By Ferd Lewis
The University of Hawai'i basketball team's road trip was going well until one day in Salem, Ore., when an overzealous baggage handler grabbed Willie Lee's duffel bag and flung it onto a stack of luggage, shattering the bottle of kimchee inside.
As the pungent odor began to permeate the train station platform, bystanders reacted with alarm and the Rainbows feared the loss of part of their "training table." But, coach Al Saake just shrugged it off.
For the Rainbows of the 1950s and early '60s, who would spend as much as one month on the road playing what amounted to a Pac-10-caliber schedule, there was no time to cry over spilt kimchee.
Saake, who went 94-122 in two terms as coach, spent 42 years as as coach and professor at UH, where he earned a place in the school's Circle of Honor.
When Saake took over UH in 1951-'52 with designs on getting away from a schedule of predominately local club teams, legend has it the school administration told him not to get too excited, but that he could do what he liked as long as he stayed within its shoestring budget.
So the Rainbows cut corners where they could, and Saake, as a professor and head of the P.E. department, called upon a network of coaching friends and he seemingly knew somebody just about every place you could bounce a basketball to get games.
"We played all the big schools and a lot of the top stars of that time," said Fred Furukawa, who, at 6 feet 4, sometimes gave away as many as six inches to opponents. "We'd go anywhere: USC, Stanford, you name it."
Indeed, of the 131 games the Rainbows played against college opposition in Saake's eight seasons, a third of them were against schools that today make up the Pac-10. Most on the road.
"To get better, you had to play the best; that was how he felt," Furukawa said. But the Rainbows acquired more than a knowledge of the zone defense under Saake. "He wanted us to see different places, experience things and learn," Lee said.
It would be no coincidence that several of his former players, Furukawa and Dennis Chai among them, also became professors.
"He stressed academics and most of his players graduated," Chai said. "He was a coach and a teacher who had an impact on a lot of people."
And a basketball program.