Lewis receives basketball’s highest honor
When Elvin Hayes wheeled his former coach to the podium, Guy V. Lewis was surrounded by familiar circumstances.
Aside from family and a large contingent of the UH administration, Lewis was flanked by his three most-accomplished players — Hayes, Hakeem Olajuwon and Clyde Drexler — and members of the audience who waved Lewis’ trademarked polka dotted towels in the air.
Lewis doesn’t speak much after strokes in recent years and a diagnosis of the neurological disorder aphasia, but he was all smiles sitting next to Hayes during a pre-recorded Hall of Fame induction speech.
It was an emotional moment for UH students, fans, administration and Lewis’ family, who have waited almost 30 years for him to become a member of the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame since he retired in 1986. The famed coach garnered one of the loudest responses from the crowd when he was officially enshrined.
“We were all screaming. It was a proud moment,” said President Renu Khator, who made the trip to see the induction in person. “There were tears in a lot of people’s eyes; it was definitely an emotional moment. I can see the emotions — I can feel the history.”
Lewis became an official member Sunday in Springfield, Mass. along with nine-time NBA All-Star Gary Payton, seven-time NCAA Final Four coach Rick Pitino, four-time NCAA Final Four coach Jerry Tarkanian, five-time WNBA All-Star Dawn Staley, NBA All-Star Bernard King and three-time National Coach of the Year Sylvia Hatchell and five directly elected members.
Though Lewis attained a high level of success in his three decades as head coach at UH — nearly 600 victories and five Final Four appearances — his skills as a forward thinker set him apart from other coaches of his era.
Today, college basketball teams routinely play games between high ranked teams in NFL stadiums on national television. The list of stadiums that have hosted the Final Four in recent history read like Super Bowl destinations, but that wasn’t the case before Lewis gave legendary UCLA coach John Wooden a call.
In 1968, Lewis’ Cougars took on the Bruins in a battle of top-ranked unbeaten teams at the Reliant Astrodome, which was home to the Houston Astros and Oilers at the time. It was the first nationally televised college basketball game and would eventually become known as the “Game of the Century.” UH won 71-69, but all of college basketball benefited.
“The fact that he was a visionary — the game versus UCLA in the Astrodome is something I’m not sure he gets enough credit from. But now, where are the Final Fours being played? Pro stadiums,” said UH Athletics Director Mack Rhoades on Wednesday.
Two of college basketball’s high profile teams competed on a big stage, helping grow the game’s popularity into what it is today.
Lewis helped forge equality in the South. When he signed black players Hayes and Don Chaney in 1964, it spurned an 81-12 four-year run and back-to-back Final Four appearances. Other teams in the South, which hadn’t recruited black players, were forced to adjust and diversify their teams if they wanted to win.
Soon, the entire South was recruiting black players. Today, black players are an integral part of college basketball teams.
Lewis was also one of the first coaches to play an up-tempo style. Recently, teams like North Carolina and Kentucky have ridden this style to NCAA titles.
But beyond his skills as a visionary, his accomplishments on the court still stand out. Lewis won 592 games and had 27 consecutive winning seasons during his 30 years at the helm. One of Lewis’ best skills was his ability to develop players he recruited.
When Olajuwon arrived at UH, he was a raw, lanky teenager who had played basketball for only four years prior. Olajuwon’s defense was natural and his height and instincts carried him on that end of the court, but on offense, Lewis helped him develop as a force that would dominate the NBA during the 90s.
Drexler didn’t make his own All-District team as a senior in high school, but he grew into one of the best players in NBA history.
Hayes, Olajuwon and Drexler are all Hall of Fame inductees and were voted members of the NBA’s Top 50 Players in 1996-97. All three have campaigned for Lewis’ induction. Hayes was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1990, but boycotted the Hall since his selection in support of Lewis.
Though the moment was nearly 30 years in the making, Lewis proved his personality fit its gravatas.
“I’m glad I came. It was something that (fans) were waiting for for a long time and it was overdue. … When Coach Lewis was rolled in, the length of applause told the story,” Khator said.