He was playing with a scratched cornea, but what Kareem Abdul-Jabbar saw in the Houston Astrodome is still clear in his mind 50 years later.
The court was a speck in the vast stadium. When he looked across from the sideline, UCLA’s All-American center saw the stands, where a record-setting 52,693 packed the first domed sports stadium in the world to catch a glimpse of the two best teams in college basketball. When he looked across the baseline, it was “nothingness” behind the court.
Also, wherever he looked, he saw Elvin Hayes.
The two All-Americans battled in a made-for-TV spectacle that changed college basketball on Jan. 20, 1968. It was the No. 1 Bruins against the No. 2 Cougars, a rematch of the undefeated teams that met in the 1967 NCAA semifinal that UCLA won by 15 points. It was in the Astrodome, a marvel in modern architecture at the time, in front of the largest crowd to watch a live basketball game in the world to that point. It was the first college basketball game televised nationally live in prime time.
It was dubbed the “Game of the Century.”
And with a dramatic 71-69 Houston victory that snapped UCLA’s 47-game winning streak, it lived up to the hype.
“It was unusual; it was brand new, and that showed there was an interest in college basketball nationally,” said Ron Rapoport, a sports writer who collaborated with broadcasting pioneer Eddie Einhorn on the book “How March Became Madness: How the NCAA Tournament Became the Greatest Sporting Event in America.”
“It all took off from there.”
On the game’s 50th anniversary, its legacy remains ubiquitous, manifested in every new basketball training facility and nationally televised marquee matchup.
It seems hard to believe today, but back in 1968, college basketball was not the sport it is now. It might have been regionally popular, but it generally had a low profile on the national level. It was not considered a "revenue sport" for all but a handful of schools, the NCAA tournament was not the nationally-televised cash cow it is today, and nobody had ever heard of "filling out brackets" for "March Madness." The "Game of the Century" changed all that by demonstrating that college basketball could indeed capture the nation's attention.
TV networks flocked to college basketball just as quickly in the aftermath of the wildly successful game.
NBC picked up the NCAA Tournament in 1969 after the event had only been broadcast regionally in the prior years. With the TV networks on board, college basketball suddenly became a revenue sport.
“College basketball really fed off of television and television really fed off of college basketball,” UCLA economics professor Lee Ohanian said. “It was really a perfect synergy.”
For the Game of the Century, Einhorn flew across the country pitching the game to individual stations, 120 total. The networks were furious when the stations cancelled their regular-scheduled programming.
Then in 2016, CBS and Turner Sports paid $8.8 billion for rights to broadcast the NCAA Tournament through 2032. Every game is televised live. There are multiple vantage points available online. The field has expanded from 23 teams in 1968 to 68.
That the University of Houston was part of an event that transformed the sport is a major, yet often overlooked, piece of the school's basketball pedigree: it's just as important (and amazing) as Phi Slama Jamma, Guy Lewis, and the program's 5 Final Four appearances.
It seems fitting, then, that earlier today, on the game's 50th anniversary - "Game of the Century" legends such as Elvin Hayes were honored at halftime - the Coogs notched their biggest win at least two decades by upsetting #7-ranked Wichita State, 73-59.
The Chronicle has some photos from the legendary game. The Texas Sports Hall of Fame has a commemorative exhibit on their website as well.