Remembering John Wooden and the 'Game of the Century'

Jun 6 2010 - 10:17pm

The night before the game that changed college basketball, John Wooden was asked what he thought of the venue.

The man who grew up on an Indiana farm tossing rolled up rags through a hoop nailed to a barn looked at the glass ceiling 18 stories over his gray head and all but whistled.

"You sure could stack a lot of hay in here, couldn't you?"

The notion that Wooden -- a basketball fundamentalist so square, Jim Murray famously wrote, "he's divisible by four" -- would sanction a game in the Astrodome seemed as likely as the Mormon Tabernacle Choir signing up to sing in Billy Bob's.

But here's the secret to what made Wooden, who died Friday at 99, perhaps the greatest coach ever: Underneath that sweet, professorial persona thumped the heart of a stone-cold pragmatist.

He didn't appreciate the merits of staging a trumped-up game in the Astrodome in 1968, when it was only three years old and alternately known as the Eighth Wonder of the World, in an era when it was assumed you could recite the previous seven. Wooden figured it would "professionalize" the game. The prospects were unseemly to someone raised to revere it.

The huckster in the deal was Guy Lewis. He came up with the idea after his Houston Cougars lost in the first round of the '66 NCAA Tournament in UCLA's Pauley Pavilion. Lewis knew that Wooden had just signed Lew Alcindor, the 7-1 prodigy from New York who would later be known as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Lewis also knew what he had in Elvin Hayes and Don Chaney.

Unlike Wooden, what Lewis didn't have was a decent home court. The Cougars played in a couple of high school gyms in those days, neither of which seated more than 5,500.

But Houston had the Astrodome, and after convincing his athletic director, Harry Fouke, Lewis and his boss paid a visit on Roy Hofheinz.

Even after agreeing to play host, Hofheinz still didn't get it. He asked how many games would be going on at once.

For that matter, Wooden didn't get it, either. But UCLA's athletic director, J.D. Morgan, explained that it would be good for basketball in general and UCLA in particular. Lewis had all but guaranteed 30,000 fans and a $10,000 payday for each school. The unprecedented windfall would benefit UCLA's other nonrevenue sports.

"When I considered it from those aspects," Wooden told the Houston Chronicle in 1988, "I realized he was right and I was wrong."

But it still didn't mean he had to like it. Unlike later games put on in vast arenas, officials didn't divide the Dome in half. The court sat in dead center, so far removed from the locker rooms and crowd, as Wooden once recalled, it was as if it had been set up in a pasture. Lights for the first regular-season college basketball game to be broadcast nationally also had been stationed directly over the goals. Wooden figured neither team -- UCLA was No. 1; Houston, No. 2 -- would play well.

He was half-right, anyway. UCLA's 47-game winning streak came to an end, 71-69, after the worst game of Alcindor's career: four-of-18 from the field for 15 points. An eye injury reportedly caused him to see double, making Hayes seem like a two-headed monster.

Playing what Wooden called "one of the phenomenal games I've ever seen," Hayes scored 39 points with 15 rebounds and eight blocked shots, a few on Alcindor.

The "Game of the Century" -- played before a record crowd of 52,693, many of whom watched through binoculars -- was an overwhelming success. It proved college basketball was ready for prime time and made Eddie Einhorn, who held the TV rights, rich, and Dick Enberg, working his first national broadcast, a star.

As for Houston and UCLA, the schools made $125,000 each, more than either took home the previous season, including their take from the NCAAs.

By the time UCLA returned to the Dome in 1971 -- when Wooden won the seventh of his 10 national titles -- college basketball was entrenched as a major sport. Now Wooden's gone and Lewis is failing, and Houston's talking about tearing down the Eighth Wonder of the World. Only the game they created remains alive and well.

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