By Lance Tominaga, ESPN Honolulu Web Editor.
The University of Hawaii basketball program is celebrating the 50th anniversary of its first-ever NCAA Tournament appearance. That 1971-72 squad, known collectively as the “Fabulous Five,” is still widely regarded as the greatest team in the history of Hawaii basketball.
And John Penebacker stands out as perhaps the most unique member of the Fabulous Five.
Penebacker was the only member of the famed quintet to play at UH for four seasons. He served in the Air Force before joining the program, making him four or five years older than his teammates. And although he stood only six feet and two inches tall, Penebacker served as the Fabulous Five’s starting center.
Penebacker’s basketball story didn’t begin until his junior season at Princeton High School in Cincinnati, Ohio. Before that, the young athlete only competed in baseball and track. He was a quick learner, however, and made the All-City Team as a senior.
His basketball skills bloomed even more after he enlisted in the Air Force, and he honed those skills while playing for several top service teams.
As fate would have it, Penebacker’s first collegiate game came against Hawaii.
“I was stationed at Hickam Air Field and played in the Armed Forces League,” Penebacker recalls today. “In those days, in terms of basketball the Armed Forces League was more popular than the University of Hawaii. The first time I played a college game was against UH. I was with the Hickam Flyers and [UH player and future coach] Bruce O’Neil was a guy I played against.
On Dec. 1, 1967, at Hickam Field House, the Rainbow Warriors held off the Flyers, 92-85. The UH players and coaches came away impressed by Penebacker, who scored 18 points.
“I was asked if I had any eligibility left, and I said I never actually used any of my eligibility,” he says, smiling at the memory.
Penebacker made UH’s 1969-70 varsity team as a freshman and led the squad in both points (15.5 ppg) and rebounds (8.5). Unfortunately, Hawaii finished that season with a disappointing 6-20 record.
“Very troublesome,” Penebacker recalls. “I almost transferred.”
The next season, however, would be different. Head coach Red Rocha brought in a group of talented newcomers, including junior college transfers Bob Nash, Dwight Holiday, Al Davis and Jerome Freeman. Those four players would join Penebacker as Hawaii’s legendary “Fabulous Five.”
That 1970-71 team raced to a 9-0 start and captured the school’s first Rainbow Classic tournament championship.
“It’s really hard to explain,” Penebacker says of the team’s success. “Everything just clicked. Everyone had a respect for each other’s strengths and weaknesses. And we played off of each other’s strengths and weaknesses. It got to the point where they started putting our games on TV. We were never on TV before. And TV gave us a statewide audience.”
Although Nash stood 6’8” and Davis was 6’7”, it was the 6’2” Penebacker who played the center position for Hawaii.
“We didn’t play the traditional center-forward-guard lineup,” Penebacker explains. “We played a version of the triangle offense. We had people playing various positions. I primarily played close to the basket, but I had a vertical leap of 42 inches so I could hold my own inside.”
The 70-72 UH team finished 23-5 and earned a spot in the National Invitational Tournament, the program’s first-ever postseason appearance. Competing in Madison Square Garden in New York, Hawaii beat Oklahoma in a double-overtime thriller before falling to St. Bonaventure. The next season, the team fared even better, going 24-3 and landing the school’s first NCAA Tournament invitation. The Fabulous Five era came to a sad and sudden end, as the ’Bows were upset by Weber State in the first round.
For a comprehensive story about the Fabulous Five click here: SIMPLY FABULOUS
While Nash, Freeman, Davis and Holiday were seniors, Penebacker still had one more season of eligibility. He would return to the Rainbow Warriors for the 1972-73 season. That team was led by a highly-touted guard and U.S. Olympian, Tom Henderson.
“Tom Henderson was a better scorer than Jerome [Freeman], but I think Jerome complemented our Fabulous Five team better than Tom would have,” says Pennybacker. “Henderson was really a cut above, in a group by himself. Playing with him that one season, if you didn’t keep your hands up and your eyes open, he might hit you on the head with the ball!”
That team finished 16-10 that season. Pennybacker ended his career as Hawaii’s career leader in scoring, with 1,519 points. (That record was surpassed by Chris Gaines in 1990.) He remains the No. 2 all-time rebounder in Rainbow Warrior history (870), trailing only Melton Werts. Pennybacker is the only player in program history to record at least 1,500 points and 800 rebounds.
Today, Pennybacker, 76, still resides in Hawaii and is enjoying retirement after years of service as an Air Force Colonel and deputy in the State Library System.