Heavyweight Championship

by May 21, 2011

With all the beef going on between Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and the Los Angeles Lakers these days, we decided it was a solid time to look back to SLAM 37 (October 1999), when Alan Paul documented the infamous game during which Kareem (then known as Lew Alcindor, before he ever put on a Lakers jersey) and the undefeated UCLA Bruins battled the University of Houston in a tilt that could only be described as absolutely epic.—Ed.

by Alan Paul

When the University of Houston defeated UCLA 71-69 in the Astrodome on January 20, ’68, it was immediately tabbed the “game of the century.” Pretty heady praise considering there were 32 more years to go. Yet most would argue that the game, matching two undefeated teams ranked one and two, has never been surpassed in either drama or impact. As Don Chaney, then a senior guard for Houston, now a New York Knicks assistant coach, recently said, “There were so many firsts involved in that game that people can’t get it out of their minds.”

It was UCLA’s first loss after 47 consecutive wins, and one of only two in Lew Alcindor’s three varsity seasons. It was the first basketball game played in a dome, a prospect considered insane by just about everyone except Houston coach Guy Lewis. And, perhaps most significantly, it was the first nationally-televised college game, syndicated to a patchwork of 120 stations in 49 states. To almost everyone’s surprise, it was a huge ratings hit, making it the first step away from smelly field houses and regional coverage and towards your Aunt Ethel calling to ask whom she should pick in the Southern bracket.

Not surprisingly, UCLA coach John Wooden, a noted traditionalist, opposed the game from the beginning. “I thought it would just be a spectacle,” he explains.

But one man’s insult is another man’s high praise; Lewis conceived of the game and saw its tremendous potential because he knew it would be a great spectacle.

“Everyone thought I was crazy when I suggested playing a game in the Astrodome,” Lewis recalls. “My athletic director didn’t want to do it, and I had to talk him into it. Then together we had to go see Judge Roy Hofheinz, who owned the Dome and was not going to allow a failure to occur there. The judge had a fabulous, million-dollar suite in the Dome, with a bowling alley and everything, and we went over there for a meeting. The judge objected to everything. He said, ‘It’s just not made for basketball. People wouldn’t be able to see what was going on.’ So I said, ‘Well, how is it for baseball?’ And he said, ‘Oh, it’s wonderful, the perfect place.’”

“I went, ‘Well, judge, the ball you play with is about one-tenth the size of what we play with, and my players are a lot taller than yours. So if people can see a baseball game so well, I don’t see any reason they won’t be able to see a basketball game.’ He said, ‘Well, you have a point there. By golly, let’s pursue this!’ So now I had convinced the judge and my athletic director—but we hadn’t even mentioned it to UCLA yet.”

A reluctant Wooden was convinced of the game’s value by athletic director J.D. Morgan, who told him each school stood to make $80,000 while also promoting the sport. “He was reassuring,” Wooden recalls. “He said in addition to the money, he thought it would be very good for intercollegiate basketball and would give the sport exposure throughout the country. He was right, and I was wrong. I was told that more people saw that game than had viewed any sporting event until that time.”

As fate would have it, UCLA and Houston had met in the ’67 Final Four, with the Bruins winning 73-58 on their way to the third of Wooden’s 10 championships. Neither team lost another game between then and January 20, giving the showdown in the Dome all the natural hype it needed. “I had told the Judge that I thought we could sell 35,000 tickets,” recalls Lewis. “Turns out we sold that many by September, with everyone so excited by our meeting in the Final Four. The game sold out well in advance.”

Every seat in the Dome was filled, along with 4,000 standing-room tickets—a total of 52,693 paid admissions. The court, borrowed from the Los Angeles Sports Arena, sat in the middle of the floor; surrounded by strips of Astro Turf, it was over 100 feet from the nearest seats. The television lights suspended right above the baskets caused Sports Illustrated to note that the dome “very nearly became the first place in the world where a player lost a rebound in the lights.”

“I was right about it being a terrible place to play,” says Wooden. “The court was out in the middle, the seats were way back, the dressing rooms seemed a quarter-mile away, and there were huge lights hanging down right above the basket. I didn’t think anyone would be able to shoot well at all. But, of course, Hayes shot very, very well. He had a tremendous game.”

Fired up by the prospects of facing Alcindor (soon to become Kareem Abdul-Jabbar), the most highly regarded player in college hoops, for a second time, Hayes elevated his game. He played perhaps the finest 40 minutes of his stellar career.

“I was a kid from a small town in Louisiana, my name had never been in the papers, nobody knew about me, basically,” recalls Hayes. “Then here’s a guy who was the most highly-recruited high school athlete ever, one of the winningest players ever, on a team with one of the longest winning streaks ever. They had been dubbed unbeatable. All of a sudden, on January 20, this guy gets the opportunity to look up at the sky and see the brightest star shining with a long beautiful tail behind it—for me, here’s what that night meant: this guy had everything that I ever wanted, and if I could beat him, my star would shine a little brighter. Every opportunity I got in that game to get him one on one or block his shot or do anything, I knew that would give me the opportunity to shine. That night, I shined more brightly than him.”

Indeed, Hayes scored 39 points on a phenomenal 17 for 25 shooting, while also pulling down 15 rebounds and blocking eight shots, including three of Alcindor’s. The huge crowd spurred him on, chanting “E! E! E!” and exploding with his every basket.