When UCLA recruited Lew Alcindor and a courtload of other basketball players whose skills had won them schoolboy glory, it was generally assumed that the Bruins would shoot and rebound and full-court-press their way to a hundred or so consecutive victories. Easy. It seemed a shame they had to serve a freshman apprenticeship and then play three varsity seasons when the NCAA could just hand over three championship trophies, let the fellows turn pro and save the rest of the teams a lot of grief. The Alcindor-led group, to nobody's surprise, went unbeaten as freshmen and once even mangled the varsity by 15 points. Packing their new campus arena as sophomores (with junior Mike Warren added), they ran through 30 victories to a national title, and this season they upped that streak to 47—until last Saturday night, when the dream of perfection was ruined.
At least UCLA lost in style. Before the largest crowd ever to see a basketball game in the U.S. (52,693), in Houston's famous Astrodome and before the biggest television audience in the history of the sport (150 stations in 49 states), the University of Houston's Big E, 6'8" senior Elvin Hayes (see cover), hit 68% of his shots, scored 39 points, took 15 rebounds and made the two deciding free throws to beat the Bruins 71-69.
It was not a matter of the Cougars sneaking up on UCLA. UCLA was ranked first in both wire-service polls, but Houston was ranked second and had won 48 straight games at home. The Cougars had won 17 in a row since losing to UCLA in last year's NCAA semifinal, and Hayes was the third leading scorer in the nation and certainly no stranger. The city of Houston was all atwitter about the confrontation, to the point that one radio station kept listeners up to date with "KTHT Ruin-the-Bruins time is five-oh-four." The manager of UCLA's motel provided a 10-foot bed with "Big Lew" printed in large letters at the foot.
By the time over-the-counter ticket sales started in mid-December, 40,000 had already been sold by mail and more than 150 had been given away to promising high school football players—just to prove that Texans still love football best. "I've had calls from people all over the country wanting to fly in for the game," said Dome Ticket Manager Dick McDowell. "We've had calls from Mexico City, Chicago and San Francisco. If we hadn't run out we would have sold 75,000 tickets, no doubt about it."
The best preparation Houston Coach Guy V. Lewis could make was to keep the Big E healthy, and he knew it. Earlier in the season, Hayes was asked by a teammate to be best man at his wedding. "That doesn't surprise me a bit," said Lewis. "He's been my best man for three years."
But just in case Elvin wasn't going to be enough, Guy V. took some other precautions, like working diligently against a full-court press and being sure not to wear the pink-and-white-checked sport coat he wore against the Bruins in the NCAA loss. He wore a turquoise-and-black-checked jacket instead. All season at home games Houston had sat on the left side of the scorer, and that's how the Astrodome seating plan was made. Then Guy V. remembered the Cougars had sat on the left side in the NCAA loss, and he made his sports publicist switch the seating. UCLA sat on the left Saturday night and also was brought into the Astrodome through gate 13 for its Friday workout.
Several weeks before the game a Cougar booster named Joe Thompson, who had given a season's-end chicken dinner for the team for 11 years, phoned Guy and said he wanted to have the 12th annual dinner a little earlier than usual, on the Sunday before UCLA invaded. Lewis wasn't very interested until Thompson reminded him that Houston had never lost a game following the dinner. "You talked me into it," said Lewis.
No superstitious gimmicks were really needed with Hayes around. He completely outplayed Alcindor, but it should be noted that Lew had suffered a scratched left eyeball in the previous Friday night's game against Cal. Alcindor did not play in subsequent wins over Stanford and Portland. He wore an eyepatch and stayed in bed part of the week, and the inactivity no doubt affected his play. He made only four of 18 shots and UCLA Coach John Wooden could not remember his having shot less than 50% before. It was one of the least impressive performances in Alcindor's college career and it was too bad it came before an audience that stretched, through TV cables anyway, to Fairbanks, Alaska.
Houston stayed in a zone defense throughout the game, although the man in the middle was free to stay glued to Alcindor. It worked pretty well—partly, of course, because of Lew's poor marksmanship. UCLA's defense, on the other hand, could not cope with Hayes in the first half. Edgar Lacey tried, then Lew, then Mike Lynn, all to no avail. Elvin pumped in 29 points, and every time he got the ball the crowd started chanting, "E, E, E," until it sounded like one long "EEEE." When a Hayes shot went in, the monstrous Astrodome message board would flash a big E two stories high.
Still, at half time, Houston led only 46-43, mostly because UCLA's press forced a few turnovers and Bruin Guard Lucius Allen was shooting well. Meanwhile, way up in the $2 yellow-seat section, an interplanetary distance from the floor, a happy Cougar fan said, "I can't see what's going on, but I don't care, if Houston wins." Another said, "With my binocs I can see the pompon girls O.K., but the ball moves too fast to follow the action."