Barry Warner: The back story of how the Game of the Century between UH and UCLA was born

UH beat UCLA in the Game of the Century. Wikipedia

After sending scores of black high school hoops players out of Texas in the 1950s and mid-60s due to segregation, things changed for University of Houston basketball coach Guy V. Lewis.  Along with longtime athletic director Harry Fouke, Lewis took a bold step forward.  It was time to open the doors to non-white players.  There was one name that stood out: Don Chaney, a highly publicized guard from Baton Rouge, Louisiana

"One of my main desires was to get out of Louisiana,” Chaney recalled. “I’d never been out of state.”

Chaney, who earned Parade Magazine and Scholastic Magazine All-American honors at McKinley, didn’t go too far away. He chose the University of Houston. So, too, did future NBA Hall of fame legend Elvin Hayes of Rayville.

“It was a very difficult transition for a lot of reasons,” Chaney said. “I had never been around white people before.”

The recruiting of Hayes was totally different.  After scoring 44 points in the state segregated championship game won by Rayville, the Big E got two lines in the paper; the white title game got a full page.  He was recruited by Wisconsin, where his sister was finishing up on her Master’s Degree. The only other schools were from the SWAC, all black universities in the Deep South.  Texas Southern was located a mile from the UH campus.  Their hoops coach, Dave Whitney, called Guy V. and offered to take him to lunch.  Lewis was ready to talk strategy, x’s and o’s when the TSU coach told him of his problem. There was this amazing talent in Rayville, La. named Elvin Hayes.  In those days you played four years -- no one and dones of today’s era. Whitney simply did not want Hayes to attend Grambling and play for Coach Fred Hobdy against TSU for eight games during four years.

On the eve of the National Signing date set by the NCAA, Lewis and longtime assistant Harvey Pate drove to Louisiana. The mission of Tate’s was in Baton Rouge to get Chaney’s letter signed for UH, while Lewis headed to Rayville to take care of Hayes. But there was a big problem, solved in part by a Jewish kid from the east coast recruited by Lewis like a star player.

Howie Lorch was the student manager who came to Texas from Schenectady, NY. His best friend growing up was a three-sport athlete, Pat Riley, a friendship that remains seven decades later.

When the two Louisiana recruits came to Houston for their visit, Lorch was their host. Having his own car was a huge plus.

Lewis knew he could not lose Hayes, a diamond in the rough, once-in-a-lifetime recruit.

The housing issue was a deal breaker. Hayes was extremely introverted and shy off the court.  But he and Chaney were totally at ease during their visit to the campus, especially with Lorch as their host and driver.  There was a big problem in the Hayes home the night before signing date. Elvin was brooding in a separate room over housing at the dorm.  He had one person he wanted as a roommate.

What was the coach going to do to solve the problem?

“If I don’t get to room with (Lorch), coach, I’m not coming to Houston.” Hayes said at the time. The Big E was in another room when Lewis called his student manager and said, “Howie we have a problem.  Elvin wants to room with you or he’s not coming.”  Lorch replied, “Let me speak with him.  Elvin came to the room to hear the cheerful voice of the New Yorker. “I look forward to being your roommate in the fall.”

Howie was more than a roomie, helping Elvin come out of his shell, working with him on his public speaking. The Big E was countrified and a big city like Houston was a huge challenge. He arrived with a cardboard suitcase, two pairs of jeans and a pair of sneakers one size too small.  The next day Lorch took him downtown to a store specializing in big men.  For the first time in years, Hayes had shoes with wiggle room in the toes. That was the start of a friendship that still exists today. Lorch is now one of the top private wealth managers in the nation for Wells Fargo.

The Game of The Century

Life changed for Hayes and basketball fans forever in the Astrodome on Jan. 20, 1968, in what was dubbed "The Game of the Century" between the Cougars and the UCLA Bruins.

UCLA was led by Lew Alcindor (more famously known as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar), who had a scratch on the cornea of his eye and played the worst game of his college career.

That did not matter to Hayes or the Cougars. "He had something to prove,” Lorch said of Hayes. “Elvin had more pride than any 10 guys put together, and he was on a mission. He wanted people to find out who Elvin Hayes was.

“We ran down the ramp and they had a red carpet all the way out on the field. I still get goosebumps when I think about it. It kind of reminded me how the gladiators must have felt back in Roman times. It was almost like being under a microscope. It was surreal, almost out of the movies. You knew you were surrounded by people.”

Men were dressed in their Sunday best, decked out with hats. It certainly was a different look than today’s casual fans.

In the end, the Cougars pulled the upset, 71–69, ending the Bruins' winning streak. The Big E outscored Jabbar 39-15.

Without question it was the hottest ticket to get in my young career.  Politicians, astronauts, everyone wanted to go.

Thanks to my relationship with both Judge Roy Hofheinz and Jack O’Connell -- who would form the Greater Houston Convention & Visitors Bureau -- that was not a problem for me.  My clients and friends were taken care of, all at face value.

Even though it could have been easy money, no way was I going to make money off of my friends and clients.  Life is too short. Being an eyewitness to history was priceless to me.


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