'Fab Five' UH coach Red Rocha
Ephraim J. "Red" Rocha liked to say he was "the tallest kid in Hawai'i" yet still "couldn't make anybody's (high school) basketball team."
It was a humble man's frequent attempt at doing the impossible: depreciating a remarkable career that gave the state its first homegrown NBA player, its greatest basketball thrills and its most celebrated team, the University of Hawai'i's "Fabulous Five."
Rocha, who put UH basketball on the map in the early 1970s, died yesterday in Corvallis, Ore., after a three-year battle with cancer, family members said. He was 86.
"It is a sad day for Hawai'i; a sad day for basketball," said another former UH coach, Riley Wallace.
A little more than a decade after statehood, Rocha gave UH and the state its first taste of major college success with a basketball team largely powered by junior college transfers that went 47-8 over two seasons (1970-71 and 1971-72).
"We were like a family," Dwight Holiday, one of the mainstays, recalled, "and Red was like our father. They (Red and wife Ginger) were like our parents."
Current UH coach Bob Nash, a Connecticut native, said he came to UH in large part because of Rocha. "He taught me a lot about life, how to be a man," Nash said. "Red was my guy. He did a lot for me. His legacy lives through me.
"I'm in a position now where I can mentor young guys and hopefully lead them to better lives as they go forward. He lived a great life. He enjoyed life and I'm touched that he saw things in me that he wanted to be associated with. I'm forever thankful that he came into my life."
The team's march to the National Invitation Tournament at Madison Square Garden in 1971 captured the imagination of the state and brought the first sellouts to the 7,495-seat Honolulu International Center, as the Blaisdell was then known. In 1972, despite having its home games televised live statewide, UH still sold out every game en route to an 11-week stay in The Associated Press Top 20 and a berth in the then-24-team NCAA Tournament.
UH not only won, it did so with a fast-paced flourish in bright aloha-print shorts that made the team a crowd favorite in its New York City appearance.
Back home, thousands flooded Downtown to celebrate the team's success and life in Honolulu came close to a standstill when post-season appearances aired.
"Red had a lot of basketball knowledge but he knew enough to give us a system and let us play and grow within that structure," said Holiday, who joined with Al Davis, Jerome Freeman, Nash and John Penebacker to make up the core of the legendary "Fab Five."
"More than anything, it was the way he handled people," Nash said. "He let you be who you are. You had to stay within his system, but you could be your own person in that system. He never micromanaged. He let us all use our talent and taught us values at the same time."
Rocha always recalled those "as my special years," and Cheryl Narver, a daughter, said that to his final days he particularly prized a watercolor portrait of him in the tapa-print coat of the times.
Growing up in Hilo, Rocha used to say he was 5 feet 7 as a high school sophomore and 6 feet 5 as a senior. "But I was exceedingly slow and clumsy," he said. "In baseball, when I hit a single to right field I was lucky to beat out a hit."
He transferred from St. Mary's School to Hilo High after the ninth grade but was unable to make the Vikings' roster. It was, contemporaries recalled, a combination of his "awkwardness" and that Hilo was a Territorial power composed of quick, agile players.
Rocha, who was growing into an eventual 6-9 frame, went to UH for a year until the Rainbows canceled their program in the war years (1942-45). But his play in the local Senior League ó "he became a very good defender," recalled ex-UH coach Ah Chew Goo ó attracted interest from Oregon State. Rocha initially received a partial scholarship to OSU, where he washed dishes at a fraternity house to make ends meet.
Rocha became a three-time all-Pacific Coast Athletic Conference selection for the Beavers and was the first player taken in the 1947 NBA draft. He scored 6,362 points in an NBA career that had stops in St. Louis, Baltimore, Syracuse and Fort Wayne.
Rocha went on to coach in the NBA, where he was named Coach of the Year by the Sporting News in 1957-58 with the Detroit Pistons, and in the American Basketball League with the Hawaii Chiefs before returning to UH as coach in 1963-64. He finished with a 112-136 record in 10 seasons at UH.
Rocha, along with Chuck Leahey, began the Rainbow Classic and teamed with promoter Ralph Yempuku to run the Aloha Classic, which for 20 years was a leading college all-star game.
Rocha is survived by his daughters, Kay Mosher, Cheryl Narver and Terry Bannon; nine grandchildren, 14 great-grandchildren and seven great-great-grand-children. He is also survived by Molly Bloomfield, who has been his partner the past five years. Rocha's wife, Ginger, passed away in 2004, just one week from what would have been their 58th wedding anniversary, according to Narver.
Services are Feb. 20 at St. Mary's Catholic Church in Corvallis, with a celebration of life to follow at The Club House at Adair Village.