After he had scored 22 points in an 83-74 win over SMU on Jan. 12, Hawaii senior guard, Predrag Savovic, was stymied by a question: If the Rainbows were somehow to outdo the accomplishments of Hawaii's 1971-72 team—which finished 24-3 and was the school's first to make the NCAA tournament—what should this year's team be called? "I don't know," he said. "The United Nations?"
That's an appropriate moniker for a team that is off to the best start (15-3 overall and a league-leading 6-1 in the Western Athletic Conference) in coach Riley Wallace's 15-year tenure. Eight of the 10 scholarship players hail from foreign lands ( Canada, Israel, Lithuania, Nigeria, South Africa and Yugoslavia), and they speak a dozen languages among them. Though this Rainbow Coalition is a broadcaster's nightmare—only six of the roster's 14 players don't have pronunciation guides in the team's media booklet—it's a dream for old-school coach Wallace. "These kids are like the players were when I was growing up in the Midwest in the 1950s," he says. "They're respectful, coachable and polite. They say, 'Yes, sir,' and 'No, sir.' "
They are as old-fashioned in their patient execution of Wallace's motion offense and aggressive man-to-man defense, which had held opponents to just 59.7 points a game, ninth best in the nation. "It takes a great coach to get players from different parts of the world to buy into one plan and play together," says sophomore swingman Carl English (14.2 points a game), who grew up playing in the Newfoundland village of Patrick's Cove (pop. 32).
"Everyone is from a different place, but we are all far from home, so that may be why we've bonded so well," adds 6'10" sophomore center Haim Shimonovich, of Rishon LeZiyyon, Israel, who was the Rainbows' leading rebounder, with 6.8 a game. "The team is our family; it's all any of us have over here."
The Rainbows have one native Hawaiian, 5'4" junior walk-on Lance Takaki of Honolulu, and he remains a crowd favorite, but the star is the 6'6", 225-pound Savovic, a 25-year-old from Herceg Novi, Yugoslavia, who led Hawaii in scoring with 18.6 points a game. Savovic came to the U.S. in 1997 to play for Alabama-Birmingham. However, at the end of a frustrating freshman season in which he was hampered by a severe right ankle sprain, he transferred. He considered Ohio State, where his brother Boban is now a senior guard, but he was sold on Hawaii, where the fragrant air reminded him of his hometown on the Adriatic coast. "I love the people here, and the coaching staff is great," says Savovic, who chats and shakes hands with fans after—and sometimes during—games.
Although Savovic, a finance and economics major who has a 3.25 average and who will graduate in May, has applied to law school at Hawaii, the NBA could cause him to delay his plans. "He is a tough, unselfish player who can make shots," says Golden State scout Ron Meikle. "That's a big-time skill the NBA can use."
Right now Savovic is more concerned with leaving his mark at Hawaii. "For Coach and everyone here, I want to have a great year," he says. "I want to pay them back for all they've done by leaving some kind of legacy."