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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Tucker looks like the real deal. Photo by Tim Warner/Getty Images

Kyle Tucker finally had his breakout season in 2020. The 23-year-old flashed potential to be a legitimate five-tool threat. He slashed .268/.325/.512, swiped eight bags, and played above average defense. Is Tucker's performance sustainable? Not only that, but is there room for growth?

Hard Hit % - 44.5%

Barrel % - 9.1%

K % - 20.2%

BB % - 7.9%
Chase % - 26.2%

The first thing to realize with Kyle Tucker is the small sample size at the MLB level. Despite appearing in three separate seasons, he's played in a total of 108 games, which is obviously quite a bit shy of even one full season. He also has an extremely unique swing that you wouldn't teach to anybody, but it "works" for him. This makes him a tough hitter to judge, as it's uncomfortable judging mechanics that work for him, and it's uncomfortable judging numbers that haven't had time to develop trends.

Hard Hit, Barrel, and Chase numbers are unavailable for the minors, but walk and strikeouts percentages are. This creates the ability to at least look at one trend.

Tucker broke onto the scene in 2018 with a monstrous season for AAA Fresno, the Astros affiliate at the time. In 2018, Tucker slashed .332/.400/.590 with 24 homers and 20 steals. He had an 18.1% K% and a 10.3% BB% that season. In 2019, Tucker struck out a little bit more (21.6%) but also walked a little bit more (11.2%). Tucker's 20.2% K% in 2020 is more in line with his minor league K%, indicating he's adjusted to major league pitching.

Tucker essentially put the pieces of contact ability and quality of contact from his previous MLB stints together in 2020. In 2018, Tucker didn't strike out very much (18.1% K%), but his 3.9% Barrel % didn't strike fear in any opponent.

In 2019, Tucker had a 12.8% Barrel %, and his 92 MPH average exit velocity is the best of his three seasons in MLB, but he struck out 27.8% of the time and walked just 5.6% of the time.

In 2020, there's a marriage between the two. His K% and BB% aren't as good as his 2018 marks, but they're better than his 2019 marks. His exit velocity and Barrel % aren't as good as his 2019 marks, but they're better than his 2018 marks. Tucker became a hitter that was able to do more damage without sacrificing consistency.

Tucker had a xBA of .267, which is right in line with his .268 average. His .459 xSLG lags behind his .512 actual SLG, but it isn't a catastrophic drop. The version of Tucker Astros fans saw is essentially who he is, but how does he improve?

What really unlocked Tucker in 2020 was a change in his setup.

Image via: GraysonSkweres/Twitter/Screenshot

Here he is on August 2nd against the Angels. As you can see, he's standing pretty straight up, and he has a "neutral" stance. Following the game on Aug. 2, Tucker was batting .200/.250/.300 with no homers.

Image via: GraysonSkweres/Twitter/Screenshot

Here's Tucker on August 6th, just a few days later. He's started to close off his stance just a bit, but he's still pretty neutral, and he has a little more forward body lean with his torso. Following the game on Aug. 6, he was batting .214/.267/.357 with a homer.

Image via: GraysonSkweres/Twitter/Screenshot

Now, here's Tucker on August 10th. His stance is considerably closed off, and he's maintaining the forward body lean he adopted on August 6th. Following the game on Aug. 10, Tucker was batting .190/.230/.328. It would be the last time any of those numbers would be that low the rest of the year. He maintained that stance for the rest of the season, and he finished the month of August hitting .272/.333/.588.

The swing change allowed him to be a factor on the outside pitch. Tucker would pull off on his front side, which made it tough for him to keep balls fair on the pull side. He'd often yank inside fastballs into the stands down the right field line. It also made him uncompetitive on outside strikes, as he'd either swing-and-miss, or roll them over into the shift.

After he made the change, Tucker started steering inside pitches fair, and he was able to do something with pitches on the outer third.

The next step is finding a way to continue to diversify his batted ball profile. Tucker's pull percentage in 2020 was 47%. That's a higher pull % than guys like Kyle Schwarber and Matt Olson. It was only 1% lower than Rangers outfielder Joey Gallo.

The one dimensional batted ball profile allows teams to shift Tucker aggressively. Teams shifted Tucker in 74% of his at-bats. His wOBA against the shift is .304. In AB's where teams didn't shift him, Tucker had a .455 wOBA. The shift hurts Tucker more than most as well, because he hits the ball on the ground 39% of the time. Gallo and Olson hit it on the ground 32% and 35% of the time respectively.

Lastly, Tucker's performance on breaking balls leaves a lot to be desired. He crushes fastballs, as he batted .303 with a .574 SLG against fastballs in 2020, with a .292 xBA and .528 xSLG. His .208 AVG and .396 SLG against breaking balls aren't very good, and his .209 xBA and .340 xSLG don't tell a prettier story. His 32% whiff % against breaking balls is nearly double his whiff % on fastballs.

If Tucker can learn to be more competitive against breaking balls and learn to use the whole field, then he'll be a really scary hitter. If he doesn't, teams will be able to gameplan for him, and he'll see streaky production similar to other one dimensional hitters like Matt Carpenter and the aforementioned Gallo and Olson.

While the bat may be streaky, Tucker brings it with the glove and on the bases. He had 5 DRS (Defensive Runs Saved) in the outfield in 2020, a 0.6 UZR (Ultimate Zone Rating), and he was plus-4 in Outs Above Average. His well above average speed and instincts give him the ability to be a rangy outfielder and dangerous baserunner.

Tucker had a breakout season in 2020, but there's still changes left to be made if he wants to be a breakout star and not a one hit wonder.

This is part four of an offseason series covering the 2020 Houston Astros. Be sure to check out parts 1-3 on SportsMap.

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