Once the game got underway, Eddie (Einhorn) was taking phone calls and literally writing out 30-second spots from advertisers who called us at courtside to take an ad for the second half. --Dick Enberg On the night of January 20, 1968, one single game launched a major television star and a major television sport.
Before that night, college basketball generally was a regional activity. Occasionally a game or tournament could garner a large audience and a cluster of top teams gained national attention in a battle for No. 1 in the ratings. But for most, it was a localized sport that drew mostly local interest.
That all ended on that night 18 years ago. For it was that night a that Lew Alcindor, later Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, took his unbeaten UCLA team to the Astrodome to meet Elvin Hayes and his unbeaten Houston team.
The game, won 71-69 by Houston, was seen not only by more than 50,000 fans at the site but millions through a nationwide hookup by TVS, owned by current Chicago White Sox president Eddie Einhorn.
The announcer was Dick Enberg, known mostly to West Coast fans as the home announcer for the UCLA Bruins. College basketball erupted into a national sports television bonanza and Enberg became one of the premier sports announcers in America.
Enberg recalls that most people outside of Houston believed it would just be another game.
"No, I think each year has made it more important. It's amazing to me how the signficance of the game to the sport has increased each year as people look back," he says. "Of course, it was an unusual setting at the Astrodome and you had Alcindor coming off an eye injury. But UCLA was winning so often then it didn't seem feasible that the game would have so much signficance."
Enberg is probably right that had UCLA just notched another victory in its belt the game might not have carried the significance for both him and television that it did.
UCLA had so dominated college basketball with Alcindor that people didn't realize the signficance of the game until Houston had won.
"I think, looking back at the UCLA reign, that the games that stick out are the ones, the few ones, they lost. The setting for the game turned out to be so dramatic that it has stuck out in people's minds for so long," Enberg says.
Enberg had a sense UCLA and Alcindor would be in for an ambush even before the first television lights were strung up at the Astrodome. What he couldn't foresee was the trigger it would have on launching his career and college basketball's popularity.
"You did sense the momentum building for the game itself. Alcindor being hurt, Elvin Hayes having a million-dollar game and with it they just beat UCLA by two points," Enberg recalls. "But to look back and say that it would be of such importance, well, I don't think anyone there had that idea."
While UCLA might not have known what lay ahead for them, Enberg sensed almost from the moment of the opening tipoff there would be something special about that night: For him and for college basketball.
"That part knowing that you were doing a broadcast for a national audience and having a chance to show people what you could do got me hyped," Enberg says.
Enberg was teamed up for the game with Bob Pettit, the former St. Louis Hawk NBA star. He recalls sitting alongside Einhorn, who was selling ads even once the game was underway because of the interest.
"Once the game got underway, Eddie was taking phone calls and literally writing out 30-second spots from advertisers who called us at courtside to take an ad for the second half," Enberg says.
Enberg was involved in the broadcast because UCLA Athletic Director J.D. Morgan insisted on having the Bruins' regular announcer for the telecast.
"The only reason I had the opportunity to do the game was because, as part of the negotiations with TVS, Mr. Morgan wanted the UCLA announcer to do the game," he says. "Actually, I got a lot of letters throughout the years from UCLA fans who said I might have sold out UCLA because I was so unbiased during that game and other big losses. But that's something I look back on with pride."
While it was a big game for Enberg's career, it was also the catalyst that skyrocketed college basketball from a regional sport to a national passion.
Enberg, now a regular play-by-play man with Al McGuire on NBC nationally televised game, has some thoughts why it was so important.
"What makes a great meal? The service, the food, the setting? I guess that game had it all. The crowd, the closeness of the game, two great stars going at one another," he says "It was something special."
Enberg has his own special memories of the game itself and in particular, a certain play in the closing seconds that has stayed with him for nearly two decades.
"I remember the final five, six seven seconds. Lynn Shackleford trying to get a shot off on a pass from Mike Warren. It didn't go in," he says. "Then I remember us being down in a pit that had actually been dug into the Astrodome for the press and the sound of the Houston fans from about 75 feet away stampeding to the court."
Enberg would go on to do other important broadcasts--he was the announcer for the Notre Dame upset of UCLA that snapped the Bruins' 88-game winning streak--another signficant game in the history of college basketball.
But the Houston-UCLA game is the one that still sticks out above the rest.
"It was shortly after the Houston loss that UCLA went on another tear and then Notre Dame upset them to end the 88-game streak in 1974," Enberg says. "The week after that game we had the highest--and it's still the highest--rated telecast ever. But in terms of what started it all, it had to be the UCLA-Houston game in the dome."