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Mike Lopresti | | March 31, 2016

March Madness: How 1968's Game of the Century forever shaped basketball history

  Coach Guy V. Lewis talks with UCLA coach John Wooden prior to the Game of the Century on Jan. 20, 1968.

HOUSTON – The Eighth Wonder of the World – or so it was once called -- sits deserted and ignored. Next door, NRG Stadium pulsates with Final Four energy this week, but here, the past is an echo and the present is darkness.

The Astrodome has seen better days. This is about one of them. One of the most important days in the history of college basketball. Those guys next door this coming weekend, playing amid all the noise and bright lights, do they understand how so much of it began right here, just across the walkway? Have they ever even heard of the Game of the Century?

"That,” broadcaster Dick Enberg said over the phone, “was the birthplace.”

“That” was January 20, 1968. No. 1 UCLA vs. No. 2 Houston. A crowd of 52,693, unimaginable then. A prime time national television audience, unheard of then. A one-night glimpse into the mammoth promise and shining future of the sport.

One game could do all that? One game certainly did. One remarkable, unprecedented night when, among other things . . .

The closest fans sat nearly a hundred yards away from the court.

Television ads were being sold in the first half to be read over the air in the second.

John Wooden would lose a game, and then talk about the war in Vietnam.

Elvin Hayes would outscore Lew Alcindor 39-15, and have the performance attached to his name the rest of his life.

The Houston Cougars would end the UCLA Bruins’ 47-game winning streak, 71-69, and college basketball would never, ever, ever be the same.

Take it from Enberg, whose legendary career includes calling the national championship game in 1979 between Magic Johnson’s Michigan State and Indiana State’s Larry Bird. Some point to that as college basketball’s coming-of-age moment. Enberg knows better.

“That was a booster game into the stratosphere,” he said about 1979. “But the launching pad for the incredible popularity of college basketball on television, I believe, started right there in Houston, close to NASA. That really shot the rocket into the sky.

“There was an enormity about it, everything from the Astrodome to the meaningfulness of these two great basketball teams.”

The event was the idea of  . . . well, that’s a tricky one. There are various versions of the original light bulb. Many say it was Houston coach Guy Lewis, who sold it to his athletic director, who sold it to Roy Hofheinz, father of the Astrodome. What is certain is that it eventually landed in the lap of Eddie Einhorn, a young television entrepreneur who looked into the future and saw college basketball as a major nationwide TV opportunity.

What he needed was one chance to show it, and here it was. Put together a syndicated collection of channels around the country –something no one had ever even tried before – and pair mighty UCLA and Wooden and Alcindor (later Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) with unbeaten Houston and Lewis and Hayes.

Then see what happened.

Let Enberg take it from there. A young broadcaster who did the Bruins games, he was assigned the event because the UCLA athletic director made that a condition of the Bruins participating, and Einhorn agreed. “He didn’t know Dick Enberg from a fungo bat,” Enberg said. “He wasn’t going to blow the deal, though.”

So what does Enberg remember 48 years later?

“The folks that organized the whole game in the Astrodome didn’t know quite what to do with it. So instead of walling off one end of a big domed arena like they do now, they just placed the court exactly in the center of the Astrodome floor, so no one had a good seat. If you bought a box seat, you were a hundred yards from the sideline.

“So what they did to accommodate those that bought lower box seats, they dug foxholes in the floor and the press and the broadcasters were in foxholes so they didn’t obstruct the view. So literally, when you looked out at the floor, you only could see the heads of these people, including us.”

Howard Lorch, now a longtime Houston booster and managing director of investments at Wells Fargo, was then Howie, a Cougars student manager. He also had been Elvin Hayes’ roommate.

"He had something to prove,” Lorch said of Hayes. “Elvin had more pride than any 10 guys put together, and he was on a mission. He wanted people to find out who Elvin Hayes was.

“We ran down the ramp and they had a red carpet all the way out on the field. I still get goose bumps when I think about it, it kind of reminded me how the gladiators must have felt back in Roman times. It was almost like being under a microscope. It was surreal, almost out of the movies. You knew you were surrounded by people.”

Yes, the fans were out there . . . somewhere.  But the players, coaches, managers, officials, media and cheerleaders were on their own island.

The game would live up to every ounce of hype. That was clear early, and as viewers around the nation caught on, so did advertisers. It was during the first half that Enberg looked over and saw Einhorn scribbling furiously, taking orders for second half ads over the phone.

“He didn’t write much better than my local pharmacist. What happened was the game became close and was interesting and building momentum and he was indeed taking Madison Avenue orders, hand-writing those 10-second drop-ins I was reading the second half, so he could make a few thousand more bucks.

“It was a tough enough assignment, then you’ve got to read somebody’s writing when you’re trying to sell something you’ve never seen before.”

UCLA was hampered by Alcindor’s health. He had suffered a scratched cornea the game before and was basically playing with one eye, though 48 years later, Lorch still maintains, “The only eye problem he had was he had to look at Elvin Hayes.”

Alcindor shot only 4-for-18, playing all 40 minutes, as did three of his fellow UCLA starters. So did Hayes, who hit 17 of his 25 shots for 39 points, and won the game with two late free throws.

“The reason why it’s a very memorable game and perhaps in my 60 years of broadcasting the most significant historical event I had the privilege to call is because Houston won,” Enberg said “Had UCLA won by 20 points – which they did later (in the Final Four) – it would have been just another UCLA dominant victory. But the fact they lost made it significant.”

And that enormous crowd?

“It was deafening. The roar at the end just reverberated throughout that big dome. What was interesting was some of the fans jumped out of their box seats and ran to the court to celebrate, and of course that was a long run. They were leaping over our foxholes like the return to the Alamo or something.”

Enberg had one duty left; to get Wooden on the air, post-defeat. This was 1968. The Houston Chronicle the next morning would carry “UH Stuns Mighty UCLA, 71-69” as its lead page 1 headline, but under it a story on U.S. Marines holding a hill against North Vietnamese attacks.

“I interviewed him I believe live after the game,” Enberg said. “He came over because he knew me and something had happened in the war, and he said, `Compared to what is happening worldwide, this is just another basketball game. We were defeated, we go on, but there are much more important things happening in our world to be concerned about.’

“That was typical Wooden.”

L. Shackelford, F 40 4-11 2-2 4 1 1 10
Edgar Lacey, F 13 0-2 0-0 1 0 1 0
Lew Alcindor, C 40 4-18 7-8 12 2 1 15
Lucius Allen, G 40 10-24 5-9 8 5 2 25
Mike Warren, G 40 5-12 3-3 4 2 1 13
Mike Lynn 11 2-6 0-0 4 3 4 4
Jim Nielsen 16 1-14 0-0 7 1 3 2
Totals 200 26-77 17-22 40 14 12 69
Elvin Hayes, F 40 17-25 5-7 15 4 4 39
Theodis Lee, F 36 1-9 2-4 6 7 2 4
Ken Spain, C 40 1-8 0-1 11 5 3 2
Don Chaney, G 40 5-12 1-3 6 2 3 11
G. Reynolds, G 36 5-8 3-3 5 0 4 13
Tom Gribben 4 1-4 0-0 0 1 1 2
Vern Lewis 4 0-0 0-0 1 0 0 0
Totals 200 30-66 11-18 44 19 17 71

College basketball had grabbed the nation’s attention for one night by being on TV coast to coast. March Madness was not far behind.

Two months later, the two teams would reunite in the Final Four at the Los Angeles Sports Arena and UCLA – burning for revenge, with Alcindor with two good eyes – destroyed Houston 101-69.  Hayes had 10 points, Alcindor 19. “The best game a John Wooden team ever played,” Enberg said.

It was a bad night for Houston from the start. Lorch had been assigned by Lewis to sell the Cougars’ extra tickets before the game outside the arena. That’s when he ran into some LA plainclothes police, on the lookout for scalpers.

“To make a long story short,” Lorch said, “I ended up going to jail for the evening.”

Not until after the rout could Lewis dispatch someone in a rental car to pick up Lorch at jail. What a way to end the 1968 season.

Hayes went on to the NBA, but 17 years later, came back to fulfill a promise to his mother and graduate from the University of Houston. Alcindor completed a theepeat national championship at UCLA – that night was one of only two losses his Bruins suffered in three seasons -- before heading off to a Hall of Fame career.

Einhorn made a huge mark in TV sports, and later as one of the owners of the Chicago White Sox. “Einhorn was a visionary,” Enberg said. “He was so far ahead of anyone in television at the time. He saw how truly big college basketball could be, and had a major hand in making all that happen. The networks were way, way behind Eddie Einhorn.”

Einhorn died during the past season, as did Lewis. The faces of that night begin to vanish.

“It put the University of Houston on the map,” Lorch said. “The residuals for the next 15 years (three more Cougar Final Four trips in the 1980s) were the result of what happened that night.”

The Astrodome has long given up its place as a sports destination, though Houston officials are still hoping to come up with some use.  It would break many hearts – including Lorch’s – if the landmark ever comes down. Jan. 20, 1968 still burns too brightly. “It’s still a unique building and we’re hoping to create more memories,” said Kevin Hoffman, executive director of the Harris County Sports and Convention Corporation.

So the Astrodome stands alone this weekend, while the crowds pass it by and head next door to a newer, flashier, bigger place. But before the 2011 Final Four here, Hayes told a Houston newspaper, “Even when the NCAA comes back here, that arena sitting over there quietly, silently, will never be outdone. What has been built now may be the top of the tree. But the root of it all is sitting right there next to it.”

Dick Enberg, man of a million broadcasts, understands that, too.

“Just for historical reference, I did what amounted to be the very first national telecast of the NCAA Finals and that was in 1961, when Cincinnati played Ohio State in Kansas City. That national telecast went to two cities; Cincinnati and Columbus, Ohio. That was it. We’re talking 1961 and this UCLA-Houston game is only seven years later, so I say that only to confirm the baby was delivered in the Astrodome on that night when Houston played UCLA.”

This Saturday, next to an empty Astrodome, see how that baby has grown up.

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