SI Vault
Joe Jares
January 29, 1968
This season's best college basketball game was played before the sport's largest audience—watching (right) at the Astrodome, televiewing In 49 states—as Houston became the nation's top team, beating UCLA
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January 29, 1968

A Dandy In The Dome

This season's best college basketball game was played before the sport's largest audience—watching (right) at the Astrodome, televiewing In 49 states—as Houston became the nation's top team, beating UCLA

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He missed plenty of action in the second half. Hayes blocked two shots in a row (one by Lew), hit a jump shot and made Mike Lynn commit his fourth foul—all in the first few minutes. But UCLA started double-teaming him and he added only 10 points to his first-half total. A relatively unknown junior named Jim Nielsen came in for Lynn and, with aid, cooled off the Big E.

UCLA, which had been down by as much as nine points in the first half, battled back in the second to tie it at 54, and from then on it was a dogfight, or whatever kind of fight it is when Cougars and Bruins meet in the wild. An Alcindor free throw made it 65-all with 3:02 left, and two Lucius Allen free throws made it 69-all. Nielsen fouled Hayes with 28 seconds left, which could have been a disaster for Houston because the Big E was shooting a horrid 60% from the free-throw line going into the game. But he put in both shots for a two-point lead.

UCLA had a pass intercepted, got the ball back because of a Cougar traveling violation and lost it again out of bounds with 12 seconds left. Time out. Coach Lewis' instructions were to throw it high to the Big E and let him hold it a while, which is just what happened. He held it, then dribbled around like a Globetrotter and passed as the buzzer sounded. If the scoreboard had exploded or the Dome had caved in, few people would have paid attention because immediately it appeared that the entire city of Houston was having an impromptu jamboree at center court, with Hayes the focus. Basketball's debut in the Astrodome was a howling success, at least to Texans.

Disguising the Domed Stadium as a basketball arena for the big game was the job of Jack O'Connell, vice-president in charge of special events, who at the same time had to get the next-door exhibition hall ready for the world's biggest boat show, starting at noon the day of the game. Since a basketball does not bounce very well on Astroturf, the first problem was to find a portable court. O'Connell finally settled on the floor at the Sports Arena in Los Angeles, which was loaned at no charge. But the 225-panel court weighs close to 18 tons and cost about $10,000 to transport, round trip, by truck. It was jigsaw-puzzled together by Wednesday night and tested by Guy Lewis, who dribbled a ball all over it and found no dead spots. As coach of a team that often cuts short its practices at various small gyms to make way for girls' volleyball teams, Lewis must have had a feeling of power as he bounced the ball before those thousands of seats—and took his time about it.

The nearest seats, plush red ones priced at $5, were more than 100 feet from courtside. No seats were on the dirt floor of the stadium, and, to avoid blocking anybody's view, chairs for press, players and officials were placed in 18-inch-deep trenches on either side of the court. The Astrodome very nearly became the first place in the world where a player lost a rebound in the lights. O'Connell originally had 1,700 lamps, of 1,500 watts each, trained on the court, but Houston players, after working out at the Dome on Thursday night, asked that the lights at each end be turned off. The remaining 1,400 lamps, blasting down from the rim of the stadium on each side, still gave off plenty of light—and heat.

There were other problems besides the sunlamps, such as the overlong trot to the dressing rooms. O'Connell almost forgot to get a buzzer, but he had the scene set in time, and what a scene it was. There were three bands, with two sets of pompon girls anxious to dance every number. There was a student dressed up like a bruin, another dressed like a female bruin, another dressed like a cougar and then a real-live cougar named Shasta. In the press pit there were a scout from the Harlem Globetrotters and writers from Cocoa, Fla., Pittsburgh, Mexico City and Conroe, Texas. The U.S. Information Agency was there to film a five-minute TV show to be seen in 33 countries.

If the atmosphere was carnival, it was just right for Judge Roy Hofheinz, the majordomo of the Dome and the man who owns Ringling Bros.-Barnum & Bailey Circus. Why, when the judge first thought of basketball in the Astrodome, he envisioned three games going on at once. The judge wants to host an NCAA tournament soon, and there was an NCAA committee on hand Saturday to watch the proceedings. Hopefully, the members will report that, while the Dome is an exciting and lucrative place and the glare problem can be solved, basketball is not a game to be watched through binoculars.

In the locker rooms after the upset the game itself took precedence over the pros and cons of the Dome. Guy Lewis called Hayes's first-half heroics "the greatest I've ever seen in college basketball." The Big E explained his game-ending dribbling by saying, "Some things come natural." And over in the subdued UCLA quarters Coach Wooden was free with praise of Elvin. But, when goaded, he said he would not trade Alcindor for two Hayeses.

Lucius Allen was thinking of a possible rematch come March in the NCAA tournament, on this very same floor back in the Sports Arena. "I hope they come to L.A. undefeated," said Allen. "That would be very nice."

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