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Thursday, September 21, 2023

Men's Basketball

Lack of championship couldn’t keep Lewis from Hall

Former head coach Guy Lewis had 27 consecutive winning seasons while at the helm of the basketball program.  |  1957 Houstonian

Former head coach Guy V. Lewis had 27 consecutive winning seasons while at the helm of the basketball program. | 1957 Houstonian

College basketball legend and visionary Guy V. Lewis was selected as a member of the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame 30 years after his last national title appearance.

UH’s 1983 loss to NC State in the NCAA tournament championship game, in which the Cougars were favored by eight points in the Las Vegas sportsbooks, has been an albatross around Lewis’ neck for three decades and could be the reason he has not been enshrined in the Hall of Fame until this year.

When Lewis retired in 1986, he took a long journey from Houston to Springfield with one of the best resumes in college basketball history.

In 30 years of coaching at UH, Lewis netted 592 wins, triumphing in roughly 68 percent of his contests, and winning 30 or more games in a season three times. He was named National Coach of the Year twice, first in 1968 and then again in 1983. He coached and won the first NCAA regular-season game to be broadcasted nationally during primetime, the aptly named “Game of the Century,” in which UH defeated John Wooden’s UCLA Bruins — then in the midst of a 47-game winning streak — in front of an Astrodome crowd of 52,000. Lewis sought out big games with big opponents, and he seldom lost.

Lewis’ influence runs much deeper than the games he won, though.

He is often described as an early adopter in the movement toward racial integration. He recruited Don Chaney and Elvin Hayes, who was elected to the Naismith Hall in 1990, the first black basketball players in UH history. He did so well in advance of the other schools located below the Mason-Dixon line.

Since his induction into the Hall, Hayes has boycotted the institution, refusing to appear in Springfield or at any Hall-sponsored events until such time as Lewis was elected.

“It’s one of those things that’s totally wrong,” Hayes said. “People, I think, today only see what’s before their eyes. But people really don’t go back anymore and ask, ‘Well, who made this game into what it is today? Who changed this game? Who put his footprint on this game?'”

“Coach had this vision — a vision for the game of basketball.”

A major component of Lewis’ vision for the game involved a shift in the style of offense used in college hoops. UH adopted dunking in 1976 when the NCAA reversed its prohibition against the slam dunk.

It was this athletic, exciting style of play that propelled the Cougars to the Final Four in the 1983 NCAA Tournament and their much-publicized matchup with the Louisville Cardinals. Both teams were nationally recognized, and it was generally presumed that the winner would go on to win the National Championship.

Phi Slama Jama didn’t disappoint against the Doctors of Dunk, ultimately coming back from a halftime deficit to beat the Cardinal squad 94-81. The Cougars lived up to their nickname, dunking 14 times against the Cardinals, including 10 in the final 12 minutes of play.

It was widely and confidently assumed that Houston would defeat NC State in the championship game, and it was this assumption that may have kept Lewis to from making the Hall of Fame.

“That game had to be fate,” said Hall of Famer Clyde Drexler. “Because if he doesn’t win that game, we don’t get to know Jimmy Valvano the way we do. And because of the way his life ended, I think that was destiny. It had to be … If we played them 20 times, I still don’t think they’d win but that one game. So it had to be destiny.”

The game was filled with anomalies. The Cougars followed a 14-dunk performance against Louisville by recording only one against NC State — sandwiched between a raucous slam off an offensive rebound by the Wolfpack’s Thurl Bailey and the dunk that ended the game, when a wild 35-foot shot by Dereck Whittenburg missed iron completely and fell into the hands of Lorenzo Charles, and the rest is history.

“If you don’t vote for this man, you really don’t know the history of basketball in this country,” Drexler said.

Legend Hakeem Olajuwon said the championship-game loss shouldn’t overshadow what Lewis accomplished.

“His statistics speak for themselves,” Olajuwon said. “He should be in there. One game should not measure an entire career.”

And yet, for the 30 intervening years since the shocking loss, one game has. But as Greek poet Aeschylus once wrote, “Time brings all things to pass.”

In a circular, profoundly fated way, precisely 30 years after the NC State loss that unfairly doomed him to the long, barren odyssey between his glory in Houston and the undying glory that awaits him in Springfield, Lewis and the nation finally heard word that his journey was over.

Lewis’ admission into the Hall of Fame is long overdue. There is no question of that.

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