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Festival of hula and hoops

With Ah Chew Goo leading the fast break to fun, only the basketball suffers in Hawaii's sunny Rainbow Classic

If a man can tear himself away from the coconut and palm atmosphere, the rolling sands, the dazzling surf, the grass skirts, the grass shacks, beverages accurately described as Polynesian paralysis and those odysseys to out island hideaways; if, in short, he can keep from blowing his sun-drenched mind while those around him are scorching theirs, he can play basketball in Hawaii. Well, maybe he can.

These are just some of the distractions college coaches contend with each December when they bring their exuberant troops into Honolulu for that lei-and luau-laden fun king of Christmas tournaments, the Rainbow Classic.

That the Classic is as much a festival of hula as it is of hoops was abundantly evident last week when all of the favorites—teams like LSU, St. John's, Drake and Iowa—basked around having fun and letting their noses peel, while lightly regarded Yale from somewhere off in the land of snow showed them how to adapt to the surroundings. The Elis beat their heads with ivy branches and walked off with the tournament championship.

The victory had little meaning unless it was to demonstrate to a world generally unaware that Yale even has a basketball team that Yale also has one of the most talented little guards extant in Jim Morgan. But, Yale aside, events last week only confirmed the suspicion that Red Rocha, the coach of the University of Hawaii and founding father of the Rainbow Classic, has a gem of an event whose only drawback seems to be that, due to its location, the results never appear in the nation's press until it is almost time for Easter.

Rocha, the old Syracuse Nat who used to lead the NBA in lobby sitting, started the Rainbow Classic in 1964, one year after he returned to coach in his native Hawaii. He had grown up in Hilo and had played a year at the university before the Japanese red-shirted him in December 1941. Later Rocha was a star for three seasons at Oregon State but, during his tenure there and in the pros, the joke was that he never would buy an overcoat, figuring someday to return home.

His first tournament, featuring two service teams that played with the grace and finesse of machete instructors, was to be called the Pineapple Classic—until the pineapple people refused to finance it. To save money, visiting teams were housed in naval barracks at Pearl Harbor, and losing teams had to play there in an old airplane hangar because rental rates at the Honolulu International Center were on a day-night basis.

Chaos was moving along nicely enough in the inaugural game when, with three seconds left and Utah State leading a military outfit by two points, Aggie Steve Roth took a rebound and was attacked by three marines. Roth staggered up, blood spouting from his mouth, and was promptly called for traveling—after which the marines tied the game and won in overtime. Infuriated, State Coach LaDell Andersen asked the referee for verification of the call and was obliged when a fat Hawaiian came up from behind, tapped him on the shoulder and nailed him with a punch that dropped Andersen cold in the center circle. The mystery man turned out to be Jimmy Iona, commissioner of officials in the islands and father-in-law of the referee. Andersen did not press charges.

Though visitors consistently are appalled at the local refereeing—especially the rapidity of three-second calls (one man explained this was due to the difference in time zones)—the tournament has been running more smoothly and making money every year since. Mainland teams are now given a guarantee: they stay in splendid Waikiki hotels, are furnished transportation and sightseeing trips and generally are handled with the finest of care (including a sumptuous Christmas banquet) by the hospitality chairman, that old ball-handling wizard of the islands, Ah Chew Goo.

The long trip still can be a losing proposition, but most teams schedule other games on the West Coast to cut their losses. And a trip to Hawaii is always good to throw into a recruiting speech. "We don't invite anybody to this tournament," says Rocha. "It's a matter of refusing requests."

The field has also shown vast improvement. Two years ago the Rainbow Classic had two of the NCAA semi-finalists (Houston and Ohio State) and last year, one finalist (Purdue). This season Rocha brought in Pete Maravich, Mr. Showtime himself, whose alluring talents were responsible for three sellout nights. The Pistol put on one of his extravaganzas in the semifinals when he scored 40 points in the second half (for a total of 53) to turn the game around and enable his LSU team to defeat St. John's. But the next evening, the Tigers took Yale for granted and suffered for it, as Morgan outscored Maravich 35-34 and Yale won 97-94.

After this the tournament queen, Christine Fujie, kissed everybody, Ah Chew Goo passed out pineapples to everybody and Red Rocha counted his blessings. The Rainbow Classic had been run beautifully. Nobody got punched out either.