55 years ago, Houston offered the ogre UCLA in the “Game Of The Century”
It’s not the NBA it’s the NCAA, and it’s just a regular season game. However, all of America was focused on the Astrodome where a field was placed in the middle of the baseball stadium.
On the floor, UCLA’s great Lew Alcindor (who would become Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) and coach John Wooden, facing Houston’s Elvin Hayes, coached by Guy Lewis. Not scheduled on the calendar, it was at the request of the Cougars that the meeting took place, and the Bruins landed in Texas with a streak of 47 straight victories and three titles in four years.
They are simply the best college team in history, and this Houston team has faced them before. It was 1967, in the semifinals of the NCAA tournament, and UCLA won 73-58 with 19 points and 20 rebounds from Lew Alcindor. Since then, the Cougars are undefeated (16 wins – 0 losses), and this meeting is against No. 1 and No. 2 seeds in the NCAA.
The first regular season game televised
A testament to the extraordinary nature of the meet, it was televised on a national network and was a first for a regular season college basketball meet. In the stands, we broke the attendance record with over 52,000 spectators. It was the first time we got to the stadium with binoculars, and the parquet was specially brought from Los Angeles! A reporter would talk about “synchronized swimming” to describe the players’ movements as seen from above the stands, while Coach Wooden would point to a light that was too bright.
Moreover, the greatest coach in the history of college basketball did not want this meeting to be played, or for it to be televised. He knows the pressure is on UCLA, and everyone wants to see the Bruins go down. But here, the televisions came with a huge check, and its leaders pushed hard…
“The TV people are not going to like what I’m going to say, but I’ve said it before: TV is one of the worst things that’s ever happened to college basketball.” explained John Wooden years later. “It turns the players into showmen and it’s bad for the collective. And that means you can play any day, any time of the day. But there are also upsides, and the money generated saves women’s sports and non-profitable sports. The leaders also told me that this is good for basketball, and it will give exposure to the whole country. They are right. »
Injured eye, Lew Alcindor should not have played…
But regardless of the setting and conditions, everyone was focused on the two best teams of the season, and the rivalry between the two best university pivots of their generation, Lew Alcindor and Elvin Hayes. The former dominated the NCAA like no other to the point that university authorities banned the dunk last year!
The second is a force of nature, running at nearly 38 points on average. It will be necessary to wait for the rivalry between Olajuwon and Ewing to find traces of such a confrontation between the “big men”.
Except Lew Alcindor shouldn’t have played this meeting… Injured his eye 15 days earlier, missed practice for a week. He didn’t play in the previous two games and before arriving in Houston, doctors put him in a hospital room where he remains in the dark to treat his torn cornea.
“The doctors said it was impossible for him to play properly. He saw double will tell John Wooden. “Before the game, I told him that he doesn’t have to play because he can’t be good and there’s too much attention on this game. I don’t want to make excuses because they’re a good team. But without Alcindor, we’re not the same, and nothing he to himself. »
It was especially in the second half that UCLA’s pivot exploded. Out of shape, he will be dominated by the intensity of Elvin Hayes, and at times, he will take long seconds to get to the attack or get back on defense. This is not the usual Lew Alcindor but for the show he is there, and he is going to turn in one of the worst copies of his career.
Actually, the future Jabbar finished with a double double (15 pts, 15 rebounds) but he missed 14 of his 18 shots! Facing him, Hayes was on cloud nine with 39 points, including 29 in the first half, and several counterattacks on Alcindor where he gave a good ten centimeters. Hayes was quite simply the hero of the “Game Of The Century”, and symbolically, he scored the winning two shots with 28 seconds left. However, he managed a 60% success rate that season.
“I can’t miss them. The game is in my hands.” he will explain after the match.
In Houston, the game is played five times a day
After two stupid balls lost by the Bruins, he would still make more dribbles to run the clock and grab the win (71-69). It was a regular season game but the floor was invaded and Elvin Hayes was a hero. The best college team in history has collapsed. In Houston, we will celebrate this victory as a title!
“There was a week-long celebration, and they always showed the game. For a week they showed it five times a day” recalled Don Chaney, former Houston player. “On the California side, they were upset and disappointed. Kareem had an eye problem. He wasn’t 100%, and I admit that. But even at 100% he couldn’t stop Elvin that night.
The rematch would take place a few weeks later, in the semifinals of the NCAA tournament. And what revenge! Thanks to an unprecedented defense, on the diamond to isolate Elvin Hayes, the Bruins won 101-69.
Lew Alcindor finished the game with 19 points and 18 rebounds, while Elvin Hayes was limited to 10 points and 3/10 shots. UCLA would go on to become NCAA champions that year, and again in 1969. The Bruins would go on to string 7 straight titles, with a new streak of 88 consecutive victories. Between 1964 and 1975, with Lew Alcindor in its ranks, then Bill Walton, UCLA would win 10 titles and finish four seasons undefeated. But for the record, on that night in 1968, Houston won the game of the century.
Photo credit: CBS, Chronicle
The article was originally published in 2018