Men's Basketball Sports

Documentary offers fresh look into historic clash with UCLA

Jim Nantz (left) leads a panel of (from left to right) Elvin Hayes, Don Chaney, Seth Davis and Dick Enberg for an upcoming documentary. | Courtesy UH Athletics

It’s been nearly 50 years since the Cougars slayed Goliath in front of what was the largest audience ever to  witness an NCAA basketball game. Meeting on a hardwood court in the middle of the Astrodome, the top-ranked UCLA Bruins — winners of 47 consecutive games prior to this night — fell to the No. 2-ranked Cougars behind an unthinkable effort from Houston forward Elvin Hayes.

Nicknamed “The Big E” for his imposing 6-foot-9 frame, on Jan. 20, 1968, Hayes took to the biggest stage college sports had ever witnessed, dropped 39 points and grabbed 15 rebounds on the Lew Alcindor-led Bruins. Alcindor, who began to publicly go by his Islamic name Kareem Abdul Jabaar in 1971, was considered the nation’s top player at the time but scored just 15 points after scratching his cornea in a game leading up to the historic bout.

Now 71-years-old, Hayes returned to his alma mater to share the magnitude, impact and emotion surrounding the epic contest for an upcoming nationally broadcast CBS Sports documentary. Emmy-winning director Chip Rives organized an onstage panel that included Hayes and legendary sportscaster Dick Enberg, among others, to give viewers unprecedented access to their experiences on this remarkable night.

The documentary is set to release on the 50th anniversary of the game this January.

“I don’t think any of us that night thought that 50 years later, this game would be so profound on our careers and our lives,” Hayes said. “I think the realization came when we came out of that locker room and those big green doors opened, and all of the sudden it was reality. It was like, it’s on. Everything I had waited and prepared for, it was here.”

Houston entered the Game of the Century riding a 13-game win streak that saw the team’s last defeat come at the clutch of UCLA in the National Semifinal just 10 months before. Shortly after the 58-73 defeat to the Bruins, Houston head coach Guy V. Lewis and his staff scheduled a rematch the following season.

During this time, broadcasters did not consider college basketball to be a high-interest sport; typically the only airtime NCAA hoops received was when the tournament rolled around in March. This game, proposed for mid-January inside the Eighth Wonder of the World, was truly an unprecedented event and established college basketball as the commodity it is today.

In the end, the game was picked up by TVS Television Network, and a young Enberg was called on to bring the nation the action, effectively launching a broadcast career that went on to span 60 years.

Enberg recalled the nerves he felt as he was about to call the first game of his professional career in such unusual circumstances.

“Everything was so much bigger than life,” he said. “Think about it: I’m 33 years old, and I’m about to be on national television? What’s the farm boy from Michigan doing in this scene? It really, truly was amazing, and then to have the great game is the payoff.”

Houston tipped off the game as massive underdogs to the John Wooden-coached UCLA team that had not lost in nearly 2 1/2 seasons. Controlling the tempo throughout the first half of play, Houston had UCLA exactly where they wanted when they entered the locker room at halftime leading the basketball giants 46-43.

Hayes celebrates with teammates on the floor of the Astrodome following his team’s historic victory in the Game of the Century. Hayes finished with 39 points 15 rebounds in the Cougars 71-69 win. | Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

In the waning minutes of regulation and score knotted at 69, Hayes took to the free-throw line with a chance to put the Bruins’ back against the wall. Hayes collected himself and proceeded to knock down a pair of shots, setting up what became one of the most fortunate finishes in college basketball history.

Down 71-69 and searching for the final shot of the game, a mental lapse by Bruins’ All-American guard Mike Warren led to a turnover when he knocked a pass out of bounds that was intended for Lynn Shackleford, a 48 percent career shooter who was wide open in the corner.

With seconds remaining on the clock, Hayes, not known for exceptional ball handling, weaved through UCLA defenders until the Cougars were saved by the bell.

“The only thing I would cut out of it was that last two or three seconds,” Hayes jokes. “Every time I see it, I always say, ‘Why does someone not take the ball from him?’ All they had to do was take it and put it in. That was the worst part of the game.”

The documentary, which is set inside Moore’s Opera House, will provide one of the most in-depth and creative looks into what was a valuable piece of Houston and national basketball history.

Tune in Jan. 20, 2018, to relive the glory experienced by Hayes, which he says was the peak of his Hall of Fame basketball career.

“I scored over 27,000 points in the NBA. I had some great games,” Hayes said. “But everywhere I travel, the first thing people say is, ‘Hey! I saw you play in the UCLA-Houston game.’ That game totally overshadowed everything that I did in pro basketball and even after I left UH.”

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