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40 YEARS AGO: Houston vs. UCLA at the Astrodome

Inside And Outsized

The night the mighty Bruins fell at cavernous 'Dome was also when college basketball made a giant leap, from a regional to national stage

January 20, 2008|Ron Rapoport | Special to The Times

Before the University of Houston's first appearance in an NCAA Final Four in 1967, its players were sitting in a hotel ballroom in Louisville, Ky., when they found themselves in the middle of a chaotic scene.

Camera lights flashed, reporters shouted questions and fans begged for autographs as college basketball's greatest player, Lew Alcindor, hidden behind dark glasses, and the rest of the UCLA team entered the room like so many rock stars.

"Do they have to pay these guys?" Houston guard Don Chaney remembers thinking of the Bruins' entourage. "We felt like country bumpkins."

UCLA easily defeated Houston the next day, 73-58, en route to a 30-0 season and the third of its 10 national championships under John Wooden. One Cougars player was unimpressed, however.

"He was OK, but I think he's a little overrated," Elvin Hayes said of Alcindor, who dominated him in the game. "We'll definitely beat them when we play them down in Texas."

It was Houston Coach Guy Lewis who first proposed having his team play UCLA in the Astrodome, and at first he seemed to be the only one who thought it was a good idea. College basketball was still a regional game -- as recently as half a dozen years earlier, the NCAA championships hadn't been shown live on national television -- and Houston was hardly a basketball town. The Cougars didn't even have their own arena, playing their games in an off-campus gym that held only 2,500 people.

But Lewis wore down the resistance of Houston Athletic Director Harry Fouke by offering to pay both schools $10,000 out of his own pocket. "Harry knew I couldn't raise $10,000," Lewis said. "I probably couldn't have raised $500, but he said, 'Dammit, if you believe in it that much let's talk about it.' "

Wooden was against the game too. Play basketball in a baseball stadium? In the middle of the conference season? At night? It would be a farce.

But Wooden was overruled by the one man at UCLA able to do so, Athletic Director J.D. Morgan.

The game would spread the appeal of college basketball nationally, Morgan believed. It would be good for the game and UCLA, its preeminent team, should be a part of it.

Judge Roy Hofheinz, who had built the Astrodome, was skeptical too. The arena had been designed for baseball and football, and although Hofheinz had promoted boxing matches, stock car races and even a bullfight, he thought a basketball court would be too far from the stands for the fans to be able to see.

"But you have this little ball in baseball," Lewis argued. "Don't you think people could see our big one? And besides, most of the players on my team are bigger than the ones on your baseball team."

"Well, damn if you're not right," Hofheinz said, laughing.

The game was set for Jan. 20, 1968, 40 years ago today. The big question now was whether anyone around the country would see it. None of the three major networks wanted to televise it and an attempt to bring in an independent network failed.

Finally, Eddie Einhorn, who televised college basketball regionally on his TSN network, stepped in. Einhorn traveled the country and visited one station at a time as he tried to overcome resistance to this radical innovation -- a college basketball game broadcast nationally in prime time.

Some station directors saw the game's potential and signed up early. "I don't care if anyone else wants to see it," one of them told Einhorn. "Hell, I want to see it." But others resisted until the momentum started to build and they found themselves competing with other stations in their areas.

In the end, Einhorn signed up 120 stations, many of which would infuriate the networks they were affiliated with by canceling their regular programming to show the game.

With no secretarial staff, Lewis and an assistant sold tickets from their small office. "We would take turns answering the phone, which was sitting on my desk between us," Lewis says. "He would pick up one call and I'd get the next until one of us got tired and walked out of the office."

To help publicize the game, Houston publicity director Ted Nance placed a life-size cutout of Alcindor's head at his exact height -- 7 feet 2 -- above the floor in his office ("I might have cheated a little," Nance says), hoping to persuade sportswriters in town for football to return in January.

But the best promotion of all came from the two teams, which both went through the opening part of the season undefeated, forcing fans around the country, and non-fans intrigued by the promise of a spectacle, to take notice.

About the only ones who remained unimpressed were UCLA's players, a number of whom had never lost a college game, and Wooden worked hard to keep it that way. It's just another game, he told them, not as important as the conference season or the national tournament.

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