Relaxed, confident, unbeaten in 31 games, dressed in matching black-and-white-checked double-breasted blazers, the University of Houston's uninhibited assortment of basketball players arrived at Los Angeles International Airport last week and proceeded to the glamorous Beverly Hilton Hotel, where a fan of theirs had set them up with free rooms. Elvin Hayes and Theodis Lee appeared on The Joey Bishop Show. Handsome Center Ken Spain was twice interviewed for The Dating Game. Hayes and his wife Erna dined at The Luau in Beverly Hills. And a former Houston cheerleader named Rudy Durand got Coach Guy Lewis into this season's swingingest private Hollywood night spot, The Factory. Durand also provided a Cadillac limousine and a movie-studio tour for Hayes, Don Chaney and their wives. They visited the Hello Dolly! set, which is bigger than Elvin's home town of Rayville, La.
There was something else on the Houston schedule: a game with UCLA (see cover) in the semifinals of the NCAA tournament Friday night, and the Cougars were beaten by 32 points. They were beaten, in fact, by one of the finest exhibitions of skill, speed and shooting in the history of college basketball. It was not the highlight of their trip.
Evidence turned up early that it would not be Houston's night. Howie Lorch, the Cougars' student manager, was arrested outside the Sports Arena just before the game and booked on charges of scalping tickets. As one Houston player said later, some of his teammates "seemed more worried about selling their tickets than about the game." Scalpers luckier than Lorch were getting as much as $50 a ticket, and a few greedy ones were insisting customers purchase seats for both nights.
To many the prices were not unreasonable. Last January in the Astrodome, UCLA was upset by Houston 71-69, losing its No. 1 ranking and a chance for a second straight undefeated season. The subsequent SPORTS ILLUSTRATED cover showed Hayes shooting a jump shot over the upstretched arm of Lew Alcindor. Lew, who had been completely outplayed by Elvin, put the cover up in his locker, where he had to look at it every day before and after practice. Both teams had gone unbeaten since that night under the Dome, both had made it without much strain into the NCAA's final round of four, and now they were to meet in UCLA's backyard. It did not much matter which Eastern team, North Carolina or Ohio State, got into the final game, this one was for the national championship.
April 1, 1968
While a record Sports Arena basketball crowd of 15,742, plus thousands more watching closed-circuit TV in six locations, awaited the tipoff, the giant screen set up at the west end of Pauley Pavilion, UCLA's campus arena across town, showed only blobs and shadows in a snowstorm. Half the crowd of 8,500, which included the athletic director's mother-in-law, went home in disgust.
UCLA won the tip and was never behind, but the game was not a romp—at first. The Bruins spurted to a 12-4 lead, Houston rallied to within one point, 20-19, and everyone settled back to watch the two best teams in the country battle into maybe five or six overtimes. Perhaps Howie Lorch could get bailed out in time to see the finish. The Bruins chose that moment to tramp on the gas pedal, and in the next four minutes 17 seconds UCLA outscored Houston 17-5 and generally behaved as if it were playing against five blindfolded Campfire Girls. When Lynn Shackelford stole the ball and passed to Lucius Allen for an easy layup to make the score 37-24, the Cougars called time-out and Don Chaney slammed the ball down in frustration.
Intermittent consultations with Coach Lewis did not help, not even at half time when he talked about "pride, not quitting, hanging tough, those good ol' American principles we'll need if we ever fight the Russians or the Chinese or some of those folks." UCLA kept tormenting Houston with its full-court press and scoring easily on fast breaks and accurate outside shooting. The lead was up to 22 by the half and grew to 28, to 39 and reached its peak at 44. If they had not used many substitutes in the last five or six minutes, the Bruins would have won by 50 or 60 points.
"That's the greatest exhibition of basketball I've ever seen," said Lewis.
The pro-UCLA crowd loved it and screamed for more. If Lewis and his players had been fallen gladiators, it would have been thumbs down from all the Neros. Amid the noise and fury, Houston's pet cougar, Shasta, who might have been expected to pace up and down in his cage the way a ferocious mascot should, slept through the second half. The final score was 101-69.
There were many reasons for the rout, but the main one was that Hayes reacted to this all-important game roughly the way Shasta did. Nothing apparently had occurred this season to discourage Hayes, but when something did, he discouraged very easily. What happened was that John Wooden and his assistant, Jerry Norman, came up with a diamond-shaped zone defense that put Mike Warren at the top of the key, Allen and Mike Lynn on the wings and Lew underneath the basket (ducking to avoid scraping his head on the rim). That left Lynn Shackelford free to shadow Elvin. Shack did a good job; there were times when he and Hayes looked like two guys doing a soft-shoe routine. Perhaps Hayes enjoyed the attention. Much of the time, anyway, he hardly tried to avoid it.
The defense, which Wooden had never used before, naturally left some loopholes, but Houston shot a miserable 28.2% from the floor. Theodis Lee, who was hampered by fouls early, made only two of 15 shots. UCLA, on the other hand, hit better than 50%. Alcindor, Lynn and Allen each had 19 points and Lucius, especially, was dazzling. He earned 12 assists, had nine rebounds and seemed to dribble in and out of Houston's one-three-one zone whenever he felt like it.
Alcindor was his old intimidating self on defense, and he made half his 14 shots from the floor, five of six free throws and took 18 rebounds. (Leaving the arena later, Lew made a large splash in the world of fashion as well by wearing a loose-fitting, multicolored African garment called a "dignity robe.")
In addition to clamping down on Hayes with the diamond, UCLA tinkered with its full-court zone press. In Houston the Cougars were beating it with quick downcourt passes. This time UCLA effectively cut off those downcourt passes and the Cougar guards often tried to dribble out of trouble, which was just what the Bruins wanted. Still, Houston had only one more turnover than UCLA. Vern Lewis, the coach's son, who wasn't supposed to be anywhere near as good as the ineligible George Reynolds, had no turnovers.
Probably it would not have made any difference if they had been stoked up on super pep pills, but all the Cougars seemed to be flat, uninspired and too loose. Perhaps they were just overconfident.
"In Houston we were worried about playing UCLA," said one player, "but this time it seemed just like another game."
"We just weren't up for it," said Theodis Lee. "I figured before the game that the best we could shoot would be 35%. Our mental attitude wasn't right."
The Bruins, on the other hand, were psyched up like the Spartans at Thermopylae.
"We haven't really said anything publicly, but we're a vindictive team," said Mike Warren afterward. "We've been looking forward to this game a long time. And we're not looking past North Carolina. We'll run them back down South, too."
Which they did in the finals the next night.
North Carolina, champion of the tough East Regional, was in the final four for the second straight year. Last time the Tar Heels lost to unheralded Dayton in the semifinals and they were determined not to get caught looking ahead to the finals again. Conscientiously paying attention to the game at hand, they beat a surprisingly good Ohio State team 80-66 as All-America Larry Miller scored 20 points.
"Obviously, Houston and UCLA are the two best teams in the country," said Tar Heel Coach Dean Smith, while waiting for the other semifinal game to start. "And now, maybe we're third." Which would he rather play? Smith answered by quoting Ohio State Coach Fred Taylor: "Getting hit by a train or a truck, it doesn't make much difference."
Smith figured his team had to control the tempo against UCLA or it would be embalmed and buried by half time. So he planned to use his four-corner offense, with Charlie Scott, Rusty Clark, Bill Bunting and Dick Grubar in the corners and Miller roaming around in the middle. Once North Carolina got through the press, or if it did, it would set up carefully and look for the high-percentage shot. In that way, he reasoned, his team might be within striking distance at the end.
Against his usual practice, Smith let his players watch the first half of the UCLA-Houston game and they were not awed. "Young men are not as realistic as coaches," he said. "I know it will take a miracle, but I have confidence in them."
The miracle did not come about. After Ohio State beat Houston in the preliminary game for third place, UCLA confidently took North Carolina by 23 points, 78-55. UCLA recognized early that only Miller and Scott seemed willing to shoot and concentrated on them.
Alcindor scored 34 points against North Carolina's man-to-man defense. Time after time a teammate would lob a pass to him just under the hoop and he would drop it in. Not nifty long-range marksmanship, but effective nevertheless. He also had 16 rebounds and at least seven blocked shots. He was named player of the tournament, and three other Bruins, Allen, Warren and Shackelford, joined him and Miller on the all-tournament team. The Bruin who was left out, Mike Lynn, hit eight out of 10 shots against Houston, which is a nice gauge of the caliber of this starting five. Immediately after the final buzzer, Lew carried a chair over to one basket and cut down the net, which is basketball's mild version of tearing down a goalpost. He didn't really need the chair to stand on. By the time the watches and the NCAA tie tacks and the big NCAA trophy were presented, Alcindor had the net draped around his neck like a lei and Warren wore the one from the other basket.
"We didn't play the perfect game and you have to play the perfect game to beat them," said Smith. He called Alcindor "the greatest player who ever played the game" and UCLA "the greatest basketball team of all time." In both cases he probably was excluding the pros, but then again, maybe not. The Bruin basketball players tended to agree with him.
"Our next goal is a third NCAA title next year," said Allen.
"It's difficult to do, very difficult," said Wooden. (Coaches are more realistic than young men.) "Look back through the history of the NCAA. Isn't it difficult?"
It is indeed. No team has ever won three NCAA championships in a row. But Alcindor, Allen and Shackelford will be back, and they will have for company the current star of an undefeated freshman team, Curtis Rowe, plus a couple of talented redshirts and an outstanding junior-college prospect. If Alcindor keeps other people's fingers out of his eyes, there seems to be no major obstacle to the goal.
Despite UCLA's winning its fourth NCAA championship in five years, Houston was awarded most of the season's shiny bric-a-brac. Hayes was chosen player of the year four weeks ago, and Guy Lewis was his colleagues' choice as coach of the year. That was fair enough. He accepted both the sweet Astrodome victory and the overwhelming Sports Arena defeat with admirable grace.
What was ludicrous, however, was the fact that Houston also won the two national wire-service rankings, because the weekly polls ended before the NCAA tournament began. The Cougars are not No. 1—not by a mile, not by 32 points. This is not to denigrate them, however, for without their big upset of the champions in January, Year Two in the Reign of King Lew would have been awfully monotonous.