The Game of the Century is how March became madness.
On this date in 1968, the University of Houston Cougars hosted the UCLA Bruins in an historic college basketball contest. Played in Houston—the home of NASA—the game launched college basketball into the stratosphere. Coached by John Wooden, UCLA was the most dominant college basketball program of the era, having won three national championships in the past four years. The Bruins had beaten Houston, 73-58, in the 1967 NCAA semifinals in route to the national title and arrived with a 47-game winning streak. Led by Lew Alcindor, the only three-time Player of the Year in the history of college basketball, UCLA had not lost since February 1966, a span of two-and-a-half seasons. Wanting to showcase the strength of his program, Houston coach Guy Lewis scheduled UCLA prior to the start of the season. Houston sports information director Ted Nance touted the contest as the “Game of the Century” in the Cougars game-day football program that fall.
The game was syndicated nationally through the TVS television network. Owned by Eddie Einhorn, who went on to become the head of CBS Sports and later owned the Chicago White Sox, TVS produced regional college basketball telecasts. Einhorn paid $ 27,000 for broadcast rights and signed up 120 stations across 49 states, many of whom preempted their regularly-scheduled network programming to broadcast the game. Prior to the UCLA-Houston contest, only postseason games were broadcast on national television. Einhorn ran the game at 9:00 pm ET on a Saturday, delivering the first regular season prime-time college basketball broadcast in history. UCLA’s athletic department insisted TVS use their broadcaster, Dick Enberg and Einhorn hired former NBA great Bob Pettit as color analyst.
The Houston Astrodome—the “Eighth Wonder of the World”—played host to the game. It was the first time a basketball game was held in an arena of this size and, rather that partitioning off sections of the cavernous stadium and bringing seats closer to the action as they do at the Final Four today, the court was placed in the center of the Astrodome, with the closest fans sitting nearly a hundred yards away. The basketball floor was brought in from the Los Angeles Sports Arena and 52,693 fans—the largest crowd ever to see a basketball game—packed the stadium. Each school was to receive $ 125,000 for the game, four times the payout of the NCAA tournament that would be played two months later.
The Houston Cougars came into the Game of the Century with a 48-game home winning streak. Winners of 16 straight, they had not lost since the last meeting between the two teams the previous spring. Led by Elvin “Big E” Hayes and Don Chaney, who would go on to win two titles in ten NBA seasons, Houston was the number-two ranked team in the nation. The Bruins were number one.
In a game that lived up to its hype, Houston led at halftime, 46-43. Playing like a man possessed, Hayes scored 29 first half points—ten off UCLA’s Edgar Lacey, who Wooden benched with 11 minutes to play and never returned. Lacy quit the team three days later. While viewers were glued to their television sets, Einhorn was on the phone, fielding calls from advertisers who wanted airtime. Scribbling furiously as he took second-half orders over the phone, Einhorn scripted ten-second spots and handed them to Enberg, who was seeing the material for the first time as he broadcast it.
With two minutes to go, UCLA guard Lucius Allen, who led all Bruins scorers with 25 points on the night, tied the game at 69 by making a pair of free throws. Hayes was then fouled with 28 seconds remaining. “It was intense,” recalled Big E, who was a 60 percent free-throw shooter. “You could cut the tension with a knife. It was my job to go to the line and sink two.” He did, giving Houston a two-point lead. The Cougars employed a 1-3-1 zone defense throughout the game to contain Alcindor, who had sustained an eye injury against Cal a week earlier. It worked, as Alcindor played the worst game of his college career, scoring just 15 points on 4-for-18 shooting. On its final possession, UCLA’s All-American guard Mike Warren—who later starred in television’s Hill Street Blues–inadvertently deflected a pass intended for UCLA star shooter Lynn Shackelford, who was unguarded in the corner. The Cougars ran off the final dozen seconds to stun the basketball world with a 71-69 victory.
“They said it could never happen, but it did—the king is dead,” wrote Jerry Wizig in the Houston Chronicle the following day. “Elvin Hayes built the coffin and the University of Houston barely nudged UCLA’s fantastic Bruins into it beneath the domed stadium, 71-69. It wasn’t a playoff game. It wasn’t for any kind of championship, really. But in the end, it was the Game of the Century.”
The Game of the Century proved a national audience would watch a regular season game. It took college basketball to a whole new level and established the sport on television, paving the way for March Madness. Enberg, who was later the voice of the 1979 NCAA Final between Michigan State and Indiana State in a game that pitted Magic Johnson against Larry Bird in what is still the most-watched broadcast in basketball history, called the G.O.T.C, “the most important sports event I’ve ever called.” The magnitude of the game cannot be overstated. In 1969, NBC became the first network to broadcast the NCAA championship game, at a cost of more than $ 500,000. Forty years later, CBS paid $ 545 million to broadcast the entire tournament. Two-and-a-half years after the Game of the Century, Monday Night Football was introduced, ushering in a new era of sports in prime time. In 1971, the World Series was played at night for the first time.
The G.O.T.C also provided Houston’s basketball program the boost that Guy Lewis was looking for when he scheduled the matchup, as it legitimized Cougar basketball in Houston. Comprised mainly with local talent, Houston’s “Phi Slama Jama” teams appeared in three consecutive Final Fours in the early 1980s.
Two months after the Game of the Century, UCLA and Houston met in the semifinals of the 1968 NCAA tournament. Playing at the Los Angeles Sports Arena–on the same floor that had sat in the center of the Astrodome–the Bruins cruised to an easy 101-69 victory. Two days later, UCLA dispatched North Carolina in the final to claim their fourth title in five years. Under Wooden, UCLA would go on to win the next five NCAA tourneys in a row. Between November 1966 and March 1973, the Bruins went 205-5 for a winning percentage of .975. In three years at UCLA, Lew Alcindor lost two games, one of which was the Game of the Century. As Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, he went on to win six NBA titles and remains the leagues’ all-time leading scorer. Elvin Hayes was the first overall pick of the 1968 NBA Draft and was a 12-time All-Star. Both Alcindor and Hayes are members of the Basketball Hall of Fame and the NBA’s 50th Anniversary All-Time Team.