Expect to see a lot of nostalgic hype this weekend for the 50th anniversary of one of the most significant college basketball games ever played.
But is the 1968 UCLA-Houston game really the “Game of the Century”?
I don’t think so. But it was a memorable event.
The two undefeated teams – each led by a future NBA Hall of Famer -- met in the Houston Astrodome on Jan. 20, 1968. The game was played before a record (for the time) crowd of 52,693. It was the first regular season game to be nationally televised – shown on a syndicated network of 122 stations that was put together by Eddie Einhorn.
Allow me to set the stage.
UCLA had won national championships in 1964 (beating Duke in the finals), 1965 and, after missing the NCAA Tournament in 1966, again in 1967. The Bruins, led by sophomore center Lew Alcindor (later to change his name to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar), easily beat Houston in the 1967 NCAA semifinals, 73-58.
After the loss, Houston star Elvin Hayes trashed the Bruins and blamed his teammates for the loss.
The two teams started the 1967-68 season ranked No. 1 and No. 2. Houston won its first 14 matchups before meeting No. 1 UCLA (13-0).
You can imagine the hype.
Part of it was the venue. Nobody had ever played a college game in a football stadium – much less a domed stadium. Understand that in 1968, the Astrodome was unique, touted as one of the Seven Wonders of the World.
[Just a personal note: I covered an N.C. State football bowl game in the Astrodome in the mid-70s and was blown away by the size and grandeur of the structure. In 2010, I covered Duke’s NCAA regional games at Reliant Field in Houston – located alongside the still-standing Astrodome. This time I was blown away by how small the older building looked alongside the newer arena.]
The layout for the game was awkward. The court (flown in from the LA Sports Arena) was set in the middle of the field. “We played on second base,” Alcindor said. There were no fans within 100 feet in any direction.
The other unique feature before the game was the TV coverage.
Understand that college basketball was almost never shown nationally in those days. The ACC had a regional weekly game-of-the week every Saturday afternoon, but that was unusual (and one of the reasons why ACC basketball became the nation’s best conference – it was the first to exploit the TV market).
The only college game on national TV was the NCAA championship game. Even the semifinals were only telecast regionally. I got to see Duke lose to Loyola in the 1963, Final Four, beat Michigan in the 1964 semifinals and lose to Kentucky in the ’66 Final Four, but that was only because I lived in North Carolina and was in Duke’s small TV footprint. If I lived in Chicago or LA, I would be out of luck.
UCLA-Houston was the first regular season college game to ever get nation-wide coverage – and even that was mostly a collection of small, independent stations. Very few network affiliates were willing to preempt their regular programming to show a college basketball game.
Einhorn had to scramble to sell advertising for the game. There’s a story that he spent the first half of the game taking ad orders over the phone and writing copy for play-by-play man Dick Enberg to read live over the air.
For all the hype, the game turned on the duel between the 7-2 Alcindor and the 6-9 Hayes, two of the great players of their generation.
Alcindor was surrounded by a strong core of players – guard Lucius Allen was an All-American, joined by Mike Warren and sharpshooting forward Lynn Shackelford. Hayes’ supporting cast was not as strong, but it did include future NBA guard Don Chaney, who won two rings with the Celtics. Future pro Ken Spain played center, freeing Hayes from the task of guarding Alcindor.
As it turned out, Alcindor shouldn’t have played in the game. He suffered a scratched cornea a week before the Houston game and spent three days in the hospital. He wore an eye-patch as the team flew to Houston and complained of blurry vision throughout the game.
That could explain his bad shooting night – missing 14 of 18 shots. It was the one sub .500 shooting night of his college career.
While Alcindor was struggling, Hayes was having the game of his life – pouring in 39 points, including what proved to be the game-winning free throws.
In hindsight, it’s amazing that UCLA came so close with Alcindor struggling. Allen tied the score at 69 with just over a minute left. After Hayes hit two free throws to give the Cougars the lead, UCLA missed two chances to tie – Allen missed a jumper and with six seconds left, a crosscourt pass to a wide open Shackelford in the corner was deflected away by a confused Mike Warren.
Houston won 71-69 and celebrated as if they had won the national title. More than that – as if they had more the Game of the Century.
GAME OF THE CENTURY
The claim that the 1968 UCLA-Houston game was the “Game of the Century” basically hinges on the TV milestone.
I mean, it was a good game, but not as good as 1974 N.C. State-Maryland or 1992 Duke-Kentucky. It was not as important as either of those games. Heck, the 1974 N.C. State-UCLA game was much more important, much better played and much, MUCH more dramatic. The crowd was amazing, but has been surpassed several times since.
But UCLA-Houston was the first regular season game to get national TV exposure – and now college basketball proliferates on TV.
That was the forerunner of most of ESPN’s winter programming, right?
For all the hype about the 1968 Houston-UCLA game, nothing came of it.
The TV landscape stayed the same in 1969, 1970, 1971 and 1972. No more made-for-TV regular season matchups and the only game to get national TV coverage in those years was the national championship game. Even the semifinals remained as regional fodder.
The real landmark game came five years later, when C.D. Chesley put together a syndicated national network for a game between N.C. State and Maryland on Super Bowl Sunday, 1973.
That dramatic contest – won by sophomore David Thompson’s incredible follow shot of a Tommy Burleson miss at the buzzer – was in sharp contrast to the dull-as-dirt Miami-Washington Super Bowl that followed.
It attracted the attention of NBC officials, who began negotiations for a college basketball game of the week on the network. Less than a year later, the team of Dick Enberg, Al McGuire and Billy Packer made their debut on NBC.
The NCAA also changed its Final Four format to help TV. Instead of playing the semifinals on Friday night and the championship game on Saturday night, the semifinals were moved to Saturday afternoon and the title game to Monday night and all three games were shown on national TV..
College basketball entered the TV age – thanks to State-Maryland in 1973 … not UCLA-Houston in 1968.
The UCLA-Houston game did have consequences.
Houston took over the No. 1 ranking and held it all year. UCLA dropped to No. 2 and stayed there for the rest of the season.
The performance of his life did vault Elvin Hayes to a sweep of the 1968 national player of the year awards. His one-game dominance of Lew Alcindor prevented the UCLA big man from winning three straight national player of the year awards.
It does hide just a bit what a dominant college player he was – he led UCLA to three national titles (winning Final Four MVP in all three). Alcindor lost two college games in his career – a two-point slowdown loss to Southern Cal in 1969 and the fluke loss to Houston in 1968.
Yes, it was a fluke loss as UCLA – and Alcindor proved in the 1968 Final Four when No. 1 Houston and No. 2 UCLA met in the semifinals at the LA Sports Coliseum – ironically, on the same floor as the “Game of the Century.”
Hayes was limited to 10 points (on 3-of-10 shooting). UCLA, getting 19 points and 18 rebounds from Alcindor, led the Bruins to a 101-69 rout.
Sitting courtside was UNC coach Dean Smith, whose Tar Heels were to meet the winner in the national title game. He was so intimidated by what he saw that he decided not to play with the Bruins. Instead, he opened the game in the Four Corners – a decision that demoralized his talented and confident team.
No matter, UCLA opened a 32-22 halftime lead against the Four Corners, then when Smith turned his team lose in the second half, UCLA coasted to a 78-55 victory. Alcindor scored 39 points and pulled down 16 rebounds and won the second of his three Final Four MVP Awards.
By that point, the UCLA star was being paid by Sam Gilbert, a money launderer for the mob and a big Bruin booster. Smith’s UNC program was perceived to be squeaky clean – the academic scandal that started under Smith was still at least a decade away.
None of that was known in 1968. We had a hint that the UCLA dynasty would continue. Indeed, it did, adding titles in 1969 (maybe the greatest UCLA team as Sidney Wicks and Curtis Rowe joined Alcindor and the Bruins), 1970, 1971, 1972, 1973 and 1975. The run was only broken by the great David Thompson/Tommy Burleson N.C. State team of 1974.
The Wolfpack won its title with a double overtime victory over Bill Walton/Keith Wilkes and company in the 1974 NCAA semifinals.
Now, THAT game is in the running for the title of the “Game of the Century” – along with 1974 State-Maryland and 1992 Duke-Kentucky.
But not the memorable 1968 UCLA-Houston game.