Forty years ago this month, No. 1 UCLA and No. 2 Houston Lew Alcindor and Elvin Hayes, John Wooden and Guy V. Lewis played a game that would impact college basketball to this day.
By John Akers
January 7, 2008
Because of a broadcast of a UCLA-Houston game that looked and felt like it was being played on the moon some 40 years ago, ESPN gave you Villanova-DePaul on the first weekend of January.
You also can catch Youngstown State-UW-Milwaukee on ESPN's FullCourt network during the night of the BCS football championship game and North Carolina-Florida State at Fox Sports on Super Bowl Sunday and more than a hundred other nationally televised college basketball games in-between.
Thank or blame UCLA-Houston for that, as well.
The Game of the Century of Jan. 20, 1968, remains relevant nearly a decade into the next millennium because of the enduring lore of No. 1 vs. No. 2, Big Lew and the Big E, the rolled-up program and the polka-dotted towel, but most of all, because it marked college basketball's maiden voyages into both a domed stadium and prime-time national television.
The Bird-Magic matchup in the NCAA's 1979 championship game between Michigan State and Indiana State remains the most highly rated NCAA championship game of all time and gets most of the credit (or blame) for saturating your television sets with games between schools of every level. But in the way that Kevin Garnett thanked George Mikan for opening basketball's doors to the big man, the masses ought to be thanking UCLA-Houston for bringing college basketball to them.
"If there wasn't a UCLA-Houston," said Chicago White Sox vice chairman Eddie Einhorn, who televised the game, "there wouldn't be a Michigan State-Indiana State, because NBC wouldn't have carried it."
Because of UCLA-Houston, the Astrodome became home to the 1971 Final Four and domes have been a Final Four fixture since1997.
If there were never a UCLA-Houston inside the dome, we might even still be discovering depth perception's affect on a shooter, but more on that later.
"It was the single most important college-basketball game ever," says Dick Enberg, the distinguished announcer who called the contest.
"Indiana State-Michigan State, which I happened to do as well, has gotten a lot of publicity for being the game. But the '68 UCLA-Houston game was really the rocket launch for college basketball. That put it into the outer atmosphere. Then, 11 years later, Michigan State-Indiana State got it into that area where they have space stations."
Forty years later, there's a website devoted to the game and a 50-cent program from that game is selling for $249.50 on ebay.
The rocket-launcher was more than Houston coach Guy V. Lewis' idea. It became his conviction soon after his Cougars lost 73-58 to the Bruins in the previous NCAA Tournament semifinals in Louisville's Freedom Hall. UCLA would be surrounding its legendary player Lew Alcindor with four other returning starters, plus a pair of starters from the Bruins' 1964-65 championship team, Edgar Lacey and Mike Lynn, who had missed the previous season because of injuries. Houston returned its first-team All-American, Elvin Hayes, and star guard, Don Chaney, and had picked up an outstanding point guard, George Reynolds, from the junior colleges.
The Cougars didn't even have a true home arena, typically playing before crowds of about 5,000 at a high school arena, the Delmar Field House, and their largest audience they had drawn up to that date was 7,605 at Illinois. Yet, Lewis was convinced that UCLA-Houston was worthy of the cavernous Astrodome and the record paid crowd of 52,693 that it would draw.
Today, Lewis is recovering from two strokes but still regularly walks the two blocks from his home to Hofheinz Pavilion for practices and games and can recall with alacrity the difficulties he faced in convincing others of his dream. Before he had ever sold a ticket, Lewis' brainchild had to convince a doubting athletic director, Astrodome officials and UCLA.
The Houston A.D., Harry Fouke, was particularly skeptical, so Lewis offered to pay both schools $10,000 (which, factoring inflation, figures to about $60,000 in today's economy) from his own pocket. "I couldn't have paid him 10 cents," Lewis says. "But that sold him, anyway."
Lewis' next hurdle was Judge Roy Hofheinz, the protective impresario of the three-year-old Astrodome. Hofheinz invited Lewis to his garish Astrodome suite to discuss the idea, but he, too, was skeptical, believing basketball players would look like ants to fans inside such a massive venue.
Lewis asked Hofheinz if fans had trouble watching baseball inside the Astrodome. Of course not, Hofheinz said. Baseball's Astros were a very popular tenant. Lewis countered that his players were taller than the Astros. And, he added, a basketball is a lot bigger than a baseball.
"That got him," Lewis says.
Next, UCLA had to be convinced. Lewis asked Fouke to take over from there, knowing that UCLA coach John Wooden, a traditionalist, would resist. Wooden also had a practical consideration. The proposed date, strategically aimed to fill a void in Texas following the college-football bowl season, would interrupt the Bruins' conference season at a time when only conference champions advanced to the NCAA Tournament. Fouke instead approached UCLA athletic director J.D. Morgan, who saw the value in the game and convinced Wooden that it would be both good for basketball and profitable for the athletic program.
"I don't think dad ever nationally got the credit he was due," says Vern Lewis, a guard on that team. "For someone to have thought that up was sheer genius. It was the birth of NCAA basketball in the sense of national attention."
In 1968, games were televised regionally on weekend afternoons. NBC's Game of the Week was still eight years away, and ESPN was 11 years from its creation. Billy Packer was a 27-year-old assistant coach at Wake Forest, and a 28-year-old Dick Vitale was leading East Rutherford (N.J.) High to state titles. And a 33-year-old Enberg, who was calling UCLA games, got the biggest break of his career when Morgan negotiated him into the deal with Houston. About 12 million viewers tuned in to hear Enberg and Bob Pettit announce the first regular-season game ever telecast nationally, to 150 stations in 49 states.
"Of all the things I've done in my 50-plus," Enberg says, "it's probably the most significant or at least historically important game I've had the privilege to call.
"It was also the first time I was on national television," he says, setting up the punchline: "So I guess my career has gone downhill since."
Einhorn was 32 and in his third year as the founder of TVS Sports, which was mining an untapped college-basketball market. He bid $27,500 for the broadcast rights to the game, later learning that his competitor the Sports Network, which became the Hughes Sports Network had pulled its bid. To this day, he's unsure how much money he made on the game. But Einhorn forever has his memories and his place in history. His entertaining book, "How March Became Madness," chronicles the process of putting on that game through interviews with many of the principals and includes a CD with about the final 25 minutes of that broadcast, the only known footage of the contest that remains.
"There'll never," Einhorn says, "be another UCLA-Houston game."
Lewis was just hoping the game would draw about 35,000. Ted Nance, the school's sports-information director, came up with "The Game of the Century" and ran ads in their football game programs, but the buzz spread primarily by word of mouth. Houston business manager Ned Thompson selling front-row seats for $5, upper tier for $2 sensed that they had something huge on their hands. Media requests included publications such as Newsweek and the Christian Science Monitor and grew to about three times the previous Final Four's pass list to a total of 175.
Lewis, who had no secretary and shared his office with assistant coach Harvey Pate, said he was delivering tickets up to an hour and a half before the 8 p.m. game.
"That phone rang and rang and rang and rang and rang," Lewis says. "And when I'd come home, my wife would have a list (of ticket requests), too."
Suddenly, an athletic department of eight staff members had a world-class event to put on. And no one was quite sure how to do something that had never been done before.
The court was imported from the LA Sports Coliseum, where the Final Four would be held later that year, and placed smack in the middle of the cavernous dome where normally a baseball infield would be, leaving about 100 feet of bare dirt between the hardwood and the seats. Eighteen-inch trenches were dug around the court, so that the media and scorer's tables didn't interfere with sightlines. Jay and the Techniques which had the recent hit "Apples, Peaches, Pumpkin Pie" was booked for one of college basketball's first big halftime shows. And the rats that occasionally wandered about the premises were encouraged to take that day off.
The teams also did their part, remaining unbeaten and ranked 1 and 2 leading up to the game. After a two-point scare in their opener at Purdue, the Bruins won their next 11 by an average of 34.0 points and carried a 47-game win streak, 13 short of an NCAA record set by Bill Russell's San Francisco Dons. The Cougars also had a two-point scare, in a 47-45 slowdown against North Texas, but they had dominated the rest in Bruins-like fashion.
No additional hype or drama was necessary, yet it arrived without warning when Alcindor's cornea was scratched eight days before the game, against California. The 7-foot-2 giant missed the Bruins' next two games while recuperating four days in a darkened room at UCLA's Jules Stein Clinic, and while he was able to play, half of the game's marquee was in question. Imagine a Beatles-Stones twinbill, but with rumors that Mick Jagger might not show.
At the shoot-arounds the day before that game, players discovered a new opponent depth perception. What is common knowledge today and is eased by placing the court in one corner of the dome and raising curtains in the other was a strange phenomenon then to players used to much tighter confines. Shots mysteriously clanked and fell short from the least-expected sources. UCLA's Lucius Allen said that when he noticed that Lynn Shackelford, a 65-percent shooter, having the same problems as everyone else, he knew there was a problem.
"I started looking at the spots on the floor," Allen recalls. "I'd shot so many thousands of shots from each spot, my body just automatically knew how hard to shoot the basketball. Instead of focusing on the rim, I focused on my footwork and form.
"I still didn't shoot that well (10 for 24 in a 25-point, eight-rebound and five-assist effort), but it worked a whole lot better than what was happening the day before in practice."
The players didn't learn until game day that temporary lighting would also cause blind spots and that their hearing would be affected, as well.
"I couldn't hear the ball hit the floor," says Houston's Don Chaney, "and naturally, you couldn't hear the signals being called in from the bench. It echoed. You just could not hear."
Odd, too, the crowd there tended to react to the action a few counts slower than normal.
"The fans were so far away," adds UCLA's Ken Heitz, "the sound of the crowd reaction didn't arrive at the court until the play was long over."
Add to that the sight of a court surrounded by open space a dirt floor lacking only craters and it's easy to believe UCLA's Lynn when he says, "It was like playing basketball on the moon." (Though no one could yet be certain of that, since it would be another year before nearby NASA would navigate Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin to man's first landing there.) The scene shown to that nationally televised audience lacked any crowd at all. Behind a single row of players and coaches was just a big slab of dirt and yet, there was this constant roar from a crowd nowhere to be found on the TV screen.
The Houston players could hear the rumble from their locker room located on the Astrodome's mezzanine level. After walking down two ramps to where they would enter the arena at the center-field gate, the Lewises, Guy and son Vern, took very different paths to the court.
"A good friend of mine, Billy Bain, and I broke from center field first," Vern says. "I know we started out on a pretty good run, because with that crowd, we must have gotten really excited, because I remember he and I hitting that court and grabbing a ball and getting into the warmup drill and looking back. And the whole team was about 75 yards behind us. What do we do now?"
Guy Lewis also was en route to the court with a friend, but he was in no such hurry. "Take your time," Lewis recalls saying. "Let's enjoy this."
The game was played without controversy. Wooden, with his rolled-up program, and Lewis, with his red-and-white polka-dotted towel, mostly sat on the chairs in their trenches, resting their feet on the court as if it were an ottoman.
"We had two coaches that didn't bother us," says Bobby Scott, one of the game's two officials. "They spent all their time coaching their teams instead of coaching the referees. That made it easy for us to work. Nobody came to see us, and we realized that."
UCLA's plan was to have the 6-4 Lacey, the Bruins' best athlete, deny the passing lanes to the 6-9 Hayes, with Alcindor laying back as a goalie. Lacey, the only Bruin starter who hadn't faced Hayes in the '67 NCAA semifinals, apparently didn't get the message, and by halftime, Hayes had lit up UCLA for 29 points and the Cougars led, 46-43.
Wooden, upset, benched Lacey after 13 minutes and left him there because of his body language on the bench. Lynn and Jim Nielsen also took their turns with Hayes, who finished with 39 points.
Meanwhile, Alcindor made fewer than 50 percent of his shots for the first time in his career, going for 4 for 18. Hayes blocked three of his shots, including the sky hook. Though it seems obvious that Alcindor was affected by the eye injury, the Cougars note that he could see clearly enough to hit 7 of 8 free throws. The Bruins' ultimate argument would come two months later, in the NCAA Tournament semifinals, but on Jan. 20, 1968, an Alcindor with double vision was better than no Alcindor at all. He was one of four Bruins to play the entire 40 minutes.
The score was tied at 69 with 57 seconds remaining, the Bruins assuming that they'd win the way that they had 47 games before. Hayes, fouled with 28 seconds left, hit his 38th and 39th points. With 12 seconds left, Allen threw a pass to Shackelford that Warren knocked out of bounds.
"It was for a shot in the corner that (Shackelford) normally makes," Allen says. "And we were confident he'd make that shot, because we didn't know losing at that point. Unfortunately, (Warren) cut through, and I didn't see him. John Wooden has a cardinal rule, if you have two players in the same area, you don't pass it to them. I passed it in that area, and Mike tipped it out of bounds. They get the ball, and we lose."
Houston 71, UCLA 69.
Bad for UCLA. Perfect for college basketball.
"If it would have been UCLA by 25," Enberg says, "I don't know if it would have been impactful at all."
The game that began with so many firsts, Allen says, also "had many aftermaths," particularly on the UCLA side.
The Bruins lost not only the Game of the Century, but their No. 1 ranking and their 47-game winning streak. They also lost Lacey, who quit the team the following that game, and, briefly, their faith in Wooden, who confirmed in a past interview with Basketball Times that the loss wasn't the most memorable of his storied career.
"People think it might be the Astrodome or when we lost to Notre Dame to break the 88-game winning streak," Wooden said. "Those? No. They were non-conference games. The Astrodome, that was more of a spectacle."
Back then, the Bruins didn't understand.
"I'd never seen coach Wooden in a situation where we had lost," Allen says. "There was all this drama in the locker room following that game, and John Wooden was acting like we hadn't lost anything. We were very upset with him. We had a very different feeling for the coach (afterward)."
Many of their feelings had been building, Allen says. These were the '60s, and many of them wanted to use their fame and popularity to make political statements regarding the Vietnam War, Black Power, the hippie movement. Wooden wouldn't allow it.
"And I thank him to this day, because that would have just gotten us into trouble," Allen says. "He protected (Alcindor), and he protected us. I understand now, but I didn't understand then."
Lacey severed his ties with the team in a tough meeting with Wooden two days after the game. The Bruins had not lost in two years, and they weren't used to being benched for poor play or being singled out in newspapers.
In his book They Call Me Coach, Wooden explains his side of Lacey's departure: "Early in the second half, I told (assistant coach) Jerry Norman to to get Edgar ready. Look at him, coach,' said Jerry. I surveyed the bench and saw Edgar at the far end, head down, not watching the game, really hanging, so I didn't put him in. Afterwards, I was asked by reporters why I had not played Edgar in the second half. Edgar didn't give me the impression,' I told the press, that he wanted to play. He told me he could not handle Hayes, and that was the reason.'
"That was in the papers, and Edgar was upset. But he had taken it wrong, somehow, because anyone who has ever played for me knows that I demand attention to the game from those on the bench. They must be ready when they are called. Edgar felt my remark to the press was uncalled for and that it was a tremendous criticism of him as a player. I didn't think so then, and don't now. Convinced otherwise, Edgar told me he was going to leave the team. I told him I could understand his unhappiness, but that in my opinion, he would be making a great mistake to quit. Nevertheless, he did."
Lacey went on to play one season in the ABA, stained by the stigma of quitting and lacking the confidence that he had at UCLA. Allen says Lacey still has no ties to UCLA or Wooden, whom Lacey believes lost the game in trying to make his point.
"That's a part of his life that no longer exists," Allen says. "It's too, too bad. They're both great people."
If one door closed, another was opened wide for Hayes.
"I went from a player who was locally known in the state of Texas," Hayes says, "to someone who all of a sudden was nationally and worldly known and the No. 1 pick in the draft."
The Bruins never forgot what happened that day at the Astrodome nor some things said by Hayes or the Cougars afterward. Neither did the public, but for different reasons. Hayes scored 123 points and grabbed 76 rebounds in Houston's first three NCAA Tournament games, and leading into a semifinal rematch with UCLA, Sports Illustrated's Joe Jares wrote: "Without leg irons or an anchor, UCLA probably is not going to be able to hold down Elvin Hayes." Rather, with a healthy Alcindor recording 19 points and 18 rebounds and a diamond-and-one defense limiting Hayes to 10 and five, the Bruins crushed the Cougars by 32 and went on to beat North Carolina for their fourth of 11 titles.
Because of their rivalry, feelings were strained between the two stars as they were between many UCLA and Houston players long after Alcindor's name was changed to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. "We just never really got along, from that game on," Hayes says, "all the years we played professional ball."
The two finally broke the ice, Hayes says, during the 1993 Final Four in New Orleans. Allen and Hayes had a life-changing experience during a Nike event in Hawaii, when Elvin's son, Elvin Jr., saved Allen's young son, Kahlil, from drowning in a swimming pool.
"We've been best friends ever since," Allen says.
The Cougars played a couple more games in the Astrodome after '68, but with much more modest success, drawing 15,038 against Notre Dame in 1969 and 7,140 against local Rice in 1972. But the year after the UCLA-Houston game, the Dome hosted an NBA doubleheader in 1969 that included Hayes' San Diego Rockets and was the site of the first NBA-ABA All-Star Game in 1971. Those games, also made possible by UCLA-Houston, played a part in the NBA's entry into Texas, with the Rockets' move and Hayes' return to Houston and eventually into Dallas and San Antonio. Michigan State-Kentucky drew a record crowd of 78,129 in 2003 to Detroit's Ford Field, which in 2009 will join a Final Four rotation that includes regulars Indianapolis, San Antonio and the pre-Katrina New Orleans, plus St. Louis, Atlanta and a return to Houston at Reliant Stadium in 2011.
After 1968, Einhorn began televising Saturday doubleheaders and national games on Sundays, until NBC reached a cooperative agreement with his company a few years later. NBC surrendered college basketball to CBS in 1982, and ESPN emerged in 1979 to dominate a cable landscape now also peppered with Fox and CSTV.
There were a couple of feelers about putting together a commemorative UCLA-Houston game this season that never got wings. Naturally, there's more interest on the side of Houston, which would benefit from a visit by the powerhouse Bruins and a celebration of perhaps the program's greatest victory. Houston coach Tom Penders has said he never heard back after leaving a message for UCLA coach Ben Howland. Einhorn said he inquired, too, and was told the greatest obstacle was the difference in the schools' TV network affiliations.
So there'll be no UCLA-Houston re-union on Jan. 20, 2008. Instead, on the 19th, CBS will show USC-UCLA and an O.J. Mayo-Kevin Love matchup that might be the Hayes-Alcindor of our day. ABC will be showing Maryland-North Carolina, and ESPN will serve its usual feast of games. A couple of months later, the Final Four will be played before 50,000-some fans inside San Antonio's Alamodome.
And that is why UCLA-Houston remains the game of both the 20th and 21st centuries.
This in-depth article is featured in Basketball Times' January, 2008 edition