Fabulous Five captivated state
By Dayton Morinaga
Advertiser Staff Writer
This article appeared on July 9, 2009 as part of The Advertiser's "Fabulous 50" series.
You can't get to a Fabulous 50 without the "Fabulous Five."
Football has always been thought of as the king of sports in Hawai'i, but in the early 1970s, five players united in aloha-print jerseys to stage a basketball coup that united the state.
The five starters — Al Davis, Jerome Freeman, Dwight Holiday, Bob Nash and John Penebacker — led the University of Hawai'i to a 23-5 record in the 1970-71 season, and then a 24-3 record in 1971-72.
It may be the most popular run by any sports team in Hawai'i history. It is certainly one of the most enduring and endearing.
"It's amazing that people still remember this," Davis said. "It's been what, 36, 37 years? People still want to talk about it. Some of them remember the games better than I do."
That's because Hawai'i had never seen a basketball team like them.
In 1966, Texas Western became the first team with five African-American starters to win the NCAA basketball championship. Four years later, UH unveiled the Fabulous Five — five players of African-American heritage who captured the hearts of the state with their enthralling style of play.
"No one could have known this would happen," Holiday said. "We all had our reasons for coming here. There was no plan."
Head coach Red Rocha and assistant Bruce O'Neil were the relentless recruiters who put it together.
Davis grew up in Chicago and came to UH via a junior college in Idaho. Freeman was Davis' high school teammate in Chicago, then attended a junior college in Missouri.
Holiday came from a junior college in California. Nash was an All-America junior college player in Texas. Penebacker was recruited out of a military league — which had as much talent as any college conference at that time.
"I think it was God sent myself," Davis said. "I didn't even know Hawai'i had basketball. I thought everybody surfed. Then I get out here and see these other guys, and knew we could be something."
All five turned down national powers to sign with UH. Most significant, Davis was supposed to play for Syracuse, and Nash with Kansas.
Penebacker said: "This was destiny. We didn't have any forewarning. It just all came together."
ALMOST A FAB FOUR
During training camp before the 1970-71 season, Tom Newell was named a starter ahead of Holiday. Newell was the top returning shooter from the previous season's 6-20 team.
It took Holiday all of three games to win the starting role.
"I felt like I should have been starting all along, and I almost went home at the start of that first year," he said. "But it worked itself out."
After their first five games, the 'Bows were 5-0, and the bandwagon was established.
"That's when 'Hawaii Five-0' was on (television), so everybody started saying we were 'Hawaii Five-0,' " Holiday said. "(Actor) Jack Lord wanted to get involved with the games. It just kept growing from there."
On back-to-back nights in December 1970, Hawai'i defeated Michigan and Brigham Young to win the Rainbow Classic.
"I think that's when everybody jumped on board," Nash said. "That was the first time we played big teams and we won the Rainbow. We made believers out of the doubters."
For the rest of the season, the Honolulu International Center (now named the Blaisdell Center Arena) was at or beyond its 7,500 capacity. The home games were televised statewide.
"The first six or so games weren't televised," Penebacker said. "But when we got off to that good start, every game was televised and we became like celebrities."
WINNING FUELED FANS
During the 1971-72 season, the 'Bows went undefeated (19-0) at home, and every game was played before standing-room-only crowds.
"It was something like we haven't seen before or since," said Steve Goodenow, a UH basketball season-ticket holder since the late 1960s. "We hadn't been used to a team winning like this at UH, in any sport.
"Hawai'i crowds have always been pretty strong in terms of noise levels and enthusiasm, but it's usually for big games. With the Fabulous Five, every game was that way. You would book your schedule around their games."
Dunking was not allowed then, and there was no such thing as a 3-point shot.
Still, the 1971-72 team holds the school record for offense with 91.7 points per game. All five starters averaged double-figure points in both seasons.
"We played a style that was appealing to the fans," Penebacker said. "Whether we won or lost, you were entertained."
Davis added: "I have to give Coach Red a lot of respect because once he saw what we could do, he didn't mess with it. We had two guards who could control the tempo of the game, and so we felt like we could score against anybody. We had maybe three or four plays, and the rest of the time, it was run as fast as you can."
Nash averaged 14.4 rebounds per game as a senior, and still holds many of the program's rebounding records.
"I don't think points or rebounds were ever an issue," he said. "We all did what we had to do to win the game. I think we realized that we were better as a team than we were as individuals."
KNOWING THEIR ROLES
Freeman was the free-wheeling point guard whose behind-the-back moves were ahead of their time, and he emerged as the team captain.
"If somebody was hot, give him the ball," Freeman said. "Simple."
Holiday was the silky-smooth shooting guard who Rocha once described as "the best athlete of the bunch."
Davis, at 6-foot-7, was a small forward who could do big things. He was actually the leading scorer over the course of the two seasons.
The 6-8 Nash was the tallest player on the team and the enforcer near the basket.
Penebacker, at 6-2, was the team's starting center. He had a 41-inch vertical leap, and said he felt more comfortable in the post than on the perimeter.
"We played to our strengths," Penebacker said. "Everybody had their role."
What they had in common was a distaste for losing.
After a controversial road loss at Westmont (Calif.) in 1972, Nash literally ran the referees out of the gym. His teammates then chased after Nash.
"By the time I get outside, (Nash) has one referee pinned up against the fence," Penebacker said. "So I get in between them, and try to pull (Nash) off. Then I look out of the corner of my eye and see two highway patrol officers with their weapons drawn on us. I told (Nash) we need to leave now."
STATE AT STANDSTILL
By the end of the 1971-72 regular season, the 'Bows were 24-2 and ranked No. 12 in the nation. They also received the school's first invitation to the NCAA Tournament (they went to the NIT the year before).
"It was kind of like we were rock stars," Davis said.
But the era ended with a 91-64 loss to Weber State in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.
"I remember that day because it was such a devastating loss for everybody — the state basically shut down for that game," Goodenow said. "Those guys had become invincible in a lot of our minds."
The game was played in Pocatello, Idaho, and was the team's first experience in altitude. What's more, the winner of that game was scheduled to face No. 1-ranked UCLA.
"We didn't plan properly," Penebacker said. "We didn't get acclimated. No excuses, but we just weren't prepared. And second, I think we were so looking forward to playing UCLA and Bill Walton."
Freeman added: "That's the one game if we could play again ... I think if we play them 10 times, we win eight."
Still, the team returned to a heroes' welcome in Honolulu that included a parade attended by tens of thousands of fans.
'WE'RE STILL A TEAM'
More than 37 years after that parade, the feelings are still mutual. All five players reside on O'ahu and are successful — and still recognized — members of the community.
"We all became adults here, and were part of something special," Nash said. "We all came from families elsewhere, but this felt more like home than any other place. That's why we're still here."
The only thing about the continued notoriety that bothers them is the exclusion of their teammates.
"They called us the Fabulous Five, but there were really 15 of us," Davis said.
Today, they call one another frequently, and get together several times during basketball season — to support the current UH team, now coached by Nash.
"We're still a team," Penebacker said.
In 1982, the Fabulous Five was part of the first class of inductees into the UH Sports Circle of Honor. They wouldn't have wanted it any other way, even though all five have the credentials to be inducted as individuals.
"Here in Hawai'i, what do you call it, 'ohana?" Davis said. "That's what we are, a family. No individual is greater than the group. I think the fans recognized that, and this state adopted us as their own."