Big reunion

UH will honor the "Game of the Century" at basketball gala

UH will honor the Game of the Century. Wikipedia

At the annual basketball gala and fundraiser at the University of Houston on Friday, the focus not only will be on the future - the Cougars' upcoming season - but also on something that happened nearly 50 years ago.

That's going back, back, back.

UH coach Kelvin Sampson was only 12.

Jim Nantz, emcee of the UH event, was even younger, 8.

Senior guard and scoring leader Rob Gray wouldn't be born for more than 25 years.

Such was the significance of what has come be known as the Game of the Century, the Jan. 20, 1968, matchup between No. 1 ranked UCLA and No. 2 UH in the Astrodome.

That the Cougars won 71-69 behind Elvin Hayes' 39 points, ending UCLA's 47-game winning streak, is almost secondary in 2017. The game is credited with helping to make college basketball what it is today. It was the first game shown on nationwide, primetime TV, and the first to be played in a stadium rather than an arena.

As a young fan growing up in North Carolina - and the son of a longtime and heralded high school basketball coach - Sampson didn't just watch the game, he remembers "everything about it...It was a phenomenon. Every time I get around Elvin, I feel like I need to ask for his autograph."

Sampson, in his fourth season at UH, thinks it's important that his players know about the school's basketball history, and its place in the development of college basketball nationally. They will be at the event next week, along with Hayes, Don Chaney and several other members of the '67-68 team.

"We're in that family now," Sampson said. "We're caretakers of the (UH basketball) program. It was through the hard work and blood, sweat and tears of those who were here before us that we've gotten to this point. We all have a common bond. The (current) players know that."

The Cougars, 21-11 overall and 12-6 in the American Athletic Conference last season, open at home on Nov. 10 against McNeese State. "Home" this year, while Hofheinz Pavilion is being renovated, is at H&PE Arena at Texas Southern. It's a fun place to watch a game, by the way.

During the UH event, a production crew - the same one involved in ESPN's nicely done 30 for 30 on Phi Slama Jama last year - will be shooting for a documentary to air in January. (Those who attend the event will gain admission to a private viewing of the completed documentary.)

The show will include a panel discussion on the impact of the game, featuring Hayes, Chaney, CBS analyst Seth Davis, and Dick Enberg, who called the telecast. No doubt those who have seen footage of The Game of the Century, or who will watch the documentary next year, will be struck by the long distance between the crowd and the court: The court was plopped right onto the middle of the round field.

A 15-year-old from a small town in Oklahoma who was new to the city and loved basketball, I thought I died and went to Hoops Heaven when I got tickets to the game.

Along with four friends who drove down from my hometown, we sat at halfcourt - which happened to be at the 50-yard-line. We felt like we were a mile away, the cheering was sort of muffled because of the size of the Dome, and we had to use binoculars the whole time.

But we were there and, as it turned out, a part of history. That was good enough for us.

For more information on the fundraiser, or to make a reservation, call 713-743-0248.

Jay Frank, a former media columnist for the Houston Chronicle and the Houston Post, is a freelance writer.

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