Two weeks ago, Images looked back at KU basketball’s Midwest Regional victory that sent the team to the Final Four in the Houston Astrodome. That was the first Final Four held in a baseball/football domed stadium with an elevated court in the middle of the vast expanse. With tonight’s Final Four getting underway in Indianapolis’ Lucas Oil Stadium, a look back to the start of the massive Final Four stadium shows seems worthwhile as a follow to KU’s amazing 1970-71 season.
This was not the first basketball game in the Astrodome, though. UCLA, the dominant team of the era, played Houston in the “Game of the Century” in the dome during the 1968 season. The Bruins arrived with a 47-game winning streak spread over two-and-a-half seasons. The great Lew Alcindor (later known as Kareem Abdul-Jabar) led UCLA, but suffered from an injured cornea and struggled in the game. Elvin Hayes and the No. 2 Cougars upset No. 1 UCLA 71-69.
UCLA was back in Houston to take on KU in the semifinal game on March 25, 1971. UCLA already owned six of their 10 National Championships with Wooden as their coach, the last four in a row. KU coach Ted Owens and the Jayhawks hoped to end that run. KU tried to press the Bruins, a team short on depth. To combat the pressure, UCLA got the ball into the hands of senior star Sidney Wicks. With KU’s star Dave Robisch guarding him, Wicks would wave off his teammates and work the ball down the court with little trouble.
The Jayhawks kept the game close, but UCLA always seemed in control from my court floor position. That position in many ways is what I remember most from the two games in Houston. While I am now fully adjusted to a basketball court in the middle of a domed stadium, Houston’s setup seemed to be in outer space just as the name of the dome implies. The court rose nearly five feet off the floor, far higher than today’s elevated courts.
Cheers from the fans seated in the regular seats came with a delay and seemed hushed. They still do in today’s huge stadiums, but back then, it was disconcerting. Floor seats had no risers and many fans had no chance of seeing much of the game. Adding a row of photographers at each end of the court only made the situation worse. However, over 31,000 fans attended the championship game, setting the future of the Final Four.
KU lost to UCLA 68-60. In the then required third-place game, KU lost to Western Kentucky 77-75. The Bruins went on to defeat Villanova 68-62 for another championship. While Wicks, Curtis Rowe and Henry Bibby were stars, the team was not as dominating as the Alcindor teams of the past nor the Bill Walton teams to come. However, John Wooden was already a legend.
The year before they defeated Jacksonville State for the championship handily in Maryland’s Cole Fieldhouse. That was my first Final Four. To be able to see Wooden and UCLA win again in Houston while shooting by myself for the Capital-Journal will always be special. I look at the negatives now and think about a 19-year-old kid being able to stick his camera into the huddle of John Wooden and UCLA. That still seems out of this world even today.