55 years ago, Houston beat ogre UCLA in the “Game of the Century.”

It’s the NCAA, not the NBA, and it’s just a regular season game. However, all of America has their eyes fixed on the Astrodome, where the field is placed in the middle of the baseball stadium.

On the floor, Lew Alcindor (Kareem Abdul-Jabbar would be) and coach John Wooden faced UCLA senior Elvin Hayes’ Houston, coached by Guy Lewis. The unscheduled meeting comes at the request of the Cougars, and the Bruins come down to Texas with 47 straight wins and three titles in four years.

They are simply the best college team in history, and this Houston team has faced them before. It was 1967, in the semifinals of the NCAA tournament, and UCLA won 73-58 thanks to 19 points and 20 rebounds from Lew Alcindor. Since then, the Cougars are undefeated (16 wins – 0 losses) and this matchup therefore comes against the No. 1 and No. 2 seeds in the NCAA.

The first regular season game was televised

A testament to the meeting’s exceptional nature, it is nationally televised and a first for a regular-season college basketball meet. We broke the attendance record with more than 52,000 spectators in the stands. This is the first time we come to the stadium with binoculars, and the parquet was specially brought from Los Angeles! A reporter will talk about “synchronized swimming” to describe the players’ movements as seen from above the stands, and Coach Wooden will point to the intense lighting.

Moreover, the greatest coach in the history of college basketball did not want to play or televise this game. He knew the pressure was on UCLA and everyone wanted to see the Bruins go down. But that’s it, the televisions came with a very big check and pushed the leaders too much …

“The TV people are not going to like what I have to say, but I’ve said it before: TV is one of the worst things to happen to college basketball.” John Wooden explained a few years later. “It turns the players into showmen and it’s bad for the team. And that means you can play any day, any time of the day. But there are positives, and the money generated saves women’s sports and sports that do not make money. The leaders also told me that it would be good for basketball and that it would get exposure across the country. They were right. »

Lew Alcindor, who suffered an eye injury, should not have played…

But regardless of circumstances and circumstances, all eyes are on the season’s two best teams and the duel between Lew Alcindor and Elvin Hayes, two of the best college centers of their generation. The former is so dominant in the NCAA that the university administration banned dunks the previous year!

The second is a force of nature that works on an average of about 38 points. To find traces of such a confrontation of “big men”, you have to wait for a duel between Olajuwon and Ewing.

Except that Lew Alcindor didn’t play this match…he injured his eye 15 days ago, he didn’t practice for a week. He didn’t play in the previous two games, and before arriving in Houston, doctors put him in a hospital room where he slept in the dark to treat a torn cornea.

“The doctors said it was impossible for him to play well. He saw double John will tell Wooden. “I told him before the game that he didn’t need to play because he couldn’t be good and there was too much attention on this game. I don’t want to make excuses because they were a good team. But without Alcindor we weren’t the same and he wasn’t himself at all.”

UCLA’s offense will crack, especially in the second half. Out of shape, he will be dominated with intensity by Elvin Hayes and will take long seconds to attack or return to defense on several occasions. It wasn’t the usual Lew Alcindor, but he had to be there for the show, and he would turn in one of the worst copies of his career.

Admittedly, the future Jabbar finished with a double-double (15 points, 15 rebounds), but missed 14 of 18 shots! Facing him, Hayes finished 9th with 39 points, including 29 in the first half, and made several counterattacks to Alcindor, who nevertheless gained a good ten centimeters. Hayes is simply the hero of the “Game of the Century” and it is he who makes the iconic two-shot victory with 28 seconds left. However, he had a 60% success rate that season.

“I couldn’t miss them. The game was in my hands.” will explain after the match.

In Houston, the game is played five times a day

Then, after two stupid turnovers by the Bruins, it’s still him who will make multiple dribbles to run the clock and pull out the win (71-69). It’s only a regular season game, but the floor is occupied and Elvin Hayes is a hero. The best college team in history fell. In Houston, we will celebrate this victory as a title!

“There was a party for a week and they were showing the game all the time. They showed it five times a day for a week.” Former Houston player Don Chaney remembers. “On the California side, they’re upset and disappointed. Karam had a problem with his eyes. He wasn’t 100% and I admit that. But even 100% couldn’t stop Elvin that night.

The rematch will take place a few weeks later, in the semifinals of the NCAA tournament. And what revenge! The Bruins won 101-69 thanks to unprecedented defense on the diamond to isolate Elvin Hayes.

Lew Alcindor would finish with 19 points and 18 rebounds, while Elvin Hayes would be limited to 10 points and 3/10 shooting. UCLA would go on to become NCAA champions that year and again in 1969. The Bruins are now on a new streak of 88 consecutive victories, making it 7 consecutive titles. Between 1964 and 1975, under Lew Alcindor, then Bill Walton, UCLA would win 10 titles and finish four seasons undefeated. It should be noted that on that evening in 1968, it was Houston who won the game of the century.

Photo credit: CBS, Chronicle

The article was originally published in 2018

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