That night a record 52,693 people in Houston’s Astrodome and millions more at home watched the first nationally televised regular-season college basketball game.
Two of the greatest players ever, UCLA’s Lew Alcindor (now Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) and Houston’s Elvin Hayes, led their unbeaten teams into the showdown of No. 1 vs. No. 2.
Top-ranked UCLA (13-0) was riding a 47-game winning streak while No. 2 Houston (16-0) had won 17 consecutive games and 48 in a row at home.
There was one more thing.
“Elvin Hayes had something to prove,” Howard Lorch, then a Cougars student manager, said earlier this year. “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.”
He did in so a game that put college basketball on the national map. Hayes scored 39 points, including two free throws with 30 seconds remaining to give Houston a 71-69 victory. He also grabbed 15 rebounds in one of the greatest upsets in college basketball history and the sports moment judged the greatest in school history.
“I remember the final five, six seven seconds. Lynn Shackleford trying to get a shot off on a pass from Mike Warren. It didn’t go in,” Dick Enberg, who broadcast the game, told the Los Angles Times in 1986. “Then I remember us being down in a pit that had actually been dug into the Astrodome for the press and the sound of the Houston fans from about 75 feet away stampeding to the court.”
They carried Hayes off the court in triumph.
UCLA was hampered by Alcindor’s health. He had suffered a scratched cornea the game before and was basically playing with one eye. “The only eye problem he had was he had to look at Elvin Hayes,” said Lorch, who also has been Hayes’ roommate.
The game was televised through a nationwide hookup by TVS, owned by late Chicago White Sox president Eddie Einhorn. “Once the game got underway,” Enberg remembered, “Eddie was taking phone calls and literally writing out 30-second spots from advertisers who called us at courtside to take an ad for the second half.”
Hayes holds Houston single-game, single-season and career records in scoring and rebounding. He averaged 31.0 points and 17.2 rebounds per contest in 93 games, leading the Cougars to an 81-12 record — including a 28-game-winning streak — and consecutive Final Four appearances in 1967 and 1968.
Both times the Cougars lost to UCLA in the national semifinals, including 101-69 two months after the Game of the Century. The Bruins then beat North Carolina 78-55 for their fourth national championship in five years and their second of seven in a row.
Hayes, meanwhile, was the National Player of the Year and the No. 1 selection in the 1968 NBA Draft. He scored more than 27,000 points and grabbed more than 16,000 rebounds in 16 seasons. He helped lead the Washington Bullets to the 1978 NBA championship and was named one of the NBA’s 50 Greatest Players in 1996.
But the Game of the Century remains one of his greatest games. And Enberg said in his book “Oh My!” that the game was “the most important sports event I’ve ever called.”
The telecast increased interest in college basketball and helped make it more than a regional sport. The next season, Enberg became the lead announcer for TVS and called several national games that Einhorn produced, many of which featured UCLA.
Enberg went on to other important broadcasts, including Notre Dame’s upset that ended UCLA’s 88-game winning streak. But the Houston-UCLA game is the one that still sticks out above the rest.
“It was shortly after the Houston loss that UCLA went on another tear and then Notre Dame upset them to end the 88-game streak in 1974,” Enberg told the Times in 1986. “The week after that game we had the highest — and it’s still the highest — rated telecast ever.
“But in terms of what started it all, it had to be the UCLA-Houston game in the dome.”
Above: Houston’s Elvin Hayes is carried from the court by jubilant fans after Houston scored a 71-79 upset over the UCLA Bruins. Amidst a fireworks display in lights, the Astrodome scoreboard reads ‘Cougars win.’ The game pitted the top two teams in the nation. (Photo by Bettmann via Getty Images)
THIS WEEK’S GREATEST MOMENTS
• Monday: High Point and Hofstra
• Tuesday: Holy Cross and Houston
• Wednesday: Houston Baptist and Illinois Chicago (UIC)
• Thursday: Incarnate Word (UIW) and Jacksonville State
• Friday: James Madison