When UCLA recruited Lew Alcindor and a courtload of other basketball players whose skills had won them schoolboy glory, it was generally assumed that the Bruins would shoot and rebound and full-court-press their way to a hundred or so consecutive victories. Easy. It seemed a shame they had to serve a freshman apprenticeship and then play three varsity seasons when the NCAA could just hand over three championship trophies, let the fellows turn pro and save the rest of the teams a lot of grief. The Alcindor-led group, to nobody's surprise, went unbeaten as freshmen and once even mangled the varsity by 15 points. Packing their new campus arena as sophomores (with junior Mike Warren added), they ran through 30 victories to a national title, and this season they upped that streak to 47—until last Saturday night, when the dream of perfection was ruined.
At least UCLA lost in style. Before the largest crowd ever to see a basketball game in the U.S. (52,693), in Houston's famous Astrodome and before the biggest television audience in the history of the sport (150 stations in 49 states), the University of Houston's Big E, 6'8" senior Elvin Hayes (see cover), hit 68% of his shots, scored 39 points, took 15 rebounds and made the two deciding free throws to beat the Bruins 71-69.
It was not a matter of the Cougars sneaking up on UCLA. UCLA was ranked first in both wire-service polls, but Houston was ranked second and had won 48 straight games at home. The Cougars had won 17 in a row since losing to UCLA in last year's NCAA semifinal, and Hayes was the third leading scorer in the nation and certainly no stranger. The city of Houston was all atwitter about the confrontation, to the point that one radio station kept listeners up to date with "KTHT Ruin-the-Bruins time is five-oh-four." The manager of UCLA's motel provided a 10-foot bed with "Big Lew" printed in large letters at the foot.
By the time over-the-counter ticket sales started in mid-December, 40,000 had already been sold by mail and more than 150 had been given away to promising high school football players—just to prove that Texans still love football best. "I've had calls from people all over the country wanting to fly in for the game," said Dome Ticket Manager Dick McDowell. "We've had calls from Mexico City, Chicago and San Francisco. If we hadn't run out we would have sold 75,000 tickets, no doubt about it."
January 29, 1968
The best preparation Houston Coach Guy V. Lewis could make was to keep the Big E healthy, and he knew it. Earlier in the season, Hayes was asked by a teammate to be best man at his wedding. "That doesn't surprise me a bit," said Lewis. "He's been my best man for three years."
But just in case Elvin wasn't going to be enough, Guy V. took some other precautions, like working diligently against a full-court press and being sure not to wear the pink-and-white-checked sport coat he wore against the Bruins in the NCAA loss. He wore a turquoise-and-black-checked jacket instead. All season at home games Houston had sat on the left side of the scorer, and that's how the Astrodome seating plan was made. Then Guy V. remembered the Cougars had sat on the left side in the NCAA loss, and he made his sports publicist switch the seating. UCLA sat on the left Saturday night and also was brought into the Astrodome through gate 13 for its Friday workout.
Several weeks before the game a Cougar booster named Joe Thompson, who had given a season's-end chicken dinner for the team for 11 years, phoned Guy and said he wanted to have the 12th annual dinner a little earlier than usual, on the Sunday before UCLA invaded. Lewis wasn't very interested until Thompson reminded him that Houston had never lost a game following the dinner. "You talked me into it," said Lewis.
No superstitious gimmicks were really needed with Hayes around. He completely outplayed Alcindor, but it should be noted that Lew had suffered a scratched left eyeball in the previous Friday night's game against Cal. Alcindor did not play in subsequent wins over Stanford and Portland. He wore an eyepatch and stayed in bed part of the week, and the inactivity no doubt affected his play. He made only four of 18 shots and UCLA Coach John Wooden could not remember his having shot less than 50% before. It was one of the least impressive performances in Alcindor's college career and it was too bad it came before an audience that stretched, through TV cables anyway, to Fairbanks, Alaska.
Houston stayed in a zone defense throughout the game, although the man in the middle was free to stay glued to Alcindor. It worked pretty well—partly, of course, because of Lew's poor marksmanship. UCLA's defense, on the other hand, could not cope with Hayes in the first half. Edgar Lacey tried, then Lew, then Mike Lynn, all to no avail. Elvin pumped in 29 points, and every time he got the ball the crowd started chanting, "E, E, E," until it sounded like one long "EEEE." When a Hayes shot went in, the monstrous Astrodome message board would flash a big E two stories high.
Still, at half time, Houston led only 46-43, mostly because UCLA's press forced a few turnovers and Bruin Guard Lucius Allen was shooting well. Meanwhile, way up in the $2 yellow-seat section, an interplanetary distance from the floor, a happy Cougar fan said, "I can't see what's going on, but I don't care, if Houston wins." Another said, "With my binocs I can see the pompon girls O.K., but the ball moves too fast to follow the action."
He missed plenty of action in the second half. Hayes blocked two shots in a row (one by Lew), hit a jump shot and made Mike Lynn commit his fourth foul—all in the first few minutes. But UCLA started double-teaming him and he added only 10 points to his first-half total. A relatively unknown junior named Jim Nielsen came in for Lynn and, with aid, cooled off the Big E.
UCLA, which had been down by as much as nine points in the first half, battled back in the second to tie it at 54, and from then on it was a dogfight, or whatever kind of fight it is when Cougars and Bruins meet in the wild. An Alcindor free throw made it 65-all with 3:02 left, and two Lucius Allen free throws made it 69-all. Nielsen fouled Hayes with 28 seconds left, which could have been a disaster for Houston because the Big E was shooting a horrid 60% from the free-throw line going into the game. But he put in both shots for a two-point lead.
UCLA had a pass intercepted, got the ball back because of a Cougar traveling violation and lost it again out of bounds with 12 seconds left. Time out. Coach Lewis' instructions were to throw it high to the Big E and let him hold it a while, which is just what happened. He held it, then dribbled around like a Globetrotter and passed as the buzzer sounded. If the scoreboard had exploded or the Dome had caved in, few people would have paid attention because immediately it appeared that the entire city of Houston was having an impromptu jamboree at center court, with Hayes the focus. Basketball's debut in the Astrodome was a howling success, at least to Texans.
Disguising the Domed Stadium as a basketball arena for the big game was the job of Jack O'Connell, vice-president in charge of special events, who at the same time had to get the next-door exhibition hall ready for the world's biggest boat show, starting at noon the day of the game. Since a basketball does not bounce very well on Astroturf, the first problem was to find a portable court. O'Connell finally settled on the floor at the Sports Arena in Los Angeles, which was loaned at no charge. But the 225-panel court weighs close to 18 tons and cost about $10,000 to transport, round trip, by truck. It was jigsaw-puzzled together by Wednesday night and tested by Guy Lewis, who dribbled a ball all over it and found no dead spots. As coach of a team that often cuts short its practices at various small gyms to make way for girls' volleyball teams, Lewis must have had a feeling of power as he bounced the ball before those thousands of seats—and took his time about it.
The nearest seats, plush red ones priced at $5, were more than 100 feet from courtside. No seats were on the dirt floor of the stadium, and, to avoid blocking anybody's view, chairs for press, players and officials were placed in 18-inch-deep trenches on either side of the court. The Astrodome very nearly became the first place in the world where a player lost a rebound in the lights. O'Connell originally had 1,700 lamps, of 1,500 watts each, trained on the court, but Houston players, after working out at the Dome on Thursday night, asked that the lights at each end be turned off. The remaining 1,400 lamps, blasting down from the rim of the stadium on each side, still gave off plenty of light—and heat.
There were other problems besides the sunlamps, such as the overlong trot to the dressing rooms. O'Connell almost forgot to get a buzzer, but he had the scene set in time, and what a scene it was. There were three bands, with two sets of pompon girls anxious to dance every number. There was a student dressed up like a bruin, another dressed like a female bruin, another dressed like a cougar and then a real-live cougar named Shasta. In the press pit there were a scout from the Harlem Globetrotters and writers from Cocoa, Fla., Pittsburgh, Mexico City and Conroe, Texas. The U.S. Information Agency was there to film a five-minute TV show to be seen in 33 countries.
If the atmosphere was carnival, it was just right for Judge Roy Hofheinz, the majordomo of the Dome and the man who owns Ringling Bros.-Barnum & Bailey Circus. Why, when the judge first thought of basketball in the Astrodome, he envisioned three games going on at once. The judge wants to host an NCAA tournament soon, and there was an NCAA committee on hand Saturday to watch the proceedings. Hopefully, the members will report that, while the Dome is an exciting and lucrative place and the glare problem can be solved, basketball is not a game to be watched through binoculars.
In the locker rooms after the upset the game itself took precedence over the pros and cons of the Dome. Guy Lewis called Hayes's first-half heroics "the greatest I've ever seen in college basketball." The Big E explained his game-ending dribbling by saying, "Some things come natural." And over in the subdued UCLA quarters Coach Wooden was free with praise of Elvin. But, when goaded, he said he would not trade Alcindor for two Hayeses.
Lucius Allen was thinking of a possible rematch come March in the NCAA tournament, on this very same floor back in the Sports Arena. "I hope they come to L.A. undefeated," said Allen. "That would be very nice."