Accidental Journalist Covers Game of the Century

The University of Houston versus UCLA basketball game was played in the Astrodome in 1968.

By BOB VICKREY

One recent evening as I kicked back in my recliner after experiencing a genuinely rotten day, I chose to reminisce and write about a much better one many years ago—which turned out to be one of the most extraordinary days of my life.

On that January day in 1968, the city of Houston was experiencing unseasonably mild weather with a light cool breeze in the air.

I had come back home to visit my parents during the mid-winter college break and had no firm plans for the day. When I found my dad working in his backyard garden, he looked up and said, “I’m surprised you’re still here. I figured you’d be headed to the Astrodome to see the big Houston-UCLA basketball game that has everyone buzzing.”

He said, “If you’re planning on going, you better get moving because there’s going to be a huge crowd headed that way and traffic could be murder.”

My dad was right. Why not drive out to the Astrodome and see if I could get lucky and finagle a last-minute ticket to an event that was being billed as the “Game of the Century?”—Lew Alcindor versus Elvin Hayes.

I assumed I might be a bit late since the game would be starting shortly, but when I reached the 610 Freeway, I noticed there were no visible cars in front of me—or for that matter, behind me either.

Was this like the surreal “Twilight Zone” episode where the city’s inhabitants had all suddenly vanished and one man was left alone as possibly the last person on earth? Or more likely, had the whole city of Houston completely shut down for this basketball game?

Since there was no one on the road, I began to accelerate to 70, and then found myself doing 80, while checking the rearview mirror for flashing red lights. Within a few short minutes I had amazingly made it all the way across town to the front gate of the Astrodome parking lot, where I encountered not one single ticket attendant.

The lot appeared to be completely full as I drove closer to the front west entrance near the box office—where I found no one standing in line. (Okay, are you reading this Mr. Serling?)

A Houston Police officer stood in the street in front of my car and signaled to lower my window. He said, “If you’re looking for a parking spot, why don’t you just park right there next to my patrol car. It’s okay, because everyone who was coming is already here and in their seats.”

I shook my head in total disbelief at my continued good fortune and headed for the box office, while searching my wallet for some cash. The ticket agent glanced down at my open wallet and asked, “Is that a press pass there next to your driver’s license?” I assumed she would reject it once she realized it was merely for my campus newspaper, “The Baylor Lariat.”

She smiled politely and said, “I’m so sorry Mr. Vickrey, but all the chairs at the press table are already taken, so I could only offer you something in the row right behind the table.” I did my best to contain my jubilation, and said to her, “I think I might be able to see just fine from there.”

I can’t remember if I kicked up my heels as I made my way through the gate entry and headed to my lower court-level seat. Sure enough, I noticed there were two empty seats behind the press table as I flashed my credentials at the usher who led the way.

As I hastily took my seat just before opening tipoff, I still hadn’t fully comprehended how this cosmic miracle was currently unfolding. But things only got better a moment later when a strikingly attractive woman entered the row and took the vacant seat next to me. She wore a press badge that read: “The Denver Post.”

“Looks like our timing was perfect” she said, as she reached into her attaché case for her notebook. Then it occurred to me that I had been in such a hurry to leave the house, I hadn’t even considered bringing any writing tools since I was planning on being nothing but a spectator instead of a reporter. I was in the process of being exposed as a journalistic fraud.

I told my new friend Helen that in my rush to make it on time, I’d carelessly left my briefcase behind. She reached into her carrying case and cheerfully offered me her extra yellow legal pad and a ballpoint pen. Bingo! Just like that, I was now a fully legitimate member of the press corps.

I admitted to her that I was presently overwhelmed by my good luck that day, and quickly recapped my smooth trip there – including having just landed this courtside seat. She added, “Well, it’s only going to get better from here on out. Wait until you see the incredible seafood buffet the TVS Network crew has waiting for members of the press after the game in the Astrodome Club skybox.”

UCLA and Houston had the two best big men in the country in the Bruins’ 7’2” center Lew Alcindor (later known as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) and the Cougars’ brilliant Elvin Hayes. UCLA featured other stars like guards Lucius Allen and Mike Warren, as well as their sharp-shooting forward Lynn Shackelford. Besides Hayes, Houston also had All-American guard Don Chaney and their ever-reliable inside big man Ken Spain.

I realized that the big game had suddenly become secondary to my good fortune in just getting there, but this was nevertheless a great matchup of perennial power UCLA and the quickly emerging program of the University of Houston, which had its own goal of winning a national championship. The two top-ranked teams featured loaded rosters with players that would one day go on to have legendary careers in the NBA.

The game was being played before a record crowd of 55,000 fans but had been somewhat tarnished by a serious eye injury suffered by Alcindor in the Bruins’ previous game. He had worn an eye patch all week right up until game time.

The matchup turned out to be a real nail-biter and came down to a last-second finish when the Cougars’ Hayes sank two free throws to give Houston a 71-69 lead. With one possession remaining, UCLA’s All-American Warren uncharacteristically deflected a pass meant for a wide-open Shackelford, who was a deadly shooter from the corner.

The game that day ended in bedlam with the Houston crowd making so much noise that it seemed the Dome’s glass rooftop might shatter.

The Cougars had also ended the 47-game winning streak of UCLA but would eventually face them again in the national semifinals with a fully recovered Alcindor. In that game, the Bruins took their revenge in a 101-69 drubbing of the Coogs on their way to winning yet another national championship.

But this January day belonged to the Houston Cougars.

That nationally televised game would change the way college basketball was perceived by the entire sports world—and helped elevate the sport to a new level, while opening the door for the wildly popular “March Madness” tournament. The major networks took note of the huge audience the game had drawn and began televising more college games in coming years.

As for me, I was able to write the game story for my campus newspaper which was filled with plenty of game details and statistics. But I knew even then as I was writing it, that for me, the game wasn’t the real story that day. It was rather about my own magical sequence of events that had gotten me there, as it seemed the stars had aligned perfectly, and everything had fallen flawlessly into place.

To cap off our day, Helen and I enjoyed the delicious shrimp and lobster feast in the Astrodome’s media clubhouse, and she toasted my day of good fortune as we remembered the old proverb: “It is not always about the destination; it’s often about the journey.”

 

 

Bob Vickrey is a writer whose columns have appeared in several Southwestern newspapers including the Houston Chronicle. He is a member of the Board of Contributors for the Waco Tribune-Herald, and was cited by the California Newspaper Publishing Association for column writing awards in 2016 and 2017. He lives in Pacific Palisades, California.

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5 Responses to Accidental Journalist Covers Game of the Century

  1. Paula H Deats says:

    Bob is another asset we don’t deserve (of so many here). Thank you for printing him.

  2. howard Yonet says:

    GREAT STORY. BUT IT TANTALYZINGLY ENDS WITH THE APPETIZERS SHARED WITH HELEN. I REQUEST THAT BOB FILLS US IN WITH THE REST OF THE STORY.

  3. Lee Calvert says:

    Sue, congrats on telling parents what they need to hear hopefully, it will help and really enjoyed the Bob Vickery story….. you are appreciated…. Lee

  4. Sharon Smiley says:

    Wonderful story. So good to be reminded everything changes on a dime and to never give up! Thanks Bob! Thanks for printing his stories. Always fun to read.

  5. Diane Waingrow says:

    So often I find myself slogging through the difficult but important articles on homeless and crime in CTN – but then I relax into one of Bob’s stories and this was a really good one! Don’t we all wish we had more of those magical days? Thanks for writing this, Bob!

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