The Daily Mirror

Los Angeles history

« Previous Post | The Daily Mirror Home | Next Post »

Game of the Century

January 19, 2008 |  6:59 pm
By Robyn Norwood, Los Angeles Times Staff Writer
January 20, 1998

"The Game of the Century," it was called.

An audacious claim, considering there were still 32 years of basketball to play.

The UCLA-Houston clash in the Houston Astrodome on Jan. 20, 1968--30 years ago tonight--wasn't the best game ever played, but it was one that changed college basketball.

It was spectacular--No. 1 UCLA against No. 2 Houston, Lew Alcindor against Elvin Hayes, a battle of two unbeaten teams with UCLA's 47-game winning streak on the line.

But it was also, to use John Wooden's word, "a spectacle"--a game staged in front of a then-record crowd of 52,693 on a court smack-dab in the middle of the vast dirt floor of the Astrodome, itself a marvel of its time, and shown live on national TV under glaring temporary lights.

1968_0120_game_pix01 "It was a terrible place to play, in reality," Wooden said. "The court was out in the middle, the seats were way back--and of course the dressing rooms seemed a quarter-mile away."

The lights were so bright, Sports Illustrated wrote that the Astrodome "very nearly became the first place in the world where a player lost a rebound in the lights."

"I didn't feel as though the players could shoot well," Wooden said. "But of course, Hayes shot very, very well. He had a tremendous game."

Hayes scored 39 points--29 in the first half--as he led Houston to a 71-69 upset in what Wooden still calls "one of the great individual performances in a game I ever saw."

As for Alcindor, now Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, it was uncertain until the day before the game if he would even play because of an eye injury that had hospitalized him the previous week. But the anticipation was so intense that when he arrived in Houston, the inch-thick patch newly removed from his eye, Alcindor found a specially made 10-foot bed in his hotel room, with "Big Lew" printed at the foot.

The next day, he endured the worst game of his UCLA career, making only four of 18 shots and finishing with 15 points.

"The game wasn't really well-played, other than by Elvin," Abdul-Jabbar recalled on its 20th anniversary.

Dick Enberg, then a UCLA broadcaster whose network career was launched partly by that game, still remembers the frenzy of the Houston fans storming the court from their seats more than 100 feet away, clamoring past the press and officials positioned in 18-inch deep trenches dug at its edges.

"When Houston won, it was like the return to the Alamo," Enberg said. "People were leaping over us in the foxholes. It was just this thundering herd."

With that, the future of college basketball was transformed, in ways previously unimaginable.

The crowd of 52,000-plus--fans paid $2 to sit in the highest reaches of the Astrodome and only $5 for "front-row seats," still 100 feet from the action--was then the largest to witness a basketball game in the United States. (About 75,000 had seen the Globetrotters play in an outdoor stadium in Brazil.)

The game also was the first regular-season college basketball game to be televised nationally--syndicated by Eddie Einhorn on TVS for 120 stations in 49 states--and it drew tremendous ratings, proving that there was an appetite for college basketball, and setting the stage for today's made-for-TV games.

"There were so many firsts involved, people cannot put it out of their minds," said Don Chaney, the former Clipper coach who is now an assistant with the Knicks and was a senior guard on that Houston team. "People that I know were too young to be there are always telling me, 'I was at that game.' "

Could Judge Roy Hofheinz--the major domo of the dome, as Sports Illustrated called him--have imagined that 30 years later basketball in a dome would not only no longer seem absurd, but that the Final Four would be destined in rapid succession for the Alamodome, the ThunderDome, the RCA Dome, the Metrodome and the Georgia Dome?

Or that CBS would be in the middle of an eight-year, $1.725-billion contract to televise the NCAA tournament?

"You could credit some of the national success of college basketball to the game being on TV," Enberg said. "Now, you can check the TV Guide and see 20 games a week."

That part of the legacy isn't something Wooden always embraces.

1968_0120_game_pix02"The television people won't like hearing me say it, but I said it before so I'll say it again: I think television is one of the worst things that ever happened to intercollegiate basketball," he said. "It's made showmen out of the players and that hurts team play. And it means that there are games played every day of the week at any time of day.

"There's always the other side, though, and that's that it provides income that has been the savior of many women's sports and the non-income producing sports."

Money was the issue in 1968 as well, when the UCLA athletic director at the time, J.D. Morgan, approached Wooden about playing Houston in the Astrodome. Wooden thought the hullabaloo about the Alcindor-Hayes matchup would detract from team play and was reluctant. But when Morgan told him the schools stood to make more than $80,000 for the game, Wooden knew it had to be played.

"{Morgan} was reassuring," Wooden said. "He said in addition to the money, that he thought it would be very good for basketball and would give basketball exposure throughout the country. He was right."

UCLA and Houston had met the previous year in the NCAA semifinals, with UCLA winning, 73-58, on the way to the third of UCLA's 10 national championships under Wooden.

But even in defeat, Hayes was confident.

"He was pretty outspoken when we beat him in the semifinals in '67," said Lynn Shackelford, the former UCLA forward. "He said, 'We'll definitely beat them next year.' He said Kareem was overrated--even after losing, he said that."

Three games before the rematch, Alcindor suffered a scratched cornea in a game against Cal and had to miss the next two games, confined to a dark room at the Jules Stein Eye Clinic at UCLA most of the week.

"The doctors said there was no way he could play well," Wooden said. "He had vertical double-vision, the doctors said.

"I talked with him about that, and told him he didn't have to play because he wouldn't do well, and there was such tremendous attention. I think Lewis made a statement later that he probably shouldn't have played. I did give him the option.

"It sounds like I'm making excuses. I don't want to do that. They were a fine team. Without Alcindor, we weren't the same. He wasn't himself at all."

It was not just Alcindor's vision, but his conditioning, after hardly practicing for a week.

"The second half, I could tell he was real tired," Shackelford said. "We kind of had to wait on him a few times to set up the offense--kind of like his last three years in the NBA. We weren't used to that when he was 20."

Alcindor was hampered, and Hayes was at his best.

"He was on fire," said Chaney, still a good friend of Hayes, who until this season ranked as the NBA's fourth-leading scorer of all time--he since has been passed by Michael Jordan--and now owns and operates automobile dealerships in the Houston area.

"They could have put three or four guys on him, and he was not going to miss many," Chaney said. "Every shot was either in, or in and out."

As close as the final score was, UCLA never had a good shot to win in the final seconds.

Hayes, a 6-foot-9 forward, was not directly matched against the 7-2 Alcindor, as Wooden points out, but he blocked three of Alcindor's shots, and the crowd roared his nickname, "Big E."


UCLA tied the score, 69-69, on two free throws by Lucius Allen, but Hayes--only a 60% free-throw shooter--went to the line with 28 seconds left and made both. A couple of UCLA turnovers later, Houston inbounded the ball with 12 seconds left and ran out the clock.

"The city of Houston had itself a week's celebration," Chaney said. "They ran the game on TV again and again. It must have been shown five times a day for a solid week.

"From the California side, they were upset and disappointed. Kareem had a bad eye. He wasn't 100%, I'll give him that. But had he been 100%, he would not have stopped Elvin that night."

Only a couple of days later, the Bruins suffered another blow when Edgar Lacey, a starter, quit the team. Benched during the game because he wasn't playing the denial defense Wooden wanted against Hayes, Lacey was upset by Wooden's postgame comments that he didn't look as if he wanted to go back in.

"That was one of the most disappointing things, what happened with Edgar," Wooden said. "I told the press he gave me the impression he didn't want to play. I'm sorry I said that. It hurt him, and that's why he quit. I was very disappointed. Edgar was a fine boy."

1968_0323_hed

Both teams knew they would never win the NCAA title that season without meeting again. It happened in the semifinals at the L.A. Sports Arena, and this time, Wooden used a diamond-and-one defense with Shackelford on Hayes.

This time, the roles were reversed. Hayes, unable to get the ball, made three of 10 shots and finished with 10 points. Alcindor made seven of 14 and had 19 points and 18 rebounds.

The Bruins roared to a 22-point halftime lead and won, 101-69, then went on to beat North Carolina in the championship game.

1968_0323_pix

"That {semifinal game} was the best game we played in my four years," Shackelford said. "That was the closest we came to our potential."

An overlooked fact, in Chaney's eyes, was that Houston was without starting guard George Reynolds, a transfer ruled ineligible before the final game of the season because of his junior college academic record.

"Someone had done some research--I think it might have been the California side," Chaney said.

Besides that, the Cougars had gone Hollywood. Hayes and Theodis Lee appeared on "The Joey Bishop Show" days before the game, and center Ken Spain went on "The Dating Game" as the players soaked up the California scene.

"That really hurt us," Chaney said. "We were a team that was very pleased with the year we had. We got carried away and lost our focus. We learned a big lesson. I did, and I know Elvin did. We got full of ourselves."

That game, though, is not the one people remember. It certainly wasn't the semifinal of the century. The memories are in the Astrodome.

"It's interesting, after all these years in broadcasting, people say, 'What's your most memorable event?' " Enberg said. "Incredibly, that's still the most memorable game I've covered in any sport--certainly college basketball."

Comments 

Advertisement










Video