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  • Bill Chastain

TOYS AND GAMES: Guy Lewis and “The Game of the Century”

UCLA-Houston, January 20, 1968 at the Astrodome.

Though mostly forgotten, I hold this game as the most significant in college basketball history. The first nation-wide broadcast of an NCAA regular-season contest changed the landscape of college basketball, establishing the sport as a viable commodity on television.

Guy Lewis (Wikimedia Commons) Guy Lewis (Wikimedia Commons)

Guy Lewis called the shots for the Cougars that fateful night. Last week’s news that the colorful coach had died brought it all back to me.

After watching this game at age 11, I embraced basketball. So I experienced a thrill going back in time to write a story about the game for The Tampa Tribune, reliving the spectacular through the eyes of Lewis along with those of UCLA coach John Wooden and prominent players such as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Elvin Hayes, among others, who played that night. All of the interviews were conducted over the telephone. Those were the land-line days when you made a call and sat by your desk and waited for your calls to be returned. Sounds pre-historic given today’s remote workplace.

Time-travel to the wonder years, those tie-dyed days of 1968. San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury was the nation’s “hippie haven,” LBJ was president and the Vietnam war raged. Eleven days after the game, the war would intensify by virtue of the Tet offensive, but on that Saturday night, all eyes were on Texas.

Ironic, because youth in the Lone Star State worshiped the gods of football long before unfolding their first pocket knife. UCLA-Houston was different. Nearly as popular as chicken fried steak chased by a Dr Pepper.

Wooden’s mighty UCLA was No. 1 in the nation and riding a 47-game win streak. The Lew Alcindor-led group (Jabbar’s previous name) went unbeaten as freshmen (freshmen were not eligible for varsity competition), then as sophomores – along with junior point guard Mike Warren – went 30-0 en route to the 1967 national title.

Lewis’ Cougars entered the game ranked No. 2. They had won 17 consecutive games and were hungry to avenge their last loss, 73-58 to UCLA in the previous year’s NCAA semifinals.

Lew Alcindor (Wikimedia Commons) Lew Alcindor (Wikimedia Commons)

Paid attendance was 52,693–huge by basketball standards–paltry compared to the millions viewing via television.

College basketball was televised only regionally at the time except for the NCAA Tournament. TVS, run by Eddie Einhorn owned the rights to most regular-season games and outbid Hughes Sports Network for the rights by $700 with a bid of $27,000. Einhorn sold the game nationally to 150 TV stations in 49 states.

“Anytime I go anywhere, and this goes for Europe, Australia, whatever, people come up to me and they don’t ask about the Final Fours we went to, they ask about this game,” Lewis told me. “Most of them make it sound like they were there. That would make about a million people in the stands that night.”

College basketball was on the launching pad of a game that would send the sport into orbit, destined for the huge popularity it now enjoys.

“For some reason or another, television hadn’t caught on to basketball at the time,” Lewis said. “But after that game, everyone saw it as a natural for TV. I think it just made it explode.”

All because Lewis had an idea and the gumption to follow through with some Texas-tall salesmanship.

Initially, Lewis pitched his plan to Houston Athletic Director Harry Fouke.

Fouke “just laughed,” Lewis said. “Thought I was crazy because the biggest crowd we’d ever drawn at our place was 7,000. When I finally convinced him, he said, ‘We’ve got to talk to the Judge’ [Judge Roy Hofheinz, who ran the Astrodome]. Harry said, ‘I’ll get you the appointment. You sell him.’

“Judge Hofheinz wasn’t going to let anything go in [the Astrodome] that wasn’t a complete success–a financial success and a showman’s success. He didn’t want any one-night flops.”

Hofheinz was skeptical, telling Lewis it would be hard for the fans to see the ball and the players.

“Then I asked him: “Judge, we play with a ball so much bigger than a baseball,” Lewis said. “Are you telling me when they come to [Astros] games, they can’t see the ball? He agreed to do it.”

UCLA Athletic Director J.D. Morgan then was convinced and the game was scheduled. To complete the deal, it was agreed that UCLA’s announcer would do the game. A fellow by the name of Dick Enberg.

A subplot to the game’s circus atmosphere was Alcindor’s health. Eight days earlier, the Briuns gifted 7-foot-1 center, scored 44 points against California but suffered a scratched eyeball, leaving his vision hampered and causing him to miss the following two games.

Alcindor left the hospital the Thursday before the game and made the trip to Houston on Friday.

“I left it up to Lewis,” Wooden told me. “The doctors had told me that there was no way it would hurt him any more to play. He knew he couldn’t play his best, and I told him I understood if he didn’t want to play.”

Typical of his low-key manner, Abdul-Jabbar spoke in quiet, emotionless tones when recounting events leading up to and during the game.

“I was really tired of laying around in the hospital,” he said. “I just wanted to get out and see if I could contribute to our winning. Since I’d been in there until two days before the game, my conditioning was off. I think my wind, not having that where it needed to be, really affected me. That was a more telling part [than blurred vision from the eye injury]. Yes, it was frustrating. No, it’s not a great memory.”

The game was played on a court transported from the Sports Arena in Los Angeles. The 225-panel court, which weighed close to 18 tons, was loaned at no charge. But it cost Astrodome officials $10,000 to transport it round trip. The court was assembled the Wednesday before the game in the middle of the Astrodome floor with center court over second base.

“The game itself was one of the strangest I ever played in because of the setting,” said Don Chaney, who played guard for Houston. “It felt like you were in a tunnel. You were on the floor and basically you couldn’t communicate the entire game because of the noise. I couldn’t even hear the ball hit the floor. It was that deafening. And the depth perception presented a problem. Didn’t bother me that much because I wasn’t a great shooter.”

Added Abdul-Jabbar: “[The setting was] surrealistic. Playing on a court out in the middle of a baseball field. It was strange.”

Lewis felt the emotion as his Cougars hit the court, and he walked behind them with a friend.

Lewis’ friend “was walking kind of briskly,” Lewis said. “I said “Hold on, let’s just walk slow and enjoy this because we’ll never see anything like this again.’ ”

The game was tied twice in the second half, the last time when UCLA guard Lucious Allen hit two free throws with 44 seconds to play to make it 69-69.

UCLA’s Jim Nielsen then fouled Hayes – a 61 percent free-throw shooter – with 28 seconds to play.

Hayes sank both shots, giving him 39 points and the Cougars a 71-69 lead that would seal the game.

When the buzzer sounded, fans sprinted nearly 100 yards from the stands to the court to carry off Hayes and Lewis.

Ultimately, Houston lost the war. UCLA defeated them 101-69 in the NCAA semifinals en route to the national championship. But what a battle that magical night in the Astrodome.

bchastain19@gmail.com

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©2020 by Bill Chastain. Photo credits: Jill Doty Photography