but I think I could stand it for four years.”
A pair of McKinley High School cheerleaders size up high school hoops phenom Richard Washington.
Washington already had experience playing in Hawaii. As a junior, he was part of the Benson Polytechnic Institute team that participated in the McKinley Invitational Basketball Tournament. Playing only half the game, Washington scored 17 points to help the Engineers wallop McKinley, 109-40. The next night, Washington scored 21 points and grabbed 10 boards to lead Benson to an 88-55 win over Punahou. (Note: Future USC and New England Patriots football star Mosi Tatupu had 9 points and 7 rebounds for the Buffanblu.)
It seemed all of Hawaii had launched a full-court press to lure Washington to sign with the Rainbow Warriors. Local fans wrote letters to the prep star, and the Honolulu Advertiser even printed Benson Polytechnic’s mailing address. His official recruiting visit to Honolulu was a public spectacle, complete with adoring greeters and flower leis.
Washington arrives in Honolulu with UH head coach Bruce O’Neil and receives an enthusiastic welcome from a lei greeter.
First-year UH head coach Bruce O’Neil, who had replaced the fired Red Rocha, was giddy at the very thought of landing the coveted prospect. “He does more with a basketball than anyone I’ve ever seen,” he marveled to the Honolulu Advertiser. “We can have Melton [Werts] in the post, Richard outside, put my grandmother next to them and still win most of our games.”
For his part, Washington acknowledged having bonds with two UH players, both Portland natives: Artie Wilson and Gary Gray. (Gray was a teammate at Benson Polytechnic, and his father, Dick Gray, was the school’s head coach.)
Washington was also acquainted with O’Neil. When Rocha was fired after the 1972-73 season, Washington kept tabs on the situation.
“I was hoping he’d get it,” the player said of O’Neil. “I’m sure Red Rocha is a fine coach and person, but I’m not familiar with him. I know Bruce O’Neil and feel more confident with him.”
Finally, word got out that Washington narrowed his choices to UCLA and Hawaii. Excitement within the local basketball community reached a fever pitch.
However, in the Sunday, April 23rd edition of the Honolulu Advertiser, Hawaii basketball fans got the bad news: “Richard Washington, the most sought-after high school basketball star in the nation, will not be coming to the University of Hawaii.”
Washington signed his national letter of intent to play for UCLA.
Washington would play three seasons with the Bruins, helping the program reach the NCAA Tournament’s “Final Four” all three years. In his sophomore season, he led UCLA to a 92-85 victory in the national championship game, giving John Wooden his 10th national title in his final game as a coach. Washington, who had 28 points and 12 rebounds in the championship game, was named the tournament’s Most Outstanding Player.
Washington (#31, back row, center) led UCLA to the 1975 national championship.
Hawaii, meanwhile, still had a successful season without Washington, going 19-9 and advancing to the second round of the National Invitational Tournament before falling to Purdue. Tom Henderson would be named to several All-American teams on his way to becoming the No. 7 overall pick in the 1974 NBA Draft.
In the fall of 1976, during a visit to the Islands, Washington told the Honolulu Star-Bulletin that he was satisfied that he made the right decision.
”I like [Hawaii], the people. I knew I could be comfortable playing here. But I wanted more national exposure. I wanted to play for Coach Wooden and to be in the national championships. I’ve done all those things at UCLA.”
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